Ladies and gentlemen, today is one to which I have been looking forward enormously for just over two years. It was on St Valentine’s Day 2005 that I came to Manifold Valley to see for myself how farmers in this remarkably beautiful part of the country were planning to cope with the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Some of you were amongst those twenty farmers I met in The George Inn at Alstonfield where I asked you how you were planning to cope. And I’m only sorry that we’re not able to nip back to The George after this! I have to say that I was deeply worried by the response from all the farmers - it was clear that many of you felt your livelihoods were threatened and the future looked very bleak indeed. So I made a promise that if you wanted my help, such as it is, I would give it. And so began the journey that has led us to the launch of “Peak Choice” today.
Business in the Community, of which I have been President for the past 22 years, sprang into action and, led by the incomparable and very special Christine Larson, who has been amazing - I know how much effort and time she has put in to this, work began.
We started with an initial review which showed what you all knew already - that the hill farmers in the Peak District National Park, like other National Parks, face particular and tough challenges from the new agricultural regime, as well as suffering a shorter growing season, higher altitude and poorer soil. And none of you needs me to tell you about declining farm incomes, whether you be in the dairy or livestock sector. Farms are being sold off and the younger generation is increasingly finding farming a less alluring prospect.
Unaddressed, these conditions spell only disaster for farming, for the landscape which is cared for with such skill by the farmers, and for the whole intricate social, environmental and economic tapestry created by hill farming communities in this country. After all, without the farmers, who will maintain and build the dry stone walls that are such a feature of this area? Without the livestock, how will the bracken and scrub be kept at bay on the hills on which so many people like to walk? Without the farming families, who will maintain the schools, pubs, Churches, post offices and village shops – who will keep these communities alive?
I once did an impromptu survey of a group of farmers and their wives who came to an event I held at Highgrove – nearly every single one of them was involved in a voluntary capacity in their community, as a school governor, a Parochial Church councillor or in the W.I. These are the people - you are the people - who create and sustain communities. And it is communities, working together, which make areas like the Peak District so irresistibly beautiful that this National Park alone attracts 22 million tourists a year. To me, these places and the people who live in them, are as important to the culture of our country as any historic monument or building.
And this is why I was so determined to try and help farmers here, and in other upland parts of the United Kingdom, to work together and develop their own brand for the quality produce they grow here, which tells the story of the landscape. And it is a wonderful story. So my first Farmers’ Marketing Initiative started just under two years ago in Caithness in the north Highlands of Scotland where we have developed “Mey Selections”, named after the Castle of Mey, which used to be owned by my darling Grandmother, and is where I go and stay each year as President of the trust set up in her name.
Today we celebrate the second in the family, “Peak Choice”. And I could not be more thrilled by the way in which the farmers in the Peak District have shown such spirited determination to take charge of their own futures, and consequently that of the next generation, by working collaboratively to develop their own co-operative enterprise, selling their produce direct to consumers.
Through ‘Peak Choice’, consumers will have access to some of the finest beef and lamb in the world – still raised in a traditional way. Of absolute importance to me is that all the producers have signed up to Environmental Management Schemes and Quality Assurance. So be in no doubt, this is a quality product that tells a uniquely Peak District story.
This premium meat will be sold direct to consumers through the new website and to local hotels and restaurants, who I hope will leap at the opportunity to support the area so prized by their guests. Five million people live in cities and towns surrounding the Peak District and countless more from further afield visit here every year. Each of them is a potential customer. With the launch of “Peak Choice”, we are giving them a tangible way of sustaining the place about which they care. And by shortening the supply chain and building a stronger relationship with the consumer, the objective is that the farmers will secure a greater share of the value.
Of course this initiative could not have happened without a considerable amount of support from the East Midlands Development Agency and many of the businesses represented here today. I am enormously grateful to all of you – you are making the whole difference to what we can do. And I hope that today will give further encouragement to farmers from my other future Farmers’ Marketing Initiatives – yes, there will be more! – quite a few of whom are here today. Rather worryingly each of them have asked me for a watercolour to help them develop their brand, so I fear my work may well be rather cut out!
There are so many people who I want to thank personally, but time will only allow me to mention a few. I have already mentioned Christine Larson, a truly exceptional person who understands exactly what I am trying to achieve. And then there is Collette Burke, who produced the market research and spent much time in many farmhouse kitchens talking to the farmers. And, of course, Charles Dawson, the Business Start-Up manager and Rupert Turner, the Chairman, who I managed to persuade to take on the role, with a little help from the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire!
Finally, I must also mention the chefs of Academy of Culinary Arts. I happen to be the Patron of this wonderful organization and couldn’t resist asking if some of these outstanding chefs – some of the very best in the country – might produce some recipe cards to go in the boxes. Another unique selling point I hope! I cannot thank John Williams and his team enough and I am looking forward to trying some of the recipes in a moment.
Above all, my congratulations go to the fourteen farmers who are the founding members of the Peak Choice co-operative. You have shown real courage and leadership and I salute you and wish you every possible success. I shall be watching very carefully to see how you progress!
Ladies and gentlemen, I think I am now expected formally to launch “Peak Choice” by first unveiling my painting and then press a button so that we can watch a video showing the development of the brand. And, just as I leave outside, there is one more surprise which I hope will make it a little easier to deliver the “Peak Choice” product to the countless customers who will want nothing more than to enjoy the taste of high quality, traditionally-reared meat knowing that, in buying it, they are helping to preserve one of this country’s greatest and most precious natural assets. Click here to visit the Peak Choice website.