So, last post I told you all about the time I spent with two of the farms that Pipers has been working with. This time I’d like to tell you a bit more about Pipers Farm themselves. Peter Grieg picked me up at the bus stand in Exeter and we went immediately to the poultry farm that Pipers Farm gets their chicken from. Sam is the head farmer and he and his family breed, raise and slaughter heritage breed, free range chickens. Sam and Peter Greig had an interesting first meeting. Sam wanted to sell his chickens in Exeter, lacking a store front he had purchased a refrigerated van from which to hawk his wares. Sam decided to park his van just on the same block as the Pipers Farm butcher shop. The local shop owners went to Peter urging him to file a complaint. Sam was encroaching on his business, selling meat just up the street. Peter, instead of seeing Sam’s business as a threat, decided to go and introduce himself. After getting to know one another, Peter and Sam realized that they held the same philosophy in regard to how animals should be raised. They struck up a contract and Pipers has been proudly selling Sam’s chickens at the shop ever since.
That story is a good example of the Peter Greig. He is a passionate farmer as well as a savvy business man. Peter and his wife Henri both gained a degree in agriculture from Wye College (a part of the University of London) before starting their first agricultural enterprise in Kent. Peter was raised on a small family farm and after university and some study of agriculture abroad the couple moved back to the family farm to raise chickens for a respected grocery chain. The Greigs had seen enough of the practices of industrial agriculture during university and their explorations abroad to know that that was not how they wanted to run their business. They wanted to raise animals on a natural diet with a high degree of animal welfare and absolutely no hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics.
After some time in Kent, they decided that they wanted to work with other small plot holders that were interested in sustainably raised meats. The county of Devon is filled to the gills with small family farms and so they decided to find some land and see what could be created. They started their own small farm raising cattle and pigs. Peter taught himself the art of butchery through trial and error, attempting to get the best cuts and consistency from his naturally raised animals. They opened a small butcher shop and began selling their meat on the high street. As demand grew they began to work with more and more farmers.
That beginning was 25 years ago. Now Pipers works with more than 20 small family farms. Some of the farms breed the animals and others raise them but all of it is executed with the same integrity that Pipers held at their beginning. Pipers now owns two shops and works with 10 local restaurants as well as having a booming online sales business. They also produce quite a bit of prepared foods such as meat pies, scotch eggs and deli meats.
The meat may be raised on several properties but all of the meat is hung and processed on the Pipers Farm property. I spent my first full day in Devon working in the cutting room. I admit it was a bit of culture shock after living and working with vegan, stock free growers in the north for several weeks. I was surrounded by sides of beef that had been aged more than 4 weeks, hams hung to cure and chickens that had been picked up from Sam’s farm that morning. Pipers Farm has obviously done a good job during their hiring process because the guys working in the cutting room share their passions. The main duo that I spent time with had previously worked together in an industrial setting. They had quotas to meet each hour of the day and felt like they were constantly rushed through their work. They felt forced to produce an inferior product. Both of them assured me that this wasn’t the case here. They had time to make their cuts perfect and they truly appreciated Pipers integrity when it came to what met the standards set for the customer. The beef and pork that I saw ground that day was nothing like the high fat, high gristle stuff found in the typical grocery store cooler. Even the meat that was ground for pet food was carefully monitored to make sure it didn’t contain too much fat or organ meat. The reality is that this is the amount of care that goes into all of their products from how the animal is raised and fed to how it is slaughtered, hung and butchered.
After my time at the other farms, Peter and Henri picked me up and we held one of their monthly events for the Exeter Chiefs. The Chiefs are the local (and very successful) rugby team and Pipers supplies the team with all of the protein for their meals during the training and playing season and once a month they hold a BBQ for the team. The Chief’s nutritionist claims that the performance of the team has altered quite a bit since they started using Pipers products. He believes that the leaner, naturally raised meats allow the players to recover more quickly and build better muscle. We spent the afternoon feeding the players and their families sausages, burgers and a variety of salads and other side dishes, though the guys mostly passed over the salads and piled their plates high with protein. It was a great afternoon and I was so grateful to be a part of the event.
I spent the following afternoon working in the Pipers Farm shop in Exeter. Once again, the staff was amazingly passionate about the products that they were selling. They gave cooking tips, recipes and helped the customers to find meat for dinner that was within their budget. The meat at the shop carries a higher price tag than that of the grocery store produce. However every scrap of meat that is sold is completely edible, as I said before there is no gristle and only the fat needed to provide flavor so you need to purchase less. There is also almost no water weight since the meat is so well cured, it loses very little volume as it cooks. So if you look at it in a nutritional dollar sense, the meat is very reasonably priced. The shop was relatively busy and we even had a visit from one of the Chiefs buying meat for dinner. That evening Peter had arranged for me to go home with some of his favorite customers. Tom and Georgina Reed were faithful grocery store shoppers though Tom occasionally went to the butcher shop to buy meat for special occasions. One day Peter and Tom got to talking and though Tom loved the product, he admitted that for every day eating it was just out of his price range. Peter convinced Tom to spend that week’s budget on meat from Pipers instead of the local chain.
