On the 24th and 25th November, 2016 we held an event at Fir Farm in Gloucestershire featuring Joel Salatin, pioneering livestock farmer from Virginia, USA. More than 120 farmers travelled to hear Joel speak and to listen to talks from a range of farming experts. Following the inspirational two day event, farmers have shared their thoughts, actions and exciting ideas for the future.
A word from Joel
I must say this is one of the most interesting and comprehensive feedback loops I’ve ever received from a seminar. Thank you for organising this and seeing it through so that all of us can benefit from the synergy of the meditation process.
Those Pasture For Life folks are spot on. What a treat to see the pithy take-aways they captured and thought valuable. I really like those guys and wish them every success. Perhaps they could organise a multi-city event, including Scotland and maybe Ireland, in the future to leverage this momentum. I’d love to be involved in such an effort.
Thank you for sharing this great synopsis. You are doing sacred and profound work, my friends.
Patrick Holden, Dairy Farmer and Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust
Food Standards Agency:
One of the most exciting outcomes of the meeting for me was the openness and enthusiasm displayed by Nina Purcell from the Food Standards Agency. I was particularly enthused by the proposition that a practitioners advisory group should be established with the aim of influencing FSA policy and practice in relation to striking the right balance between the protection of public health and the relative risks posed by smaller scale, decentralised food processing systems.
Action – The SFT are happy to act as a convener and conduit for establishing a formal and informal producer advisory group. If you would like to be involved, please let me know.
Although we’ve already adopted a rotational grazing system based loosely on Joel’s approach, I can see that we have not been implementing it as well as we possibly could. Specifically, we are using a field by field grazing system, plus strip grazing, and although we have made a lot of progress with electric fencing, infrastructure, water and tracks, the set-up is still not quite good enough to be able to restrict the grazing of each paddock to 24 hours max, either through back fencing or through other forms of sub-division.
Action – Looking ahead to the 2017 grazing season we will endeavour to limit the duration of grazing to 24 hours wherever possible.
Robert Craig’s advocacy for the benefits of accurately measuring grass growth on a regular basis with a plate meter has persuaded me that I ought to incorporate this procedure into our 2017 grassland management programme. Until now, I’ve relied on a combination of my eye and my instincts, with milk yields retrospectively indicating where I’ve got it right or wrong. But I can see that injecting a bit of science into the process would do no harm whatsoever.
Action – I will buy a plate meter (or at least ask Robert Craig where he got his from!), measure my grass growth on a regular basis and adjust my grazing regime accordingly.
What became ever clearer during our conversations on Thursday and Friday was the urgent need for the establishment of a comprehensive database of the soil carbon outcomes from different farming systems. I’m sure that an extensive pool of data from a range of different systems would provide an important means of informing policy makers, especially those who have an interest in rewarding farmers for being soil carbon stewards.
Action – I pledge to sample organic matter from all my fields on a regular basis from now on, and approach an institute or research circle with a view to collating and combining this data.
Plant and Animal Breeding Policy:
I was seriously impressed by Joel’s system of allowing natural selection of homebred cattle, pigs, poultry and rabbits to establish a farm adapted genotype for each of those species over time. I have become much more confident of the wisdom behind this approach since learning about the epigenetic adaptation of all organisms to the unique environment in which they find themselves. It’s one of those cases of intuition being proved right much later, in the sense that Rudolf Steiner was advocating such a policy back in the 1920s, despite not understanding the science behind it at that time.
In saying this, I wouldn’t want to be absolutist about not importing any external genetic material, but Joel confirmed he wouldn’t be against this either.
Action – I will try and wean myself off my historic umbilical dependence on frozen Ayrshire super bulls in favour of the farm-bred alternative. We’ve already put this principle into practice with a young homebred Ayrshire bull aged 12 months, destined for veal beef in the near future, but still already able to serve the smaller cows and bulling heifers.
John White, Overtown Farm, Wroughton, Swindon
I found the two-day conference most interesting, informative and above all inspiring. I am predominantly an arable farmer on the edge of The Marlborough Downs and I know I will have to change the way I farm due to lowering fertility and organic matter, disease and weeds that are getting more difficult to control and also poorer returns. I am very lucky that I have a large herd of pedigree Red Ruby Devons (which I am very proud of) who utilise the permanent pasture.
My plan is to introduce pasture to the arable rotation and use the cattle on a mob grazing system as outlined by Joel and Andrew Brewster. I found Nina Purcell’s presentation very positive and I have already made contact with the Food Standards Agency and local Environmental Health to find ways to market the beef we produce straight from the Farm. I will be signing up to your newsletter and very much looking forward to future events.
Simon Weaver, Kirkham Farm, Upper Slaughter, Stow on the Wold
- I am going to try to understand just what ‘holistic’ means to me as a farmer. I have some confidence that we are well on the road to sustainability in the various enterprises we operate and we want to find ourselves in a place where changes to support mechanisms have less impact. It is wrong, I believe, that farmers and landowners are only seen to react to subsidies, sometimes doing the right thing by our farms outweighs everything.
