As the covid-19 crisis continues to unfold, Kate Stanley talks to one of the North’s most remarkable farming families on adjusting to survive during these unprecedented times.

JUST weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, Ingram Valley Farm had reason to celebrate. The 2,000-acre organic farm, set in the stunning Northumberland National Park, had clinched a new deal that would see its award-winning lamb supplied to restaurants and corporate events throughout the North-East.

But, as the country went into lockdown and the hospitality sector ground to a halt, the £250,000-a-year contract with national food service wholesaler Bidfood was put on hold.

The disappointment felt by the Wilson family, who have farmed the land since 1949, is tangible.

“Even deep in the Ingram Valley, Covid-19 has really had a major impact, not least to farms like ours where getting our produce to market is proving more challenging,” says Rebecca Wilson, who is a business partner alongside her husband Ross and father-in-law Johnny. “Bidfood approached us last year about our lamb and in February, following many meetings, it listed five of our key products to supply to its North-East clients in hospitality and corporate events.

“It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating the fact our meat would be enjoyed by diners the length and breadth of the region; now we must put those plans on hold and refocus, to ensure we can supply our meat where it is most needed.”

While the closure of restaurants has heavily impacted the supply chain, on the flip side of the coin demand for home delivery of food has never been higher, as families continue to isolate and footfall in the supermarkets slump under heavy restrictions.

“These unprecedented times have really forced a shift on how we are operating. Demand for our lamb across the North-East has never been as high, so our priority has been ensuring we have enough produce that can be safely delivered directly to people’s doors,” explains Rebecca, 40.

“Looking ahead, we will work with other North-East farms that share the same high environmental standards and high welfare standards, so we can all meet the increased demand for home delivery, zero food waste and zero hunger.”

Ingram Valley Farm has adapted to offer customers a contactless home-delivery service of its award-winning lamb, which was listed in the Sunday Times’ Best Fireside Treats. The business has developed its online shop with Turnbull’s of Alnwick and is also working with North Yorkshire-based meat box supplier Holme Farmed Venison to deliver its produce.

“Both Turnbull’s and Holme Farmed Venison have some of the highest hygiene ratings in the country. Holme Farmed Venison has an AA* British Retail Accreditation hygiene rating, with PPE equipment worn at all times, so we know that our meat is being packed and delivered to the highest standards during this pandemic,” explains Rebecca. “Given the current climate, this is equally as important to the customer as the produce itself.”

With the world now highly-sensitive to all matters surrounding health and hygiene, it is no surprise Ingram lamb is in demand.

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The valley within which the farm is situated was formed over 480 million years ago and running through it is the River Breamish – one of the cleanest rivers in the world. The land has been farmed sustainably for the last 6,000 years and is considered by experts to be one of the finest prehistoric landscapes in the country.

It contains remains from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, Romano-British and medieval periods and under a Heritage Partnership Agreement between the Wilson and English Heritage in 2010, a total of 1,300 acres was scheduled as an ancient monument.

Within this rich archaeological landscape, the Wilsons run a pasture-fed, outdoor-reared farm with 1,400 sheep, 1,500 prime lambs, 100 beef cattle and 100 red deer.

“Our ethos to farm sustainably is our top priority. This land has been farmed for thousands of years and we need to preserve and protect the incredible eco-systems here,” says Ross, 40, who grew up on the farm with his father Johnny and late mother Sarah.

“Our free-range, natural pasture-fed livestock roam on the hillsides as they would have done thousands of years ago. They drink the crystal-clear waters of the river and breathe the clean upland air.

“Our upland lambs forage for food, grazing on heather, virgin grass and wild herbs resulting in a leaner and more complex flavour profile. In a nutshell, we believe our meat is second to none and has been awarded for its tenderness and taste.

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“But, it’s not just about our produce – we work to improve farming in remote rural communities, we continue to protect the landscape and we are committed to operating a sustainable farming system that can thrive in the many years ahead.”

Their work hasn’t gone unrecognised. Last year they became the first farm in the world to achieve certification to The Planet Mark, a programme that recognises commitment to the continuous improvement in sustainability, achieved by cutting carbon emissions through reductions in energy, waste, travel and procurement.

“We are very passionate about helping to reverse climate change and certification has helped us to see how we can apply sustainability across the farm and the office, from using electric vehicles for travel and investing in green energy, to using Cool Earth paper in the office,” says Rebecca.

Founder of The Planet Mark, Steve Malkin, adds: “Sustainability beats at the heart of Ingram Valley. Their commitment to sustainable produce and local farming can be combined with continuous improvement in sustainability to assure its customers that its values and practice are united. Ingram Valley is leading the way in sustainable farming and I am excited to begin working with them.”

Through The Planet Mark, Ingram Valley Farm has linked up with sustainability partner Fooditude, a London-based contract catering company that usually caters to tech-media firms. Fooditude initially had to close its central kitchen in March due to the coronavirus outbreak and a fall in demand. Both Fooditude and Ingram Valley Farm follow the same United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as part of their work together with The Planet Mark.

Adjusting to the circumstances, Fooditude re-opened its kitchen last month as a community kitchen to deliver readymade meals to vulnerable groups, those self-isolating, ex-military and the homeless in the Southwark area. London has seen some of the highest rates of Covid 19 cases in the country.

Rebecca believes it is important to support Fooditude. “It went from providing 400 meals in the first week of re-opening, to serving 4,500 meals last week. We donated a big box of Ingram Valley lamb and we are sending some of our lamb mince,” she says.

Closer to home, Ingram Valley Farm has pledged its support to Food and Drink North East (FADNE), an organisation created to champion the region’s growing food and drink sector and drive economic growth. About 300 food producers and suppliers from across Teesside, County Durham, Tyneside, Wearside and Northumberland have signed up to be part of the initiative.

“In response to the Covid-19 crisis, FADNE has created a Local Heroes Virtual Food Market to sell and deliver food and drink throughout the region, and set up a gofundme page to help protect jobs and kickstart cashflow in the sector,” explains Rebecca. “The campaign is backed by North-East Masterchef finalist Dave Coulson, who has used our lamb in his Peace & Loaf restaurant, and we want to do whatever we can to support it.

“Businesses need to support other businesses, not just in the North-East but nationally, if they can. Times like this make us resilient and force us to look at ways to diversify; people do what they can, not only to survive but to help others survive too.”