They talked about quality, safety and the fact that the meat from Pipers is more dense, has more nutrition and therefore you don’t feel the need to eat as much. Peter is a pretty smooth talker and the challenge was accepted. The Reeds have never looked back and now purchase almost all of their meat from Pipers. They have found ways to work around their budget, buying cheaper cuts and eating less meat than they did before. Georgina made a lovely stew out of lamb neck. (Recipe to follow)
1. Why did you choose sustainable agriculture and what was your path to get there?
25 years ago, we both thought that these systems of industrial livestock production (particularly of pigs and poultry) seemed to be fundamentally flawed and unsustainable. At the same time the traditional rural infrastructure of multiple smaller scale farming businesses was being replaced by ever-larger and more mechanized units. These units were simply focused on driving down the unit costs of production, without addressing the actual wider costs associated with that approach. At the time, we believed that the smaller scale family farming businesses were often able to produce better value in terms of resource use (such as labor and association with other local businesses) and sustainability (in particular harmony with nature and the local landscape).
We were also deeply concerned at the constant requirement to feed antibiotics to the livestock within these systems, just to keep disease under control, with the vast numbers of birds & animals in limited & confined spaces. And lastly, we were concerned that the presence of these drugs in consumers' diet would have a major impact on human health & resistance of disease to antibiotics.We moved to Devon where there was still a thriving network of family farms, and, working with a number of these, we set about developing a market for high quality meat and meat products produced on these farms, sustainably, in harmony with nature & without the use of antibiotics. These farms have a wealth of experience & are continuing to farm as they have for generations before them.
2. What do you think of the current food system in your country?
The meat industry in the UK has two very different systems. The mainstream rears animals & poultry on an industrial scale and supplies supermarkets & other mainstream retail & wholesale outlets. It has become increasingly polarized around a very small number of large, global businesses. This has led to a complete breakdown of integrity, transparency and accountability and whilst the meat produced under these systems is cheap at point of sale, there are significant hidden costs - not least the increase in super bugs & resistance to antibiotics. The scale of these businesses and the "gearing" within them means that no part of the chain is powerful enough to say “no". Consequently the forces of change are driven by a singular view at the top of achieving economies of scale. There has been a consistent erosion of nutritional value and the processing of food on a vast scale has resulted in increased risk of food poisoning & absence through sickness. There are an ever increasing number of human health issues & disorders which are attributed to problems with modern food & diets.
The artisan system rears animals on a smaller scale, using breeds & farming systems appropriate to the local environment & landscape. It requires lower inputs, most locally sourced rather than imported. The focus is on health of the livestock & human health, nutritional value & taste, and thankfully there is a growing awareness amongst consumers of the multiple benefits of these systems of farming.
3. What do you see as the future of food in your country?
There are signs of the emergence of an artisan food sector. The market is increasingly developing and supporting this. To some extent this will encourage a focus on more localized distribution networks. However it is very hard to see the mainstream "downsizing" and therefore the threat posed by unchecked growth in size and intensity of industrial livestock systems, in particular, will become greater. In terms of production and consumption the future lies with the youngest generation. It is to be hoped that through knowledge and particularly social media they will drive real impetus for change in any areas where they have the power to do so. For example young farmers will be able to interact more easily with each other as producers and with the demands of consumers. Consumers will be better placed to understand and challenge the practices of food producers.
4. Are you concerned about how climate change may affect your business in the future?
We believe that there should be sufficient opportunity to adapt resource use to cope.
5. Who do you hope will inherit your enterprise?
The younger generation - either from within our own family or from outside.
What you will need:
2 pounds neck of lamb, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2 medium cooking onions
1 tablespoon of flour
Thyme, Rosemary and Lemon Thyme
1 cup white wine
3 to 4 slivers of lemon peel
3 cups vegetable stock
2 cups cooked cannellini beans
Heat the olive oil and brown the meat in batches in a large soup pot. Move each batch to the side as its finished.
Sauté the onions, garlic and then return the meat to the pan.
Sprinkle in the flour and then add the wine and stir. Add your herbs and lemon peel.
Then add the stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour and then add a few cups of water (this is according to your taste preference)
Simmer again for ½ an hour and then add the beans. Simmer again for 20 mins.
Serve with fresh lemon and thyme to taste.
My time with Pipers was a great eye-opener. Pipers Farm has become so much more than a distributor. Because Peter and Henri are farmers themselves, they understand the risks involved and work with these farmers to get the best product to the high street. They have surrounded themselves with employees who share their passion and radiate that passion to every customer. They have built incredible loyalty and have really embedded themselves in the community. They are a model of what farmers can accomplish when they work together.
Thank you all for baring with me on the intermittent nature of my posts. Travel blogging can be quite difficult, especially when spending most of your time working on farms. I hope you all are enjoying the posts and thanks as always for reading.
Up on the next post: Bresse Chickens in the South East of France