Mike Belcher, from March House Farm in Leicestershire, has been coming to the Food Market in Chiswick since it first opened 20 years ago. Being able to market their meat direct to consumers in London has been a lifeline for his family farm, he says.
“Farming had been through two recessions. We had 180 acres, a small family farm supporting two families, and we needed to expand to survive”.
Many farmers diversified around that time, moving into tourism, offering Bed & Breakfast and opening their farms for public events during lambing and sheep shearing. The BSE crisis in the mid nineties had a terrible impact on the sale of beef, though it didn’t affect their herd directly, and things were about to get even tougher with the outbreak of Foot & Mouth in 2001.
“Food has been sold too cheaply in this country” says Mike. “It’s a hang over from the Second World War, but food producers need to be able to stand on our own two feet and not have to rely on subsidies”.
“Consumers want to know where their food comes from”
Mike started running stalls in at markets in Wimbledon and Twickenham around the same time as the one at Dukes Meadows in Chiswick and they now sell 60% what they produce through farmers markets – at Wimbledon and Twickenham on Saturdays, Swiss Cottage midweek and at three markets: Bishops Park in Fulham, Queen’s Park and Dukes Meadows on Sundays.
Direct contact with consumers has helped the family’s bank balance, but it has also made them realise the extent of the disconnect between producers and consumers. “We try and explain what goes into the food” says Mike. He finds consumers in London are interested to know what they’re eating and want to know about the production process.
March House Farm is not organic. Mike doesn’t think organic food is necessarily better and doesn’t believe it is sustainable in terms of feeding the whole planet. Instead they mix the latest technology with traditional farming methods to get the best yield from the land, and in doing so, have reduced their input of fertilisers by 40% over the past decade.
The Belchers now farm 1400 acres, a mix of arable farming and livestock rearing, and they seem to do a bit of everything – wheat, barley, sheep (2,000 breeding ewes) and cattle (160 cows), pigs (30 sows) and turkeys, ducks and geese for Christmas. The farm, at Great Dalby in Leicestershire, has been in his family for four generations. Mike’s wife Heather does the books; their sons Daniel (36) and Thomas (33) run the farm, while Mike runs the marketing operation.
Latest technology combined with traditional farming methods
Mike explained what he meant by their use of the latest technology with traditional farming methods:
“We use GPS in the tractors, so we follow a straight line, which means there’s no overlapping, so there aren’t bits of land which get a double dose of fertiliser”. They also map the fields, so they know which bit of land has a greater or lesser amount of potash, phosphate or boron, and they are able to programme the distribution of fertiliser accordingly. That’s how modern technology contributes to their farming methods.
The part played by traditional farming is the rotation of crops; they plant forage crops in between the barley and wheat harvests – stubble turnips, forage rape, rye grass, maize and kale, which with the addition of farmyard manure increases the biodiversity of the soil. It also makes them almost self-sufficient in cattle fodder. They just add cattle cake to their diet to ‘finish’ the cattle and cereal bars to give pregnant ewes a bit of extra nutrition.
Mike claims this is the most eco-friendly and sustainable type of farming there is, and says British farming is two and a half times more efficient than the world average in terms of carbon footprint, “because we are using what is naturally ours – the finest grass in the world” and grass is the biggest sequester of carbon. (Scientists back him up on this. A recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that grasslands are more resilient carbon sinks than forests).
“Our farm footprint is exactly what it was 100 years ago” says Mike, “except that we’ve taken out one hedge”. I asked him about the impact of modern farming on birds and wildlife. “We’ve never lost the numbers of birds and wildlife” he says. “My family generations back would feel absolutely at home on the farm today. They’d recognise it as pretty much how it was then”.
Right now they’re concerned with how wet the land is. They haven’t been flooded, as they’re not near a river and they have areas of ridge and furrow, not planted since the 1700s, which give the farm a bit of a natural flood defence, but their fields are sodden and just five miles away there are lakes where there should be fields, under water for several weeks. It means only ten percent of the winter wheat has been sown.
Supermarkets pay too low
It’s hard work driving down to London a the crack of dawn, but by selling direct to the public Mike finds he is able to make what he considers a fair living, while consumers are paying around the same price they would at a supermarket.
Their local slaughterhouse supplies Waitrose, M&S and Sainsburys, also Aldi and Lidl, who are “huge backers of British food producers” he says. But while supplying supermarkets gives them a regular income, says Mike, they couldn’t survive as a business on the rates they pay.
Direct to the public, March House Farm leg of lamb sells for £12.00 per kilo, lamb shoulder for £10.00 per kilo, lamb cutlets at £16.00 per kilo. Beef topside sells for £13.00 per kilo, best rib at £21.00 per kilo and sirloin at £26.50 per kilo. Manor House Farm turkeys sell for £75 – £80 for a bird around seven kilos.. Sausages (Moroccan / Merguez/ lamb and mint / pork and leek / Lincolnshire / cracked black pepper / Fire Cracker chilli and plain gluten free pork) £10.00 per kilo.
“Homely” bowls club
Over the years Mike has made many friends in Chiswick. He enjoys the interaction between country and city and feels at home at the Bowls Club, who ply him and his team with tea and coffee, and among the other market traders, several of whom have been coming to the Sunday morning market as long as he has.
“The club is fantastic – helpful and friendly. There’s a homeliness about coming here and Friends of Dukes Meadows offer a fantastic facility”.
Mike would like to offer 10% off to anyone who spends over £20 at Dukes Meadows Christmas market on Sunday 15 December (open 10.am – 2.00pm) who mentions The Chiswick Calendar. That includes orders for Christmas. If you can’t get to the market that day, you can put in your order by phone: 01664 563919.