A North East farm is the setting for an extraordinary project aimed at developing a sustainable food and drink business that will support autistic people. PETER BARRON reports

WITH a lifetime of experience and achievement in the food and drink industry behind him, Keith Gill could be forgiven for taking it easy during his retirement.

Instead, the man who was instrumental in the creation of County Durham’s iconic snack food company, Phileas Fogg, has a new mission.

Keith, now 68, is relishing the challenge presented by the award-winning North East Autism Society (NEAS) to nurture an extraordinary vision for New Warlands Farm, at Burnhope, and turn it into a sustainable reality.

The dream includes the production of a variety of fruit and vegetables, along with eggs, apple juice, artisan breads, and scones. The possibility of producing honey and mustard is also being considered. Local residents will be consulted about the various elements of the plans, and the approved products will be sold under a new umbrella brand, with the extensive network of NEAS sites providing a viable internal market.

In the process, a key objective is to equip service-users with traditional skills that can be converted into jobs and apprenticeships.

“It is a fantastic opportunity – the joy and excitement around what’s happening is palpable,” says Keith.

By establishing Phileas Fogg, followed by “a gourmet food for busy lives” company called Look What We Found, Keith created 400 jobs and generated a combined turnover of £40m. Previous roles had included marketing manager for Tudor Crisps, part of the Smith’s Food Group, so he’s man who’s well worth his salt.

From the big corporate world, to small and medium enterprises, he has completed his broad range of business experience by supporting micro producers as an adviser to the Durham Food Hub. “Retirement” also happens to include running a bed and breakfast business at Lanchester with wife Pauline.

Then, last April, he was introduced to NEAS chief executive John Phillipson, who had ambitious plans to develop a food production operation at New Warlands Farm, which the charity had converted into a purpose-built vocational training centre.

Keith, whose 32-year-old son Alex is autistic, visited the 77-acre farm, and that led to him working part-time as the Society’s Food and Drink Strategy Adviser.

“I was bowled over by what they were trying to achieve but it was clear they needed help,” says Keith.

The first step was to set up a working group to compile a feasibility study, covering areas such as drainage, power supply, and potential markets. With meetings held regularly throughout the summer, the plan was presented to NEAS trustees in September.

The strategy was approved and is now beginning a three-year implementation stage. With a lot of land already taken up by a day centre for autistic adults, residential areas, respite lodges, and even the UK’s first autism-friendly golf driving range, a sophisticated approach to food production is required.

“This is a micro-social farm which means we have to be realistic and rotate the various crops very carefully,” says Keith.

Potato production is just one example of the flexible approach required. Once potatoes are grown they can’t be planted again on that piece of land for six or seven years.

The aim is to create a range of food and drink products, including apple juice, jams, and pickles, that can be sold to the families, carers and friends of service-users, NEAS staff, with some dedicated public procurement, and the general public completing the market. A design brief for the umbrella brand is being worked on.

Around 150 apple trees have been planted so far and the target is to get up to 1,000, with the possibility of the orchard also featuring beehives. In the meantime, the farm has acquired equipment for pressing fruit.

There is also a fledgling egg production unit, with eggs from 28 hens being sold to members of staff. In time, the stock will grow to 200 hens.

One of the internal uses for the eggs will be the production of artisan breads under the guidance of expert baker Sue Kane. Her initial training has concentrated on service users, but the next stage is for carers to learn how to make 12 different types of bread.

Another idea is to develop products unique to County Durham’s heritage. For example, the first mustard was produced in Durham in 1720, and the possibility of mustard seeds being grown at the farm is to be explored, with a third party being brought in to convert it into sauce if it proves to be feasible.

The icing on the cake will be a café selling the home-grown products, while creating invaluable training and employment opportunities for service-users.

Help will be needed along the way and, fittingly, the first volunteer will be Keith’s autistic son Alex. The project also urgently needs donations of surplus farming equipment, notably ridgers, and seed-planters, to prepare the land for crops.

For a man who has officially retired after achieving so much in a life-long career in the food industry, the challenge is proving irresistible.

“I’ve become a micro champion, and this is something new that can have immense social benefits,” says Keith.

Yes, the seeds of something very special are being sown down at New Warlands Farm.