Opinion: The Quiet Resilience of Willowbrook Farm in the UK

Willowbrook Farm is a fifty-acre plot near Oxford on which the Radwan family grows vegetables and rears chickens, cows and sheep to produce ethical and sustainable Halal meat. Throughout the tumult of the pandemic, this farm’s small-scale model lent it incredible resilience; while much of the UK’s food system was disrupted, Willowbrook, the UK’s first Halal and Tayyib farm (meaning a farm where Muslims can be assured that their meat has been reared according to ethical principles & which has been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic scripture), sustained a steady supply of meat to its customers, thanks to its deep roots in an established local and faith-based network. As they closed the farm’s gates to its usual visitors at the start of the lockdown, the Radwans had time for deep reflection, and a chance to finish ongoing projects, without having to worry about massive income loss.
COVID-19 has raised significant questions about meat production, and Lutfi and Ruby Radwan have added their voices to the chorus of environmental campaigners, scientists and animal welfare advocates arguing that the pandemic is a direct result of industrial-scale meat production.

“Healthy animals can withstand environmental and health stressors; when their bodies and immune systems are functioning well, they are able to fight off a host of viruses and diseases,” Lufti said. It is only when the animal’s health is compromised, as happens in intensive meat production, that these illnesses are able to develop into a more dangerous form.

“The whole issue is actually an environmental issue,”’ he said. “You can’t separate the morals and the ethics, and you can’t keep seeking profit by stripping farming of any connection to sustainability and the land.” Willowbrook is a manifestation of the Radwans’ desire for a spiritual connection with the earth, and for them, true adherence to Halal practices necessitates placing a spiritual connection with nature and a responsibility towards the land at the heart of their business.

“The concept of stewardship is central,” Lufti said, emphasising that this idea lies at the heart of Islam.

“The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘If you find yourself on the last day with a seed in your hand, you should sow it. You do the right thing, regardless of the context that you’re in. The whole point of mankind, in essence, is to understand that we have this gift of free will, we can make a choice.”

For the Radwans, this means treating their livestock and their land respectfully. They practice regenerative agriculture and actively foster biodiversity, treating their animals with dignity, grazing them on pasture, with plenty of space.

Ruby and Lutfi bought their land in 2002, motivated by a growing unease at the disparity between their personal values and the limitations of the mainstream food system. Ruby was working as a psychologist, reflexologist and teacher, Lufti as an academic at the University of Oxford.  “We’re not farmers. We came with very little knowledge of this,” Ruby said. “You have to take one step at a time. Put your principles into practice to do something small, and it will grow.”

When COVID-19 emerged at the start of 2020, the Radwans’ small-scale model, embedded in the local community, held its own. This is largely because they have a small but solid base of loyal customers, who share their values.

“We sell our eggs, chicken, lamb and beef locally,” Lufti saids. “When we started seventeen years ago there wasn’t a farmers market in Oxford. Ruby, along with some friends, set up the Wolvercote Farmers market. We sat on the initial securing committee for the East Oxford Farmers market. Both those markets became a hub for the producers [and] other people in Oxford who were keen to be supporting producers.”

Willowbrook also sells to many in the Muslim community; as one of the UK’s only sustainable Halal farms, much of their faith-based network, introduced to sustainability issues through the Radwans, now buy their meat exclusively from them.

“We’ve been a pioneer in raising that awareness, and attracting lots of people to come and visit the farm—people who are our customers from further afield. There’s been a combination of those who had an awareness of the issues and came looking for us, and those who heard and then became hopefully convinced of the issues that we’re raising,” Lufti said.

When the lock-down was declared, the Radwans had some degree of security, as their product’s uniqueness ensured demand did not decrease. “We were still producing, of course, and we still managed to dispatch our orders, which we do on a weekly basis. We didn’t really see a massive economic impact. We carried on as normal. We managed to get on with a lot of things that otherwise we might not have. We were working away, getting projects finished and not having so many customers,” said Lutfi.

To locals, Willowbrook became an antidote to the stress and uncertainty of shopping at supermarkets, many of which had run out of basic foods at the time. “We had a lot of walkers coming out of Kidlington, coming across our farm, and popping in for eggs, which the supermarkets didn’t seem to have,” said Lutfi. “In a curious way it raised the awareness of local populations that we’re here and we’re a farm where the produce actually comes from us, rather than being shipped in.”

Lutfi and Ruby are humble, seeing their experience of the pandemic as luck rather than as a reward. However, their small size, a stark contrast to many of the industrial farms in their area, is a particular source of pride, and undoubtedly contributed to their sense of security during the most uncertain periods of the lockdown.

“Up and down the country, [other farmers] are farming their land, but they’re in debt to pharmaceutical companies, agricultural machinery manufacturing companies—essentially the banks… It’s a form of tyranny,” said Lutfi. “One thing we’re very proud of is that we’re small. We don’t make a lot of money, we don’t spend a lot of money, but we don’t owe anyone any money.”

As stewarding the land for the next generation is a central to their motivation, the Radwans are also proud of the role that their children play in the running of the farm. Each of their five children “have found their own niches,”enabling Willowbrook’s diversification into ventures as diverse as a campsite, an annual festival, a shop, a café, workshops, and tours, all of which allow the family to share their experiences with the public.

“The best way is for people to see and ask, rather than hear a lecture,” Ruby said, “when people come to visit, they see something and they will want to know about it. They will learn that the idea of growing a cucumber starts in November, and then the seed is planted in February or March—so this cucumber took almost a year to grow from the thought to the actual fruit, and that’s just a cucumber.”

Lutfi and Ruby want to enable others from underrepresented backgrounds to enter into sustainable farming, something that they work to facilitate through their farm tours.

“We had a group of ethnic minority individuals from London that came to visit us recently, who were interested in farming. They felt very much that it was not meant to be their experience. They’re not encouraged to go into farming, they don’t have the background, they haven’t grown up as [children] of farmers, so it’s very difficult for people from those backgrounds to actually do farming. There is a desire for it, so it’s just about feeding it and nurturing it, and finding ways of making farming not so exclusionary,”

The Radwans are hopeful that the events of this year might cause a permanent shift in the way people think about the food they eat. “There have been good things and bad things that have come out of lockdown,” Ruby said. “One of the good things is that it has given people time and permission to think and reflect.”

Lutfi agreed, saying,

“There is hope, because the economics of conventional industrial farming is breaking down. It’s opening up other possibilities. There is hope for a resurgence of the local economy.”

Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/