Small-scale family farms are facing an uncertain future. Between 2005 and 2015, almost a third of these farms were lost, putting the future of the sector at risk. However, there is extensive evidence of the important role that small-scale farms have in our agricultural landscape – creating jobs, supporting rural communities, and reducing inputs and waste on mixed farms.

How can we create a food system that supports these farms? I met Peter and Henri Grieg from Pipers Farm to find out about how their model aims to do just that.

The Pipers Farm Story

“When I was a kid, all the neighbouring farms were small family farms,” explains Peter. After getting married and spending a few years farming 1800 acres on a high hill farm in Wensleydale, Peter and his wife Henri returned to the farm Peter grew up on in Kent, where his family were raising half a million chickens a year in an industrial setup. Realising this ever-more intensive style of farming wasn’t the path they wanted to take, they set about building something different.

“By 1987, all those family farms had gone,” Peter points out. “And we knew we wanted to build a business that helped to sustain the fabric of the smaller-scale farming businesses.” After looking at close to 100 farms in six months, they eventually bought a 52-acre farm in Devon and named it Pipers Farm.

“When Henri and I came here 30 years ago, there was nothing here except a muck spreader in the yard, and three tin sheds,” he points out, laughing. And from the humblest of beginnings, they built a business, doing all the farming, butchery and marketing themselves. On their land, they can run around 45 cattle and 100 sheep, but it was never their intention to grow the farm itself – instead they set their sights on building a business that supported the small-scale family farms in the surrounding area, selling through the Pipers Farm business.

So, they spoke to their neighbours and asked them to raise animals for them. “Everybody thought we were nuts!” Peter admits. “We started with our immediate neighbours, and got them to give it a go, and then it gradually spread.” They now have around 25 local family farms raising animals for them – ranging from beef and lamb to chicken, pigs and ducks. Pipers Farm handle the butchering, marketing, sales and distribution of the meat, meaning the farmers can focus on doing what they do best: farming.

“Many of the farms in this valley are in the global rat race of trying to hang on as farms,” Peter points out. “We offer them an opportunity to change that. What we’re doing is trying to completely redraft the model with a completely different perspective.” With each farm, they look at the fundamental elements of their farm process. “We believe in very simple low input farming that is in harmony with nature – we look at the strengths and assets that a particular farm has to offer, and then we work out how to make the most of those resources.”

So how does it work? Here are the cornerstones to the Pipers Farm model:

Maximise money to the farmer

“It shouldn’t be about bigger and bigger quantities,” Peter points out. “We want people to be able to produce a sustainable amount and maximise the market value, so our job is to make sure that every piece of meat arrives at the market with somebody who respects and appreciates the value of it, so the farmer gets a proper price for their efforts. We wanted it that every time a customer of ours buys a piece of meat, they are putting cash straight into smaller-scale family farms.”

Pipers Farm don’t require that the farms they work with are certified organic, but there are high standards that all the farms adhere to; for example, with their saddleback pigs, the sows live and farrow outdoors, the piglets are kept with their mothers for 8 weeks before being placed into family groups and raised outdoors, digging for roots and wallowing in the dirt. Their focus is very much on building relationships with the farms they work with, taking them on a journey. “We are prescriptive when working with farms – we want the right mind-set and we want someone who says ‘we feel excited by what you’re doing, can we come on board?’”

Peter’s also a passionate advocate and supporter of the Campaign for Local Abattoirs, citing the respect for animal welfare, the traceability of meat and the important role they play in rural life. The use of a local slaughterhouse is integral to their model – as he puts it, death too is part of nature.

Consistency is key

“One of the things that Henri and I believe in very deeply is the idea of consistency,” Peter begins. “We don’t sell beef – we sell Red Ruby,” he explains. “We looked at a lot of different breeds and systems before picking Red Ruby, but we discovered it’s the native Exmoor breed, and that’s what we as farmers should be doing: utilising and working within a living landscape that is part of where we farm.” They have farmers on the top of Exmoor breeding them, then after weaning, the cows are moved to nearby farms. Crucially though, all the bullocks come from the same bloodlines and are raised in the same manner, which helps produce animals who are physically similar at the time of slaughter.