- We operate a set stocking system of grazing for our dairy herd and I think we too should consider measuring grass availability and perhaps explore a version of mob grazing.
- We need to do more to promote cooperation between farmers who are or want to be marketing their own processed product. Too often we see each other as competition, when actually all we do is to expand the market for farm produced/local/regional product. How can this be achieved?
- We must make sure the Food Standards Agency realise that they can always ask Environmental Health Officer’s to provide them with a list of approved premises if they want to introduce a ‘permit system’. I could do without another form!
- We must continue to promote our values to consumers; it is not always about money.
- I am going to explore recording organic matter, I wasn’t aware we could (shamefaced!). Personally very happy to be paid to be a carbon steward but see 1. above!!
Adrian Dolby, Head of Agriculture, Buccleuch Estates
I managed to speak to Joel on the Friday and asked how he would approach the reintroduction of cattle within an arable rotation. His reply was to try on a small scale to develop one’s understanding and to consider a much longer rotation, so as an action that is what we will do from next year, perhaps with a few cattle within a couple of fields.
We have also been trialing a plate meter on our Borders estate with considerable success whereby we are now realising the stock carrying capacity of the farm is significantly greater than previously realised. We’ve also just commissioned a new AD plant that runs on poultry and cattle manure with digestate recycled as bedding and also as a source of fertiliser.
Cameron Hughes, Assistant Rural Surveyor, National Trust
In terms of my own contribution to your ‘movement’, as a mere assistant rural surveyor, I do wonder at the impact and influence I will be able to have in transforming farming practices. Unfortunately, I do not have a few thousand acres in the back garden where I can implement mob/holistic grazing! I will though, in my interactions with National Trust tenant farmers in the future do my best to push for sustainable farming practices and mention Joel and co as much as possible!
Nicholas Waloff, Executive Chair, Cotswold Taste Ltd
We found it an extremely valuable and inspiring event. From our side, some of the things we have done or intend to do are:
- Issue a briefing note on Joel Salatin’s speech and the marketing speeches to our members, as appropriate, with commentary on the latter
- Meet with Pasture for Life to review our assistance to them in regard to accessing markets for their members.
- Discuss the event with Guild of Food Writers’ members
Andrew Brewster, Brewster Cattle Co, Angus, Scotland
I am going to create awareness of the real food movement by direct marketing our pasture-fed beef. We also aim to educate our customers of the health and environmental benefits of real food.
Elizabeth Bown, New Holland Farm, Orkney
What will we change in our farming as a result?
- We will have another go at rotational grazing. It was good to speak to Andrew Brewster whose farm has perhaps more geographical similarities to ours, and pick up practical tips. We are on several grazing plans for environmental schemes so it will take a bit of working around but we will definitely try again.
- I will fit wheels to my hen house!
- We will look more broadly at our marketing, looking for more cooperative approaches.
- We will be even more evangelistic about sustainable farming methods and look forward to having Pasture for Life visiting a farmer’s meeting in Orkney soon.
- We will speak to our MSP and MP about sustainable food.
John Hatton, The Apps Estate, Chelmsford, Essex
I am the current custodian of The Apps Estate, 300 ha of Essex countryside, about 40 miles East of Piccadilly, presently under “conventional” agricultural management.
I believe that the land is dormant, due to current practice viewing soil as an inconvenience, an awkward, difficult medium that harbors pests and disease and needs to be lifted, chopped and turned to be coaxed into growing a viable crop. Today’s science focuses on the plants’ needs (largely above the surface) and targets its lush growth while exterminating the inevitable weeds, pests and diseases (my apologies, gripe is over).
What I need is a set of criteria that are measurable and provide an illustrated snap-shot of the current “state of health” that the land and soil are in. To enable measurement of their (ideally) improvement as agricultural practices incorporated alternative methods to the current status quo. Among them, soil organic matter, carbon, minerals, compaction, pH, drainage, earthworms, micro-fauna, economic return, tons of biomass. These are not all easily measured or comparable and require some educated debate. If there is a round table where this is discussed and determined I should very much like to be party.
Ian Boyd, Whittington Lodge Farm, Cheltenham
I need to improve my rotational grazing techniques, trying to move my cattle every day and measuring the grass can help me make more informed decisions. Building Soil Organic Matter levels is essential to help me achieve my aim of improving the farms’ Natural Capital and the farmland wildlife.
The action I am really going to work on is to demonstrate how pasture-fed cattle can be a financially and ecologically sustainable system for producers and policy makers and to create more demand by encouraging more consumers to ask for 100% grass-fed meat.
David Curtis, Land Steward, Duchy of Cornwall
Of particular interest to me was the possibility of the ancillary pig and chicken enterprises which could facilitate a greater number of young entrants getting onto the farming ladder by following Joel’s model. Getting onto the farming ladder with limited capital has always been a problem. Starting with small numbers of outdoor chickens or pigs could, for some, be a credible way forward given a willing host farmer.
