Take a trip to a York Pizza Farm

What kind of image does a pizza farm conjure up in your mind? Our food and drink consultant Annie Stirk visits one near York

Mike and Caroline Newland have farmed at Youlton Lodge in Tollerton, near York for 30 years. As traditional Vale of York farmers they grow cereals, oil seed rape and energy crops. They are increasingly committed to sustainable farming methods and have adopted a novel educational programme for younger children – The Pizza Farm.

They are helping parties of primary school pupils discover more about the way their favourite food is produced. In the light of some shocking research claiming that one in 10 primary school-aged children believe chickens lay potatoes, this sounds like a great idea.

Caroline has just harvested a vast quantity of fragrant basil which she intends to turn into homemade pesto later on. We’re joined by Mike for a tour of the farm, beginning in the Pizza Wheel Garden. Here visitors can see all the ingredients for pizza growing right before their eyes. Laid out in a circle are wheat to make flour for the dough base, oil seed rape from which super-healthy oil is cold-pressed, juicy tomatoes and onions for the sauce, plus those essential herbs, basil and oregano.

All these ingredients we think of as essentially Italian can be grown right here in Yorkshire. ‘The only ingredient we can’t produce here are olives,’ says Mike. ‘We’ve also found that the best variety of tomatoes for an authentic Neapolitan sauce, San Marzano, needs more sunshine than we can offer in North Yorkshire, so we’ve built a glasshouse for them.’

Also featured in the wheel of produce are two woolly and boisterous Mangalitza pigs, representing the provenance of favourite pizza toppings, ham and pepperoni. Do the children get upset at the thought of these cute creatures being slaughtered for meat? ‘If anyone’s upset it’s usually their teachers or parents,’ says Mike. ‘Children seem to be much more accepting of the process, perhaps because they’re less aware of the ethics.’

Next stop is the Discovery Tunnel, a covered area where children learn more about farming and the rural environment. Here they are introduced to a wide variety of foods and discuss the issue of food miles, guessing how far products have travelled to reach them.

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‘We hide foods in bags and encourage the kids to engage all their senses to describe them to their friends who then have to guess what they are,’ says Caroline. ‘The idea is to make them aware that food doesn’t just come from the shops, but has to be grown and then transported.’ The children even grind wheat they have just picked to make their own flour.

Children, at various times of the year, join in planting in the spring, learning about bees and pollination in the summer and harvesting in the autumn; this helps to make them more aware of seasonality and the farming calendar. Mike and Caroline have help with the programme from local ex-teacher Sally Sanderson. Sally in turn has learned a lot about farming.

The actual making and eating of pizza happens in the kitchen. The pizza is cooked in the Newlands’ own wood-fired oven, fuelled by wood from the farm. Pizza may not be an obvious healthy eating choice, but as Mike says: ‘It’s something most children have eaten and enjoyed, but usually just a stodgy, often inferior supermarket version. Here we aim to show them that pizza can be delicious and healthy; it includes all the main food groups, they just need to use the right ingredients in the right proportions. Making pizza is a great way to engage the children’s interest, because it’s a product they know very well.’

The Newlands got the idea for their Pizza Farm from the USA, but as far as they’re aware there isn’t anything else like it in this country at the moment.

It operates on a non-profit-making basis, simply because Mike and Caroline’s passion is educating people about food provenance and sustainability, but their mobile pizza oven also allows them to generate some revenue by catering for outside events such as parties and festivals.

Caroline makes her own jams and preserves under the label Choosi Chilli (from home-grown chillies, naturally) and also has plans to run bread-making courses in the near future – and of course there is still a farm to run.