The same is true of their sheep: “Once we worked out what Pipers Farm lamb was, we wanted to ensure every piece is the same,” he explains. And that is key for the model – with animals being raised across so many different farms, the quality can’t drop or the customer will lose faith. All their Suffolk lambs are raised on 100% grass for their whole life, slaughtered between 8 and 15 months of age, then hung for 3 weeks, and that helps to provide that Pipers Farm taste.

Grass as food

Standing by a herd of Red Ruby bullocks, Peter makes it simple; “Mother’s milk and grass. That’s all we feed them. To the end. No question.” There’s well documented research on the health benefits to the animal for having a 100% grass-fed diet – their stomachs are designed to digest grass, not grain – but Peter also sees the benefit to the land of the manure. “The topsoil is teeming with millions of bacteria and vertebrate life. And we are feeding our cattle completely in harmony with their biome, which means when they are finished with the forage, it is itself in harmony with the biome that takes it and recycles it.” Cow pats on the farm are teaming with life, and according to Peter, disappear in no time at all.

They also mob-graze their cows, moving them through blocks of pasture in a way that mimics the movement of wild animals and allows greater productivity from the land. “If we gave them the whole field, they would camp in the same place every night, they would put most of their dung in one place,” he explains. But by moving them regularly, they are helping encourage the biodiversity and allowing the cows to spread their manure around the whole field.

Be open to change

For over 20 years, Peter and Henri ran the business on their own. “We were managing everything – the farming, the butchery, the conversations with neighbours, the marketing – it was a glass ceiling,” Peter admits. When their son Will returned from university eight years ago, he decided he wanted to get involved in the business.

“The growth from a turnover of half a million to a million pounds is the most challenging step,” Peter points out. “What Henri and I got away with as a partnership didn’t allow us to grow as there was no management resource. Structural change is an essential component of scalability and growth. Will’s had to completely restructure the business, at home, under his parent’s feet. And that included generational change as well.”

He pauses for a moment, “He had to have real commitment and belief – I’ve got massive respect, because without him there is no way Pipers Farm would be anything other than a half a million-pound turnover business. You’re managing but you’re not really offering an exciting horizon for the next generation of farmers! But now we have a proper management structure, people to manage the relationships with the farms, the butchery, the marketing…”

Does it work?

I meet Mark, one of the local farmers raising animals for Pipers Farm. His family were dairy farmers, with a mostly indoor herd of 140 cows and a robotic milking system. After losing a quarter of their herd to TB, Mark’s family sold the rest of their cows and equipment, and both sons found work off the farm. “And then we had a phone call about some pigs!” Mark explains. “We started off keeping some weaners, thinking we definitely wouldn’t keep any sows. And somehow we got to where we are – we’ve got just over 400 pigs on the ground and 15 sows.”

Mark and his father David use electric fencing and small portable shelters to move the Wessex saddleback pigs through different fields, rotating them with their other crops. “We grow a lot of fodder beet, so after we harvest we can put the pigs along and they eat the waste on the ground,” Mark explains. In addition, they rear 500 turkeys and around 200 lambs on their land for Pipers Farm and two and a half years later, the farm is thriving and both sons are back working on the farm, full of enthusiasm for the potential this partnership brings.

“It’s going back to the system of mixed integrated farming,” Peter points out. “It’s about marrying together enterprises that work for each individual farm. The pigs fit in with their crop of fodder beet – it helps reduce cultivation, it improves fertility and yield. And that’s the common sense of a well-crafted mixed family farm.”

As well as supporting existing small-scale farms, the model is also encouraging new entrants into farming when they are unable to meet demand through the existing farms. Chris and Hollie have recently started a first-generation farm, building a house on the land and setting up a business raising chickens. “It reminds me of mine and Henri’s early days at Pipers Farm!” Peter comments, smiling. By offering Chris and Hollie an assured market for their pasture reared poultry, Pipers Farm has provided them with a secure route to market and the confidence to build and develop their farming business. Having someone else manage the sales and marketing has also given them the opportunity to spend more time with their kids, instead of having to worry about updating websites and attending farmers markets.

Why it works

The Pipers Farm model is focused entirely on preserving and supporting small-scale family farms; finding a way to allow them to thrive without having to grow or become increasingly industrialised in their operation. By focusing on each individual farm and the opportunities their land or crops present, they are able to support these businesses in diversifying their operations and provide a guaranteed and simple route to market. It’s proof that when it comes to farming, big isn’t necessarily better.

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