Meat the Wilsons

The Wilson family of Ingram Valley Farm in Northumberland National Park is adjusting to unprecedented times

Covid-19 has hit food businesses hard, not least farmers whose restaurant, catering and retail customers disappeared overnight with lockdown. But Rebecca Wilson is focusing on the positive effects of these past six months on Ingram Valley Farm in the shadow of the Cheviot Hills; specifically, the fact that these unprecedented times prompted the farm to refocus on selling its award-winning lamb online to home delivery customers, with unexpected success.

“Demand for home delivery has soared over the last six months,” says Rebecca. “Our priority has been ensuring we have enough produce to deliver safely to people’s doors. There is so much demand that we are now forming partnerships with other farms that share our high environmental and welfare standards, so we can all meet increased demand for home and zero food waste. We are fortunate to be part of a close-knit farming community and to be working more closely together than ever before.”

Cattle, sheep and deer have grazed this valley for millennia, producing nutritious, high quality meat renowned for its tenderness and distinctive taste. Over recent weeks, Ingram Valley lamb has sold out online. The farm’s Aberdeen Angus beef and venison will be ready soon, and Rebecca is busy with pre-orders from a growing community of home delivery customers.

Pre-pandemic, 2020 looked very different. A few weeks before the pandemic hit, the Wilsons secured a deal with national food service wholesaler Bidfood to supply lamb to restaurants and events providers throughout the region. But as the country went into lockdown and the hospitality sector ground to a halt, the contract was put on hold. While the farm is now beginning to work with Bidfood again, the lockdown focus on home delivery remains central to the farm’s plans. 

“Even deep in the Ingram Valley, Covid-19 has had a major impact, not least on farms like ours where getting produce to market has proved more challenging,” says Rebecca, who is a partner in the farm alongside her husband Ross and father-in-law Johnny. “Focusing on home delivery enabled us to deliver safely, direct to customers. We had no idea it would be such a success.” 

The business developed its online shop with Turnbull’s of Alnwick and works with North Yorkshire-based meat box supplier Holme Farmed Venison to deliver its produce. Both have the highest hygiene ratings, so Rebecca is assured that the farm’s meat is packed and delivered to the highest standards. The farm’s beef, which will be ready later in autumn, and Christmas-ready venison are both now available to pre-order via the farm’s website. 

The valley where the farm is situated was formed over 480 million years ago and running through it is the River Breamish, which is one of the cleanest rivers in the world. The land has been farmed for 6,000 years and is considered 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 Wilsons and English Heritage in 2010,
1,300 acres is scheduled as an ancient monument. 

The Wilsons raise pasture-fed, outdoor-reared livestock totalling 1,400 sheep, 1,500 prime lambs, 100 Aberdeen Angus cattle and 100 red deer. “Farming sustainably is our top priority. This land has been farmed for thousands of years and we need to preserve and protect the incredible ecosystems here,” says Rebecca’s husband Ross, who grew up on the farm with his father Johnny and late mother Sarah. “Our free-range, natural pasture-fed livestock roam 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. We continue to protect the landscape and we are committed to operating a sustainable farming system that can thrive for years ahead.”

In 2019, this became the first farm in the world to achieve certification from Planet Mark, which recognises commitment to the continuous improvement in sustainability achieved by cutting carbon emissions through reductions in energy, waste, travel and procurement. “We’re passionate about helping to reverse climate change and we apply sustainability across the farm and the office, including using electric vehicles and investing in green energy,” says Rebecca. 

Through Planet Mark, the farm linked up with sustainability partner Fooditude, a London-based contract catering company that usually caters to tech-media firms. Adjusting to the circumstances, in April Fooditude started delivering ready made meals to vulnerable groups, those self-isolating, ex-military and the homeless in London. “It went from providing 400 meals in the first week of re-opening, to serving 4,500 meals in a week,” says Rebecca. “We donated Ingram Valley lamb and mince.” 

The farm also supports Food and Drink North East (FaDNE). Producers and suppliers from all over the region are involved with organisation, which has created an online Local Heroes Virtual Food Market delivering quality local food and drink throughout the North East. 

The produce of Ingram Valley Farm is distinctive because of its setting. Here, low-intervention, grass-fed livestock graze on varied grasses, heathers and varieties of clover which provide a sustainable diet rich in protein, vitamins and minerals that translates to high quality, nutritious meat. Upland lambs forage on heather, virgin grass and wild herbs, resulting in a leaner and more complex flavour profile. This slow-grown outdoor lifestyle results in well-marbled meat, the unique diet of the Northumberland valley providing a distinctive colour and depth of flavour.

Venison, which will be ready for Christmas, is sustainably sourced from Northumberland hillsides (farmed) and associated parks (wild). Both produce healthy, lean red meat hung for 7-14 days to enhance its natural flavour.

Aberdeen Angus beef is next to come to market later this autumn, after being hung for 28 days. This is the first time the farm has sold its beef direct to customers online and, following the success of its lamb in the last few months, Rebecca is hopeful. “It’s totally new for us to sell our own-branded beef, but the demand is there, and we hope customers will enjoy its unique taste,” she says. “Lockdown was hard, but it has allowed us to adjust to new ways of getting our produce to customers. We are fortunate that people want high quality produce and we’re privileged to provide it for them.”

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