I also found the debate involving Nina Purcell from the Food Standards Agency very encouraging. Any sensible relaxation of the rules surrounding small scale food production are to be applauded. For instance, the lack of small scale slaughter facilities has become an increasing problem in recent years. Such facilities are much needed both on a practical and economic basis to encourage the production of locally sourced high quality products.
Duncan and Sally Leany, Heale Farm, Taunton
- We hope the SFT can guide us as to the specific tests, which figures are relevant etc and then collate the results so that we create results as a unified group rather than more random individual figures. There is strength in numbers!!
- Already we have sheep and cattle and will be looking at bringing in chickens as a third tier of mixed grazing.
- To back-fence the field as regrowth is so important.
I do honestly feel that it is imperative for everyone’s sake that farming adopts these practices as no other solution has been offered to sequester carbon from the environment.
Tim Green, Farm and Wildlife Development Officer, Gwent Wildlife Trust
My intended actions – continue with PFLA membership producing livestock and think about how Joel’s systems can be used on nature reserve management.
Henri Greig, Pipers Farm, Devon
We were delighted to be part of this most inspirational gathering, and thank you for all of your planning to create such a positive and worthwhile event. We are particularly grateful that you are developing such an inclusive approach within the SFT. As we have operated outside of the organic movement, it has sometimes felt that we have been ploughing a lone furrow for much of the last 30 years!
Holistic management – We found Joel was indeed an inspirational leader to stir us to think outside the box! The clear focus on the commercial benefits of sustainable practices, and particularly taking a holistic management approach to grassland-based livestock systems was inspiring. Andrew Brewster’s presentation was further inspiration, demonstrating the approach working in UK conditions.
Action – Over 28 years we have built a ” jigsaw” of about 25 traditional family farming businesses in Devon and Somerset, who produce for Pipers Farm to our exacting standards. We will research & formulate a plan for incorporating holistic management into the Pipers Farm system and over the next 12 – 24 months we will look to integrate this with these 25 family farms.
Soil Carbon – This is clearly a very important measure of sustainable practice. Pipers Farm has always adopted and encouraged farming systems based on well managed, low input, long established grassland, for all our livestock including pigs & chickens.
Action – We will work with our agronomist, and shared experiences through SFT, to encourage measuring for soil carbon both here at home and with the Pipers Farm network of family farms.
FSA – For us it was heartening to hear Nina suggesting that there is a determination by the FSA to work with, and encourage, the artisan food sector, recognising the difference between the artisan and industrial food systems.
Action – We would be happy to be involved in working with Nina & the FSA to achieve these objectives.
The Pasture Fed Livestock Association
- We will write-up and promote Joel’s visit on our website and social media channels to share the lessons learnt, the good news and positivity of what we all heard.
- We will further develop our support for members to assist them and incentivise them to explore many of the techniques and methods that Joel and others spoke of, such as via the development of a ‘How it’s done’ manual.
- We will consider holding our 2017 study tour in Scotland, hosted by the Brewster family, to enable members to see in practise the mob grazing that Andrew and his brother are putting doing.
- We will develop plans for a marketing event that will support our members in their retailing of Pasture for Life produce, to help them tell the story to their customers and spread the good news.
- We will further our work on the development of supply chains so that there are more opportunities and routes to market for Pasture for Life produce.
- We will explore the possibilities of developing a Pasture for Life show class to provide a stage for pasture-fed genetics, something highlighted as a key ingredient for a successful system by Joel.
- We will work more closely with Zoe Harcombe to highlight the importance and value of healthy animal fats and protein from purely grass-fed animals.
- We will follow up the many conversations that took place and queries raised concerning small details around practicalities of supply chains, farming knowledge and useful links that build on the social fabric of the PFLA.
We have already circulated to our members the following of Joel’s one-liners:
- Avoid investing in machinery unless essential as equipment rusts, rots and depreciates – otherwise known as heavy metal disease
- A good model should be able to scale up and down
- If you only have a hammer all your problems will be nails
- Re direct selling – hug people and pick their pockets
- Run different enterprises through your infrastructure – stack up rather than grow out – cows, chickens, pigs, vegetables in sequence
- Herbivores are 4-wheel-drive fermentation plants – they self-harvest and are biomass accumulators and soil builders
- Select from animals that are old, healthy and functional
- If it’s healthy – everything else follows
- It’s important to be modular
- When other people reach their dreams we reach ours
- Historically, one third of most farms was pasture to feed the horses for draught power – which protected the soil.
- Moving a conception rate from 80-95% costs the same as moving it from 20-80%
- A skinny animal will put on more weight than a fat one
- Look at the verges and see what survives
- Protect your regrowth (with back fences) and you will increase your grass output by 1/3
- We are confusing food safety with food sterility
- Repopulate the countryside with loving stewards
Photograph: Andrew Parsons
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