Next time you settle down to enjoy dinner on English soil, chances are something on your plate will have been produced in Lincolnshire
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IF KENT IS THE GARDEN OF ENGLAND, Lincolnshire is undoubtedly its farmstead. With wide, open skies, rolling out across pancake-flat Fenland landscape, Lincolnshire is the jewel in the UK food industry’s crown. With 1.2 million acres supporting all manner of arable crops, livestock, dairying and pig production, as well as a large number of poultry producers, the county provides more fresh food than any other. And from cereals to daffodils, potatoes to cauliflowers, from pigs and sheep to Lincoln Red beef, the quality and flavor of its harvest cannot be rivalled.
Voted the nation’s Food Capital in 2011, Lincolnshire is the UK’s largest potato producer, biggest cereal production area and the secondlargest sugar beet producer, too. Its farmers grow cauliflowers, varieties of cabbage, sprouts, leeks, shallots, onions, carrots, parsnips, salad onions, herbs and lettuces—which all help to account for nearly 30 percent of the nation’s field vegetable crops.
But what is it that makes Lincolnshire the premier food-producing county in England?
“The primary issues are the quality of soils and the county’s benign climate,” says grower Mark Tinsley, who chairs the Lincolnshire Forum for Agriculture and Horticulture. In this partnership between the public sector and farming, horticulture and food and drink industries work together to address the issues which affect them all.
“By the quality of soils, we mean its workability, lack of stone and its fertility—quite a lot historically would have been fenland or marshland,” Tinsley explains. “The moisture retentiveness of these soils is the critical issue; they do not give up moisture easily—and therefore the crops don’t suffer stress.”
The real secret to its success is its grade I silt land; Lincolnshire has the country’s greatest proportion, with the majority situated around England’s largest estuary—The Wash—located in the southeast corner, on the Norfolk border. Here a series of dykes, not hedgerows separate the giant, flat fields, making them ideal for crop cultivation—in particular potatoes.
Several different varieties flourish on these fertile plains, before making their way to prepacking facilities, markets and restaurants, and, of course, our numerous fish and chip shops. But why is this vegetable crop so successful? The complex landscape owes its fertility to the simple fact that much of it remained underwater for many centuries.
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Lincolnshire is also the home to Europe’s largest pumpkin farm. David Bowman grows 3 to 4 million of the giant veg each year on fields around Spalding, supplying supermarkets up and down the country as well as Western European markets. Bowman’s success is due to Lincolnshire’s fine silt soils, which are ideal for growing the gourd. Every year his home town hosts a vibrant pumpkin festival, culminating in a torch-lit parade featuring a pumpkin carriage and hundreds of schoolchildren carrying their homemade Jack O’Lanterns—all carved from pumpkins donated by farmer Bowman.
Numerous civilizations have played a part in shaping this rural landscape over the years. The Romans were the first to attempt to control water levels by building a sea wall along the inner Fen margin. In the Middle Ages, the monks followed in their footsteps, with their own attempts to set up a comprehensive drainage system. The most profound change came in the 17th century, when Dutch engineers straightened the wayward rivers, creating new linear links and sluicing them against tidal inflow.
Today the fens drain toward The Wash; characteristically the low-lying levels rarely pass the 10-meter contour, typically varying by little more than by one or two meters over many miles. Much of Lincolnshire remains below sea level, relying on pumped drainage and the control of sluices at high and low tides to maintain agricultural viability. Nevertheless, food and farming are big business; estimated to contribute around £1 billion annually to its economy, in terms of both value and employment, the sector is the county’s third biggest, employing more than 32,000 people.
World-class packing and processing businesses support the food production. The majority of the agricultural output remains in the UK, apart from some wheat and oilseeds that are exported to Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says Alison Pratt, of the National Farmers Union. Spalding and Boston are home to the main production, processing, packing and distribution facilities; most of the produce goes to retailers and some to multinational companies such as Bakkavor, which produce salads and coleslaws for the supermarket chains.
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Nothing is left to chance, however, and the county constantly works hard to promote its wares. In 2005 the Select Lincolnshire project was set up in a government drive to ensure UK farming maintained a sustainable future. With financial backing from Lincolnshire County Council, the membership-based project incorporates every level of agricultural business, from small cheese-makers to distribution companies and huge vegetable producers, as well as packers employing hundreds of staff. To help promote a strong, recognizable brand, it showcases the range and quality of Lincolnshire produce.
Lincolnshire’s farming operations are diverse. Statistics from Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), show there are 4,245 farms across Lincolnshire, from one-man bands on small-holdings, to family firms made up of fathers and sons (some dating back several generations), to massive corporations working thousands of acres of land, both owned and rented.
The average farm is around 320 acres, and 85 percent of the land is farmed in holdings greater then 250 acres. Lincolnshire growers produce around 540,000 acres of wheat, grown on 39 percent of the county’s arable land (12 percent of the entire country’s). Oilseed rape is another big crop; 202,000 acres are dedicated to its production, much of which is being developed for nonfood use such as biodiesel and bioethanol.
The ruler-straight fen lands are also ideally suited to pea production. Grower co-operative Fen Peas Ltd. was formed in 1968 by four farmers in the Boston area, who initially grew 600 acres, operating five viners, 12 hours’ a day. Today it grows 5,200 acres of peas countywide—from Waddington in the north, Holbeach in the east, to Market Deeping in the south and Grantham in the east—supplying companies specializing in both frozen and canning peas; all from a grower base of 78 farmer members, using four modern harvesters.
Sown from early February to mid-May and harvested mid-June to mid-August, the co-op produces garden peas (small to medium-sized and produced to a high quality, which once harvested are frozen in less than 150 minutes to ensure they are processed in their prime), Petit Pois and other organic and economy varieties. The co-op says the Lincolnshire soil is perfect as its fineness allows for fast drainage, which prevents water logging.
During the past few years, the unruly climate has done little to help Lincolnshire’s farmers. The wettest summer for a century in 2012 left many crops decimated with acute shortages in some areas. Nonetheless, no matter what Lincolnshire veg graces your plate, the taste will be second to none.
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Flowers are another important industry in Lincolnshire, which grows almost 40 percent of the UK’s bulb flowers (particularly daffodils). In Holbeach, Taylor’s Bulbs is the country’s largest bulb supplier, although there are numerous other bulb and early-cut daffodil growers in the south of the county.
Lincolnshire’s growers raise everything from tulips, lilies, delphiniums, gladioli, sunflowers, alliums, asters, dahlias and foxtail lilies, both under glass and in the open, for the wholesale markets and for direct sale to retailers such as supermarket chains M&S and Waitrose.