#ORFC20 Report

Sketch by Sue Warner

A wake-up call is exactly what was needed this year; farming is experiencing unprecedented challenges: climate change, activism, an uncertain economy post Brexit, but maybe the worst is George Monbiot’s dystopian vision: a future where farmers give up their land to ‘re-wilding’, while the role of feeding an ever-increasing populace is hi-jacked by corporations manufacturing ‘fake foods’ from goodness knows what. Sensationalist and scare-mongering were two of the more polite descriptions of George’s views that we heard, yet surely, as farmers and consumers, we shouldn’t just stick our heads in the sand. If fake foods are a-coming, – and why wouldn’t they be?  Amazon, Google and Facebook are investing heavily to name a few – then the implications are huge, not just environmentally, economically and socially, but also for our health.

If we truly believe, (and at Whole Health Agriculture we do), that our health cannot be separated from the health of any other living organism in the food chain (and where exactly does that start and end?) then the idea that manufactured edible components, synthesised and almost certainly genetically modified, equate to ‘food’ is one that needs forensic scrutiny. We must start joining up our thinking in terms of what is and isn’t health in farming and food. Before it’s too late.

NATURE & NUANCE

Whole Health Agriculture’s focus for 2020 is to research and identify pivotal health management practices in farming, and to show other farmers how to apply them. To this end, our session ‘The Nature and Nuance of Farming for Health’ featured the approaches of four successful farmers who prioritise health and, despite being scheduled at lunchtime off the beaten track and in one of the smaller rooms, there was standing room only to hear them speak. Sadly, there was not enough time to answer all of the questions from attendees so our intention is to feature each speaker in more depth later on. Our thanks to Ian Tolhurst (Tolhurst Organic); Mark Measures (Mark Measures Associates), Agricultural Consultant; Pammy Riggs, award winning poultry farmer turned author, and Dale Walters from Lower Hurst Organic Farm who are all passionate about farming for health and are proof that you can apply whole system thinking and be commercially successful.

DIGGING DEEPER

One of our key projects this year is a survey to find out what alternative and non-conventional health management methods and practices really work to keep livestock healthy. We are in the process of putting this survey into a digital online format, but we had taken along about 30 paper copies of our pilot questionnaire to our stand in the main hall ‘just in case’ there was any interest. Well, there most certainly was! After tentatively asking a few farmers whether they would be interested, we were overwhelmed by the response – people were keen to take part and really understood that there is a need to show the potential, and credibility, of holistic farming methods to reduce antibiotics and toxic interventions in our food chain. Our further aim for the survey, is to look more in depth at best practice to provide practical models for other farmers. Find out more.

THE BIG QUESTION

There was a different atmosphere at the conference this year; ORFC is usually so vital and positive and that it was strange to experience a weightier, more serious energy to the proceedings; hardly surprising under current global circumstances, and possibly exacerbated by the final main session which focused on George Monbiot’s grim predictions. One visitor to our stand asked a question that everyone seemed to be asking, namely precisely how we as a nation can implement the changes needed to address the challenges we face, from climate change to sustainable farming and  – we would add – to our health. We would answer, quite simply, that we, as individuals, need to understand that eating is a political act, and that our choices give us the power to make an impact, and we get to vote with our wallets three times a day:

Choose local. Choose holistic. Choose wisely!

Sketch reproduced by kind permission of Sue Warner

Meg’s Musings – Fiercely on the Farmers’ Side

It’s taken me months to get as far as putting my thoughts on paper about this.

I am a farmer and farmer’s wife. I’m also passionate about conservation, biodiversity, education, food provenance, sustainability (whatever that’s meant to mean) and above all else, animal welfare. A lot of farms and farmers embrace all these concepts as part of their farming lives, although some better than others.

But a lot of us, far more than the media portray, passionately believe and KNOW that what we do out in the countryside has, or has the potential to be, beneficial for all. Both the livestock we care for, the wildlife we farm alongside, and ultimately the planet.

UNDER SIEGE AND MISREPRESENTED

The fundamental principle of farmers who practice holistically is that ‘health, – whether of soil, plant, animal or man, – is one and indivisible’.  However, we farmers are all tarred by the same brush by the media as those massive agribusinesses ripping up the Amazon, those growing thousands of acres of monocrop GM soy, those depleting groundwater sources for avocados and almonds, and those cramming tens of thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle into sheds and feedlots, and – to be honest – I’m sick to the back teeth of it! These examples are a world away from how most small farms in the UK operate, and that’s just for starters.

The livestock debate is so complex and nuanced, yet all we ever seem to hear is ‘cows are bad’ ‘livestock produces more CO2 than all other sources combined’, ‘plant-based living will save the planet’, ‘greedy farmers raping and murdering for profit’.

Just stop.

If I was being kind, I’d say it was well meaning and that these people really want what’s best for the planet and need a little re-education.

But I’m not going to be kind. I’ve had too many run-ins with people who are abusive, threatening, hysterical and, quite simply, wrong.

It affects the farming community in different ways. At first you snort at the ludicrous claims but ignore them, we’re too busy to be concerned and it’ll blow over. Fashions change, it’ll be another industry getting up the noses of the vociferous few next month.

