Rhug Estate is one of Britain’s leading organic farms, supplying premium sustainably reared meat to some of the country’s top restaurants. We caught up with owner Lord Newborough to find out more about the philosophy behind his field-to-plate operation.
Rhug Estate is at the centre of one of the biggest organic farming enterprises in the UK. Run by Lord Newborough, two farms – in North Wales and Shropshire – comprise 7,000 acres, all certified organic by the Soil Association. The farms produce and sell Aberdeen Angus beef, saltmarsh and milk lamb, chickens, pork, bison, turkeys and geese. Rhug also sells wild game shot on the estate. Over the past 15 years it has won numerous awards, and owner Robert Newborough was recently named 2013 Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year. He tells us about how he switched to a sustainable, wholly organic operation, and gives us some tasting notes for some of the meats the estate produces.
How long have you and your family been farming commercially in North Wales?
My family has had a presence in North Wales since the 9th century, and the estates are a mixture of tenanted and in-hand farmed land. Since the end of World War II, an increasing amount of the land has been taken in hand and farmed by the family. The family at one time used to own a large part of North Wales but, over the years, the estates have dwindled in size, and the policy now is very much based on more direct marketing and farm diversification.
When did you become an organic farm?
I took over the main farming operation when my father died in 1998 and, at that point, the decision was taken to go organic. I have always believed in the importance of sustainable farming, the best animal welfare and eating healthy, toxin-free food. So, when the opportunity arose to take over the family farming enterprise, it was a case of putting these beliefs into practice. The complete transition from conventional farming to organic at Rhug took about seven years in total.
Why do you think organic is important?
Organic faming is important to all of us. We believe it to be the only method of producing food to protect the environment for the future – for our children and grandchildren to enjoy. It embraces all the best practices of animal welfare, which in turn means happy and contented animals – and better-flavoured meat. We believe organic is healthier and free from toxins, and that the meat is lower in fat, higher in essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3 than meat produced on conventional farms. The animals are truly free-range. Organically farmed grassland helps fix the harmful carbon dioxide out of the air into the ground, reducing the effects of global warming.
Does farming organically mean the farm is not as productive as it might be?
Not at all! It is true that it is much more work involved than in conventional farming as there are no quick fixes. Planning years ahead is key. But I am proud of the fact that the farm produces more per acre than it ever did before. The environmental benefits have been enormous, too: everything from encouraging clover-rich pastures, more wild animals and birds, an abundance of wild flowers and flourishing hedgerows. Above all else, we are confident that organic farming methods ensure we’re breeding and rearing stress-free and contented animals.
What factors do you think lead to a quality meat product, and how do you control them?
The flavour and quality of meat is affected by numerous factors at all stages of an animal’s life and death. We think we produce the very best organic meat money can buy, because we control all of those stages – we are one of the few true field-to-plate operations. We have selected a small number of top breeds, specifically for their potential for eating; all animals are bred on the farm, fed on feed grown on the farm; and all of those animals are finished, butchered and hung on the farm, too. We are as involved in the product as we can be, and customers have total security of provenance.
And does being organic make a difference to the flavour of the meat you produce?
Being organic is part of the overall picture. We believe organic farming methods encourage the best animal welfare, which, ultimately, affects the taste of the meat. By adopting the best organic farming practices, we ensure our animals have a stress-free life – the most important point affecting meat quality. You can also take heart that the animals have had no contact with chemicals or antibiotics, and the resulting meat will be toxin-free.
You have a very successful farm shop. Is this where most of your produce is sold? Where else might we buy it, and where might we have tasted it?
Rhug started retailing in 2002, from two vans parked by the entrance to the farm. Now we have a newly built award-winning farm shop and bistro stocking 2,000 lines, together with a butchery and cheese counter. We deliver through online orders and phone sales, and there is also a butchery stall in Borough Market with a full range of meat. We sell wholesale to restaurants and delis in London, and export to Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai.
That’s an impressive reach – what next?
Rhug’s plans for the future include more alternative energy, improved packaging and doing what it is doing now, but even better!
Lord Newborough’s tasting notes...
- Saltmarsh lamb - At the height of the season, this has a distinctive and very special succulent, sweet quality. It is much sought after by connoisseurs.
- Milk lamb - Just a tinge of lamby flavour; delicate.
- Aberdeen Angus - beef Aberdeen Angus properly dry-aged on the bone for a minimum of 28 days can be described as being succulent and tender, with great depth of flavour.
- Bison - An extremely healthy meat to eat: lower in fat, higher in essential vitamins and omega-3 than chicken or fish. It has a beefy/gamey flavour and cooks quickly. I believe this is a meat for the future.
- Norfolk Bronze turkeys - The Rolls-Royce of turkeys, with flavour, texture, browner leg meat and self-basting properties.