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The Free Company: Edinburgh’s “farm-to-table” restaurant takes pride in its sustainable food system

The Free Company reopened its doors to the public in 2016, after rejuvenating the former dairy farm’s concept. Breakthrough Press caught up with Charlie Buchanan-Smith of the rebounding farm company, to find out more about the newly-sustainable farm and restaurant’s inner workings

Agriculture, particularly farming, is an increasingly difficult field to work in, no pun intended. Amidst labour shortages, climate changes, and general economic hardship – those in the farming sector have been indeed faced with hard times. Charlie Buchanan-Smith’s family farm was no exception.

“My brother, Angus and I – we were supposed to be fifth generation dairy farmers here. But in 2002, that went down the tube. We still owned the farm, so we always had the hope of getting it back up and running”, Charlie said.

“In 2016, we found out the farm had to be put on the market, because of outstanding debt and a number of other issues with the land. But we couldn’t let it go.”, he asserted.

Charli and his co-owner brother, Angus came together after a few years of working away from the farm. In a last-ditch effort to save it, they plotted a new concept for the farm.

“The farm before, was conventionally managed. Whilst it was always ethical, the conventional farming system isn’t always environmentally friendly.”

“We wanted our contribution to the ecosystem to be much more sustainable.”, Charlie said, adding that the two brothers had to come up with a new business model for the farm to work.

This new model involved sustainable farming practices; a ‘pig and veg box scheme’, and the new centrepiece - the Free Company restaurant.

Angus and Charlie pitched this new model to the bank that had urged them to sell the land – and they offered the brothers a 10-year lease.

“We took this lease on – at the risk of the bank – to secure the future of the farm. So far, it’s paid off.”, Charlie explained.

“Immediately we began farming organically. We started with a very small plot, only a quarter of an acre growing veg, and about 30 pigs.”

“However, we saw such a quick growth in demand for our produce, that by 2019 we had massively outgrown the plot,” Charlie jubilantly recounted.

The Free Company Restaurant

The Free Company’s restaurant has consistently received rave reviews since its 2017 inception. In part, this is due to its unique ‘pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth’ model.

“We initially did this because we had no reputation. We were starting something up in a rural area – and we didn't want to scare anyone with a certain cost,” Charlie said.

This pricing mechanism allowed diners to come in and try something new, without being scared off by the price of the dishes.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this ‘pay-what-you-think’ model, is that it makes guests question just how much the production of food is. For Charlie, dinner service begins with a discussion on what everyone is going to eat and why – evoking scenes of the satirical thriller ‘The Menu’.

While not as threatening as Ralph Fiennes’ Eddie Slovik, Charlie says he begins with an introduction to diners about the farm and the agricultural techniques used.

“People spend some of their evening talking about the food system and the true value of food – taking into account the physical labour and the planning. Then they, themselves, can make their mind up about the value of their meal and their evening.”

The growth of the restaurant meant that the brothers had to take out another lease to increase their produce. The Free Company expanded further and is now a fully-mixed regenerative farm. Cows, pigs and sheep frolic alongside the crops that support the Free Company’s kitchen.

Regenerative Farming

The Free Company utilise regenerative farming Credit: Wix

Regenerative farming is more than just an agricultural technique, with the term broadly encompassing both practices and goals.

“We are initially trying to regenerate the soil to bring life back into it. We’re increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil.”

“It’s a way of increasing the fertility and biodiversity in the whole landscape that you're growing within.” Charlie described.

“These are the sort of biological and environmental aspects to it, but there are also social aspects to regenerative agriculture. This can include creating local jobs by bringing more people to work on the land and providing nourishing food to the local economy,” he added.

Pig and Veg Club Scheme

Whilst the Buchanan-Smith brothers are kept busy running their own restaurant – the farm also works to supply produce to other restaurants, including Michelin-starred Timberyard. The restaurants are supplied with produce via the Free Company’s Pig and Veg Club Scheme. This scheme is also available direct to consumers.

“Any avenue that farms have to sell directly to their customers are absolutely vital in supporting small scale farms.”

“With the Pig and Veg Club scheme, you cut out the middle man, so the farm can reach the profit margin that they actually need - the margin that it actually costs to produce food,” Charlie said.

“Veg box schemes require customers to be relatively flexible with what they are going to eat, because the farm may have one crop that hasn’t fared particularly well and another that has really excelled.

“But what is great about this type of scheme is that the farmer can still guarantee their income. It enables the farm to continue growing, and to continue producing despite maybe having a tough couple of weeks,” he explained.

Charlie also notes that the scheme allows for the farm to be more innovative, due to the freedom that comes with a guaranteed income.

“Farmers so often have their backs against the wall financially, so they can't think in any other way. If there is a new sustainable technique that you need to try out before you know it is going to work in your farming system, you would be more likely and willing to give it a try with the guaranteed income. Schemes like these allow the farming community to move in a more sustainable direction,” Charlie said.

Sustaining the Future

Whilst the Free Company concept was founded through the necessity of providing financial stability for the Buchanan-Smith family farm – brothers Charlie and Angus noted that it was more important to farm in a sustainable way.

“It’s our duty to evolve and to create a progressive agricultural farming system on a wider scale. The current food system in the UK is so damaged.”

These two necessities run alongside one another – indeed, colliding to further propel the success of the Free Company farm.

“We're really proud to be part of a more sustainable food system. We need to keep on pushing that sustainability forward.”


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