Suffolk on a Plate
Hodmedod bean and pulse growers on the future of farming
IN Norfolk, a hodmedod is a hedgehog. In Suffolk, it’s a snail. But thanks to Joshua Meldrun and his business partners, the name is now associated with peas and beans, which, it could be argued, are also round and curly.
They founded Hodmedod in 2012 after working on the Norwich Food Resilience Project, which looked at whether the city could produce enough food, unaided, from its hinterlands to feed its population of 160,000 people (plus commuters). The answer was yes, but only if people were prepared to change their diets and farmers their crops.
That meant growing and eating more pulses, especially dried peas and beans, which are packed full of protein, fibre and carbohydrate. They are produced in multitudes in East Anglia, but much of the crop is either turned into animal feed or exported, mostly to north Africa and the Middle East.
“We were intrigued by this, and we began to look at the social history and cultural history of these beans. We realised that they were domesticated back in the dawn of agriculture 10-15,000 years ago, and had been in the UK since the Iron Age. They were a staple part of our diet,” says Joshua.
But social, economic and industrial changes meant that as people could afford more meat, and could store it without spoilage, dried pulses began to be stigmatised as poor people’s food.
“We just stopped eating them. They went from being in the recipe books and in the written records until, in the 18th century, they almost completely disappeared,” Joshua says.
To the amazement of local farmers, who saw it as ‘foreigners’ food’, the three men bought a carload of dried fava beans and asked people to try them. The response was overwhelmingly favourable. Hodmedod was launched. Since then the company has grown enough not only to commission farmers in Suffolk and elsewhere to grow crops specially for them, but has become so well-known and successful that the trio are finalists in the Best Producer category in this year’s BBC Food and Farming Awards. (Winners to be announced September 20).
They have teamed up with Professor Martin Wolfe, of Wakelyn’s Agroforestry Research Station near Fressingfield, to carry out field trials. Professor Wolfe is a pioneer of agroforestry, where arable crops are grown in alleys between rows of cash crop trees.
“When he set up Wakelyn’s in the mid-90s it was seen as quite an eccentric project,” Joshua says. “That’s changed and he gets enquiries from both organic and non-organic farmers who are looking at modifying the system to work on their farms.” Professor Wolfe’s methods, says Joshua, not only cushion farmers against the vagaries of the climate and the economy by spreading the risk with multiple crops, but the tree lines act as
‘Lentils, we think, were grown in the UK until the late Victorian era, but we’ve forgotten the weeding processes, forgotten what they look like, even’
windbreaks, help stop the spread of diseases and are home to beneficial insects.
“If you put your eggs in one basket and grow a single crop and there’s a problem with that crop, you’ve got nothing. If there’s a very diverse system you’ve got redundancy,” Joshua points out. Professor Wolfe has been trialling new crops for Hodmedod. They have expanded into cereals such as quinoa, but it is the lentils that Joshua is excited about.
“Lentils, we think, were grown in the UK until the late Victorian era, but we’ve forgotten the weeding processes, forgotten what they look like, even. Most farmers when they see the trials have no idea what they’re looking at.
“And we’ve forgotten some of the tricks that some of the farmers on the continent still use, inter-cropping being one of them, planting the lentils with another crop and getting two harvests from the same space.”
Hodmedod is inter-planting them with camelina, an oil seed plant. They can be harvested together and the difference in seed size makes them easy to sort. It’s a win-win. Joshua and his partners are on a mission.
“We are a business. But we do have a social mission which is to give people the opportunity to eat more diverse diets, to encourage farmers to grow a wider range of crops, and to create a route to market for those crops, to connect the farmer to the consumer.
“We’ve seen a big change in people’s attitudes. When we first started we spoke to a big vegetarian restaurant in London and they said ‘Oh, we don’t really do beans and pulses, they’re a bit ‘70s’. That’s completely changed. I think people understand a lot more about alternative protein crops, they’re interested in reducing the meat they eat, for health, welfare and environmental reasons. It’s become much more mainstream.” www.hodmedods.co.uk