We talk to Sean Mason, one of the Two Farmers who, over a pint, came up with an idea that would revolutionise food packaging and see them become our Rural Enterprise winner at this year’s Countryside Alliance Awards.
Based near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, Sean Mason, who has a mixed farm and is a potato merchant and Mark Green, a potato farmer, had been friends since their late teens. “Since we were allowed a pint,” Sean says. In 2015, as they were sitting in a pub complaining about how low the potato prices were, they came up with a solution. To make crisps. “The packaging idea was secondary,” Sean says. “We just wanted to make crisps. But when we started to talk about it seriously, it became one of the most important factors. Mark has always farmed sustainably, so we were keen to make the crisps sustainable, too.”
Unsurprisingly, the biodegradable packet took three years of trial and error to work out: “We looked at boxes and tins before we got to a fully compostable crisp packet. The problem with boxes is that you still needed some sort of barrier to keep them fresh, and tins were too expensive,” says Sean. The packaging that they finally produced with a company called Parkside Flexibles breaks down in fewer than 26 weeks when exposed to the elements – or compost.
We’ll look at the packaging in more detail later, but let’s taste the contents first. Herefordshire is, of course, famous for its potatoes. Mark and Sean’s crisps use Lady Claire, Lady Rosetta and Taurus varieties, and the potatoes are grown by the Two Farmers themselves. The flavourings are all local too: “By far the hardest thing to find locally was salt, which we thought we’d have to buy from further away.” However, by luck, Mark and Sean found that a local startup was producing salt in Droitwich. Churchfield’s Saltworks were using natural brine springs to dry salt, using renewable energy – making it the perfect fit.
It being Herefordshire, the vinegar had to be cider, which the Two Farmers make themselves, while the cheese and onion is, in fact, Hereford Hop Cheese and Onion – Hereford hop being a local cheese made by Charles Martell & Son, while the onions are grown by Mark and Sean. Hereford Bullshot is gently spiced and given the flavour of local Hereford beef. The whole production is powered by the energy produced by an anaerobic digester that is fed on farm waste – including, of course, potato peelings – making it by far the most, if not only, ecological way to eat crisps.
With this ingenious idea, it’s hardly surprising that Mark and Sean have had a private visit from HRH Prince Charles and featured on BBC’s Countryfile. They are also racking up the prizes: a BBC Good Food Bursary, as well as being a Farming Awards Winner, a West Midlands Rural Business Awards Finalist and, of course, The Countryside Alliance’s own Rural Enterprise winner, which Sean says was a huge surprise: “We were amazed at being shortlisted, and completely over the moon when we heard we were in the final. When we got to the House of Lords, we looked around and were pretty daunted by all the amazing people there, so when they read our name out as the winner, we really couldn’t believe it. We were absolutely overjoyed.” There’s no doubt that their prize was well deserved, and Sean still sounds quite surprised by the attention the business is getting: “We are on Sky News at the moment and have been interviewed for ITV, too. It’s very strange that we are suddenly in the spotlight.”
Sean is hopeful that the publicity they are getting will help persuade more outlets to choose their crisps, but also that it might encourage other businesses to look at biodegradable packaging: “We are working with Parkside to try to encourage other companies to use our formula – all except other crisp companies, of course!”
The packaging is one of the most unique things about the Two Farmers brand. The main ingredient for the bags is wood pulp – eucalyptus to be exact. The wood itself is sourced from forests accredited with PEFC of FSC standards. Eucalyptus is ideal because they regrow so fast. Using vegetable dyes to print the information, the metallised layer is aluminium, used in such small amounts (less than 0.003 microns) and applied as a vapour deposition, that it has no effect on the compostability of the packaging. Moreover, aluminium is one of the most abundant metals in the earth’s core but is also found naturally in the soil.
The carbon footprint of the packaging is much harder to assess – the techniques being used in the compostable packaging are in their infancy, and will most certainly develop and improve. Sean and Mark are working with Parkside Flexibles, the company that produces the packaging and, Sean says, “have made amazing inroads into the development of home and industrial laminates that will break down in approximately 26 weeks.”
If you know of someone worthy of a Countryside Alliance Award please nominate them here.