“This is the original heated wall of the kitchen garden where the Victorians grew peaches, apricots and figs. Fires were built inside the walls to warm them,” says Jo Cartwright as she shows me round her organic farm. The walled garden forms part of the 160-acre farm situated in the grounds of the once magnificent Swillington Hall, five miles east of Leeds. We proceeded to walk through the spectacular two- acre garden and stopped by the newly restored section of the wall. “This will be producing peaches and figs soon. The only problem with the peaches,” Jo muses, “is the squirrels like them, too.”
Scattered around the farm is a menagerie of organic, free range pigs, chickens, sheep, lambs, ducks and geese which Jo sells through a network of local farmers’ markets, retailers and her own farm shop.
The meat from her stock is raised to exacting animal welfare standards and its quality is highly acclaimed. In 2007, she was awarded Best Yorkshire Meat Producer for her pork and, in 2008, she was runner-up with her chickens.
But it is the Headingley Fowl and Pig Co-ops she helps to run which has brought Jo into the public eye as the friendly and trusted face of local organic meat.
The Fowl Co-op was the idea of Helen Seymour, a director of the Headingley Development Trust and arose from her involvement with Headingley Farmers’ Market.
“We set up the Headingley Farmers’ Market two years ago because we were outraged that there was no longer a butcher’s shop in Headingley. We were keen to invite local producers to sell their produce to local people,” says Helen.
Then Helen learned about the growing movement of Community Supported Agriculture, championed by the Soil Association where a partnership is set up between local food producers and the community. Helen approached Jo to see if she was interested.
“I was keen immediately. I would benefit by having a guaranteed income from advanced sales and members of the Headingley Co-op would benefit from being able to buy, high quality organic meat at a reasonable cost. It is a win, win situation for both consumers and producers,” said Jo.
There are 29 members of the Headingley Fowl Co-op and it has been running successfully for a year. Members pay in advance for one organic, fully free range chicken, each month for
Chickens cost £9 and weigh about 1.5kg. The chickens are collected from Jo’s stall at the Headingley Farmers’ Market, held once a month.
“Knowing the provenance of the meat you eat is important to the members
of the Co-op who can go on a farm tour and see how the chickens live,”
So what is the difference between an organic, free range chicken and an intensively reared bird?
“Lots,” says Jo. “Firstly, chickens live twice as long and are larger. Mine are killed at 81 days compared to the 42 days for a battery bird. They are free to run around and this means they are fitter and have better developed muscles. Also the carotenoids in the grass they eat makes their flesh golden. Intensively reared chicken meat is pallid, fattier and has a poorer texture.
Helen Seymour says: “Being free range makes a big difference to how they taste,”
“Jo’s chickens are leaner, fleshier, cook well and are absolutely delicious to eat. They require a slightly longer cooking but are succulent and the flavour is excellent.”
Back on the farm, the chickens are divided into two living groups the “layers” and the “eaters”.
Chickens are sociable birds and live in flocks of 180. Battery farms frequently have more than 20,000 living together in cramped conditions.
I was fascinated by the layers excavating deep dust baths. “This is an essential behaviour for chickens keeping their feathers glossy and free of parasites. These chickens lay for up to four years and are sold as ‘soup birds’,” says Jo.
“Their flesh is too tough for eating but they make excellent stock or soup.”
Jo has a licence to slaughter the chickens on the farm and butcher her own meat in a specially designated unit, again on the farm.
Both slaughtering and butchering on site reduce the food miles involved in producing this meat.
As I proceed with my tour of the farm, I meet a lively saddleback sow with several piglets in tow. Before I get chance to become sentimental I witness a dose of porcine tough love. The sow places her snout under the belly of her cute piglet and tosses him into the air. Clearly pigs can fly.
Jo’s saddlebacks are kept for seven months – twice as long as intensively reared pigs. Slaughtering takes place at an abattoir, licensed to kill organic meat, three miles away.
After the success of the Fowl Co-op, Helen asked Jo if she would roll the scheme out to include pigs and so the Headingley Pig Co-op was set up. It costs members £93 to receive one batch of organic free-range pork each month for three months. There is a choice of cuts but the basic pack consists of a leg joint, diced pork, pork steaks, chops or gammon steaks, a pack of sausages and some bacon.
What do members of the Fowl and Pig Co-ops think of the scheme? Victoria Burley, a working mother, who is both a keen gardener and cook, is delighted.
“I belong to the scheme because I think Jo is doing such an amazing job producing the quality of meat she does.
“The meat is tasty and my family really enjoy it. It is also wonderful to visit the farm and see how the animals
“The public can also get involved with growing organic vegetables on the farm and we can support them while they learn how to do it,” says Jo.
It all seems such a lot of work but Jo does have some help from Kirstin Glendinning – the regional development co-ordinator for the Soil Association who is based on the farm.
But what happens to the profits of the Co-ops?
Jo points me to a new poly tunnel which she has recently bought. It is early spring and the range of verdant leaves is remarkable. Jagged-edged Mizuna, Red Russian Kale, Namenia – or turnip tops – Purple Mustard and Winter Crop Lettuce were all doing well.
Jo, who is 51, has lived on the farm nearly all her life.
“My father worked for the National Coal Board and my mother was a farmer’s daughter. When the chance came to buy part of Swillington Hall, he jumped at it and bought the near derelict stable block.
“That was in the 1950s at a time when hardly anyone
was renovating properties,” said Jo.
Swillington Hall was owned by the Lowther family but was demolished in 1952. It is a historically and environmentally important site. Its diverse range of habitats including woodland, marsh, pasture and ponds supports a wide variety of wildlife including barn, little and tawny owls and a variety of ducks, waders and butterflies.
As I left, I was full of admiration for the hard work Jo devotes to her enterprising farm. Her tenacity and commitment to the animals, her customers and landscape is remarkable.