Hard-working farmer praised for outstanding contribution
TIRELESS efforts to promote local produce and create a regular outlet for other growers secured the big prize at this year's Taste of Dorset Awards for Kings Stag farmer Nik Ralph.
Nik beat stiff competition from international cheese judge, Shaftesbury deli and bistro owner Charlie Turnbull and global food campaigner Jyoti Fernandes of Fivepenny Farm in Wootton Fitzpaine to win the Harmsworth Award for outstanding contribution to food in Dorset.
"It was a surprise to win the award. I don't go looking for this kind of thing but I'm always happy about anything that helps to promote Dorset food," he said.
Nik was born just one mile from where he now works the land. The family farming enterprise, which started out as dairy and arable, has seen many changes over the years. Based at Little Rodmore Farm on Peaceful Lane, Nik switched to free-range poultry in 1995 and the 60-acre holding is now on a high level stewardship scheme, with wildlife projects including pond restoration and the creation of beetle banks.
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Nik took Peaceful Poultry on the road about ten years ago, setting up The Chicken Hut to serve hot chicken dishes at many local events.
A respected and very active member of the local farming community, Nik has been chairman of Dorset Farmers' Markets for the last three years. The unpaid role sees him working long hours; co-ordinating around 70 producer/grower members and organising nine regular markets every month as well as more than a dozen one-off events, including farm shows and festivals, each year.
"The markets are hard work but they play an important role promoting local food. They are also very social occasions and it feels like a big family gathering," Nik said.
One of Nik's strengths is his awareness of the need to market the local food industry. He's always trying to think up new ways to promote the farmers' markets and is the man behind their mobile kitchen.
After coming up with the idea of live cookery demonstrations to show shoppers what can be rustled-up with market produce, Nik set about raising funds for a mobile kitchen. Securing funding was a long slog but Nik's determination paid off and the demonstration kitchen took to the road last year. Apart from being a fully functioning kitchen, the trailer also features a 25-inch television screen so spectators can see all the action at the stove.
Apart from being used at the markets by celebrity chefs and enthusiastic stallholders, the mobile kitchen has taken the Dorset Farmers' Market Roadshow to local schools. Nik has even taken cows along, milked them and made cream and butter with children. The hands-on demonstrations are proving a big hit, reconnecting youngsters with the link between farming and food. By all accounts, parents and teachers have also learnt a few lessons during the visits, so the kitchen is helping to educate people of all ages.
"The children think it's absolutely brilliant, and it's a real eye-opener for a lot of them," Nik added.
"We like to think that everybody learns something. When we visit a school, we also try to involve the parents, the teachers and the governors, so there is potential to catch three generations at once."