A golden opportunity
THEY weren't exactly refugees and they hadn't moved all that far. But there was much audible sighing from pure relief when the newest additions to the Somerset farming community arrived a few months back.
Edward and Fiona Hume may have acquired only 40 acres of lush South Somerset countryside – though it's enough for what they want to do.
But the real point is that they have found themselves immediately and warmly welcomed. And to experience that is a tonic in itself. It was hardly the experience they had trying to run their poultry operation on the other side of the country.
Five years ago, the Humes threw up successful City careers and decided to go into poultry production on a smallholding not far from Maidstone. "We decided that we had had enough of the rat race and there had to be a better way of doing things," said Fiona.
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"I have a background in marketing, so I looked for gaps in the market and where there was room to grow. At that time, in 2003, the only potential growth areas I could identify were for geese and venison. We didn't have enough room to do venison, so geese it was.
"We joined British Goose Producers and found some goose farmers in Essex to mentor us, and we have had a lot of support from them along the way."
But where the Humes didn't find as much support forthcoming was from the local community. As farmers – albeit on a small scale – they felt themselves almost ostracised. "Kent has now become so urbanised that agriculture has almost become a dirty word," Fiona says.
"We were watching change take place all around us. Fields were being sold off left, right and centre for amenity purposes, which is why we found it so hard to expand. We never felt as though we were part of the community. We almost felt resented. It became more and more difficult, so in the end we asked ourselves why we were carrying on fighting an uphill struggle. It is hard enough in agriculture as it is, without all that extra pressure, after all.
"We could not acquire any more land around there so it seemed logical to come to Somerset where we both have family connections. The difference is amazing. So far it has been an excellent experience. It is so nice to come to an area where the people are not only so friendly but where they recognise agriculture for what it is.
"Farmers are accepted for what they do and they are valued for the contribution they make to feeding the nation. It's a completely different culture."
The Humes' Powdered Goose Company now has a new and relatively spacious base in Barton St David, near Somerton, where turkeys and chickens will soon join the free-range geese. They've already signed up Somerset's "Goosefather" – specialist producer Phil Dunning, of Goose Slade Farm, in East Coker – to hatch their eggs, and this autumn, direct selling will start in earnest.
And they are confident of success.
"We've both been able to bring business skills to the industry, and I had always raised pure-bred poultry," Fiona says. "Of course, when you go into it properly there is a lot more involved than merely raising the birds: we have had to set up our own facilities and learn how to slaughter and process them.
"It is a niche market but one where I believe there is room for us to grow a larger business."
And Powdered Goose? The company name comes from a once-great English delicacy: salt-cured and smoked goose – the "powder" referred to the salt – which was hugely popular as a feature of grand meals in the 17th century but which has since all but disappeared from view. The Humes, however, are intent on putting it back on its perch. Powdered goose is one of the several examples of English delicacies that have passed into obscurity over the years.
Many, particularly those involving offal, have fallen out of favour simply because increasing wealth has allowed consumers to choose more expensive cuts of meat and poultry.
As the market has shrunk so their producers have lost economies of scale and production has become prohibitively expensive. The national diet has also been standardised by the demands of wartime and industrial food production on an unthinkably large scale.
The result is that we have lost many of the truly location-specific regional foods which you can still encounter at almost very bend in the road as you drive through Europe.
The Humes, however, have landed not only in a community which values its farmers, but in the powerhouse of the British food revolution: the South West is now home to hundreds of specialist producers, the greatest concentration per square mile anywhere in Europe, if not in the world.
They are up against some tough competition: the upper echelons of those producers are providing consumers with world-class food and drink.
But given our national passion for new, exotic and unusual foods, given the local food revolution sparked by farmers markets and farm shops – still opening weekly – the powdered goose, one feels, should soon be flying out of the door.