Consumers increasingly care about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how it impacts their health. This is generating demand for sustainable food and has enabled the recent resurgence of small-scale farming that produces environmentally sound and ethical produce.
I’m part of that resurgence of small-scale farming. I moved to Smiling Tree Farm in 2006. My vision was simply to produce good food naturally. I had realised that buying something labelled ‘organic’ didn’t necessarily mean it had been produced, packed, shipped and delivered to the supermarket shelf in the most sustainable way. I gradually realised that what I wanted to do was go ‘beyond organic’, using regenerative farming practices to nurture nature’s soil below ground, and grow lush, diverse pastures above. These pastures feed the 100% grass-fed animals on the farm who produce delicious, nutrient-rich raw milk and meat which is sold directly to our compassionate, well-informed consumers.
Selling directly to the public means the full value of the produce is returned to the farm. This allows for investment in many areas. On-farm butchery and creamery facilities allow for high quality processing and other improvements in infrastructure and handling facilities ensure the highest welfare for farm animals. Large areas of the farm are reserved for nature, significantly benefitting wildlife, visitors and the health of the farm animals.
Smiling Tree Farm comprises 70 acres of pasture, trees, shelterbelts, deep and tall diverse hedgerows, riparian zones, over an acre of forest garden and barn owl hunting grounds. The farm has a small suckler herd of pedigree Traditional Hereford cattle producing slow-matured beef; a micro-dairy of Jersey cows producing raw milk, cream, butter and rose beef; and a flock of pedigree Shetland Sheep producing lamb and hogget.
All the produce is organically raised, antibiotic-free and certified Pasture for Life by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. This means the animals are fed on a wholly pastoral diet of grasses, forbs, herbs, wildflowers and browsing hedgerows, a diet free from grains, soya or manufactured feeds. This natural diet is not only healthier for the animals and the planet, but gives the produce an exceptional depth of flavour and a significantly better nutritional profile: higher in heart-healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.
Customers collect their produce direct from the farm shop in an almost closed loop system. Shortening food chains through selling direct to local customers has the potential to deliver multiple environmental, social, economic and public health benefits.
There are, however, significant barriers to entry for small-scale farms. Taking the leap of faith to go beyond industrialised conventional farming practices to raise exemplary produce is only half the battle. Bringing that produce to market requires significant additional work, tenacity and organisational skills: disentangling the convoluted regulations for food processing, environmental health, packaging, labelling and small business trading as well as marketing and customer relations skills. There are many requirements that incur significant costs – and these are the same whether you are a large or small operation.
It is necessary, therefore, to ensure that future regulatory systems don’t place unfair restrictions on small-scale, on-farm processing operations. I recently attended an event organised by the Sustainable Food Trust featuring Joel Salatin, the renowned sustainable livestock farmer from Virginia, in the US. I joined a panel discussion that addressed several of the challenges and constraints for small-scale businesses, including ways of reducing the cost and burden of regulatory compliance for small food producers and processors, to which Nina Purcell, from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed welcome understanding and openness.
There were many high points of this event but one of the most inspiring aspects was the positive engagement from a room packed full of farmers and food producers who, like me, had probably never heard Joel Salatin speak nor read his books, but who instinctively understood his message and were energised to take the ideas forward.