Son Richard had been at agricultural college in the south, inspired by people opening ‘pick your own’ ventures. Sizergh’s strawberries were to be the first step in an incredible journey for the trailblazing Parks.
Staffed by the family and operated from a shed in the field, punters were asking for ready picked fruit and a cup a tea. An imposing 17th century barn beckoned, where a café and shop would emerge. No ordinary tea room, but a masterpiece of ingenuity where internal glass screens allowed visitors to watch cows being milked in the parlour below.
Alison explains:“Mum was driven by the necessity to keep products local and showcase our great food. We wanted to make sure everything spoke of the place and demonstrated how our produce is embedded in the area.
“People were wanting to eat local food, but it was getting ever harder to get. There was no great overview at the time; we were farmers, getting on with the job.”
The tearoom was and is a massive hit, particularly among children, who dubbed it ‘cow café’. Some had never seen milking take place. Staff were flabbergasted to hear one child say it looked like a petrol station, with cows instead of cars being filled up.
“We want to say, this is where your food comes from, to give it a meaning. For many kids milk is about a plastic container in the fridge.”
Richard runs the farm with his wife Judith, home to a 170-strong herd of cross-bred Holsteins, Swedish Red and Montbeliard cows. The Park theory is simple – happy animals create healthy yields.Most of the cows have been bred and reared on the farm.
There are also 700 free-range hens and a flock of 200 Swaledale and Mule sheep.
Producing 1.4million litres of milk a year, the bulk goes to a Kendal co-operative and ends up as household name yoghurts and puddings, sold across Britain.
“Dad used to deliver milk from his grandfather’s farm at Bannerigg in Windermere. His grandson suggested the other day he should go back to local deliveries. Ironic for the man recently made a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society in recognition of his considerable contribution and service.
“He started out as a farm lad and says his working life has come full circle, describing himself as a grown-up ‘gopher’ errand boy. Forbears were the Wilsons, farmers in Grasmere and Ambleside.
“His great-great-grandmother took in washing from hotels and guest houses to help make ends meet. Another built a shed at Loughrigg Tarn to serve teas to passing walkers. And here we are, continuing the tradition of branching out, and offering refreshments.”
Alison said for her, diversification was about putting value on food, farmers and the landscape.
“It’s about trying to get the message across that this doesn’t happen by accident. We have to encourage people to delve deeper. What we put into our bodies makes us. We are what we eat and in Cumbria we are producing the best there is.
“I love sourcing, creating and telling the story and this is demonstrated in our cows from field to milk bottle. It is very apparent here and I’m delighted by that.”
One of the many awards and accolades was from Home Grown: Food Champions of England’s Northwest. Its writer Deirdre Morely said:
“Everything at Low Sizergh Barn, from the entrancing wildflower meadow in the car park, to the farm shop full of sumptuous local produce, exemplifies the Park family’s philosophy that a properly run farm can enrich the lives of the whole community.”
Other tributes include honours in best UK farm shop awards, citations for excellence, taste and achievement.
More than 50 local people are now employed here and over 40 businesses and service providers support the day to day running of the enterprise. The farm shop is a market place for 80-plus local suppliers from market leaders to small growers selling surplus stock.
“We are custodians of the land and are duty-bound to look after it. It’s cyclical, season to season. It has be good farming because that’s the way we do it. That might be obvious to Cumbrians, but we’ve become an urban nation. People have lost that connection to the land – and their rural heritage.”
“As they get ever further removed, you can’t expect them to get it when they don’t know, but we have a moral responsibility to try to bridge the gap. It’s fantastic when young people want to know and want to come here to experience something special.”
Alison’s passion for home-produced vegetables led to one of Low Sizergh’s great triumphs, Growing Well, a community-owned business producing up to a tonne of 60 different varieties at the height of the season.
“It helps people recovering from mental health problems to engage with horticulture and gain skills and confidence. Apart from supplying us, they have developed a crop share scheme for between 80 and 100 people,” she said.
“They also do yurt-based learning, offering training courses to the wider community and horticultural qualifications.”
From art by local artists on the teashop walls to reedbed sewage treatment and biomass heating, everything has been fitted and planned with saving energy as top priority. This is green tourism as its best.
There are no long-term future goals, simply an assurance that the family will carry on doing its utmost to promote the county, its food, land, livestock and people, protecting the environment along the way and encouraging visitors to look and learn.
Article by Karen Barden