Then you get mad. How dare they? They are accusing you and your way of life of destroying the planet. But they don’t know what they’re talking about, hysterical morons.

Then concern. People you know and people who should know better in positions of influence start saying things like, ‘well we all need to cut out red meat for the planet, don’t we?’

You can’t be serious? Why are they falling for this nonsense?

The fear comes when you read how policies at governmental level are being made to force change when you know deep down that this has all got terribly out of hand and makes no sense at all. Not for farmers, not for conservation, not for animals and certainly not for the planet.

You start to realise that the world has gone completely bloody mad.

Then. . . . Something pops up on your news feed that makes you sit up. Has someone actually bothered to do some investigative journalism and REALLY look into these wild claims about livestock being the root of all evil?

Yes! Suddenly glimmers of light appear in the dark.

Someone in mainstream journalism is talking about regenerative agriculture; a veterinary journal is talking about the importance of carefully and extensively managed livestock for soil health; a paper from Harvard surfaces about the increased rate of topsoil creation with livestock vs without; a comprehensive nutritional study emerges that shows the health benefits of red meat, especially from pasture based systems….

A HIDDEN AGENDA?

And you realise that perhaps the world isn’t mad after all, but is maybe easily led by those least in charge of the facts, with the least on the ground experience, with an axe to grind, in pursuit of the next big thing to be outraged by so they can shout the loudest and virtue-signal on their social media platforms to their heart’s content.

Fanning the flames are those with the greatest vested interests- financial interests- riding the environmental wave of Blue Planet, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. People like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, James Cameron and lately Lewis Hamilton. The richest people on the planet- arguably with much larger carbon footprints than most of us put together- are now telling us to go ‘plant-based’ to save the world, whilst simultaneously investing millions in lab meat, vegan food chains, grain-based diets, GMO crops… these people aren’t rich by accident. Ironically the rise of veganism is a cash-cow, and they are well placed to milk it.

But despite all this negativity surrounding red meat, those of us who are on the ground, farming, caring for livestock, monitoring wildlife, are quietly pushing for change in farming systems.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD

Farmers are not all rosy-faced sons of the soil. There are farmers out there who are not interested in the environment and have little regard for the land, reducing toxicity or animal welfare. The public have every right to call these farmers out. But people in glass houses should also not throw stones- most modern intensive farming practices have emerged because of decades of governmental policy pushing for increased food production post-war, and the public’s obsession with cheap food.

There is no such thing as cheap food. Something pays the price somewhere down the line, and unfortunately it has been the environment and animal welfare that has suffered in pursuit of maximum ouput.

But there are growing numbers of farmers like us who care, really, really passionately care, about there being a better way.

LEARNING FROM NATURE

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, and more importantly since the ‘green revolution’, organic farmers, – whether properly certified or those who follow organic principles, – have refused to buckle under pressure from the agrochemical industry and government policies to adopt chemicals, intensify farming methods, control wildlife, increase stocking densities and treat livestock prophylactically with antibiotics and vermicides. By resisting, organic farmers protect our soils, make space for wildlife and see it flourish. These farmers have nurtured livestock extensively and produced vigorous, healthy, nutritious animals and plants for human consumption.

In many ways this is how farming had been for generations before the invention of synthetic fertiliser and its ilk. But organic farming is not backwards. Far from it. It purely replicates and harnesses the best aspects of natural systems, and in doing so, creates the most planet friendly way of farming. We’re on a planetary knife-edge, but organic and holistic farmers are holding the cards for the only viable climatically responsible farming solution.

Rearing livestock empathetically, sensitively and in tune with the land and the rhythm of the seasons should be the only way to keep animals. In fact, all farming systems should work like this.

Thanks to science and advances in technology we have a greater understanding of animal behaviour, biodiversity, plant biology and soil ecology than ever before, but instead of techno-fixes invented with lucrative patents by chemical companies to dominate nature, this information is being used by holistic farmers to reverse the clock and mimic nature to help repair the damage done over generations of improper farm use.

Regenerative farming, mob grazing, holistic planned management are all current trendy terms for whole-system livestock management and although each term has a suite of experts and followers, the message is the same as those organic farmers who have been quietly and gently bucking industrial farming trends for years – livestock can be a great tool for soil improvement whilst benefitting the environment and providing us with nutrient dense food.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped being so quiet and accepting of unfounded criticisms and start shouting from the rooftops.

We do care, we do know what we’re doing and we’re making a difference.

Perhaps the accusatory vociferous minority should look closer to home before lashing out at us.

I can guarantee my holistically home- produced beef stew has a smaller carbon footprint and has maintained more diverse habitats than their silken tofu and avocado smoothie any day of the week.

Pammy’s Positive Health Management System goes Strategic

Who remembers Swampy, and the Eco Warriors from the 80’s? They did not manage to succeed in their mission to stop a big road going through the woods they were inhabiting, but they made a big impression on our little family who had just bought a small plot of wet and ravaged land in Devon. As we traipsed up and down from Dorset, we’d wind down the car windows as we went past Swampy’s territory and yell ‘Good on you!

When we implemented our ‘go-for-it’ farming goal, it was just at the time when there was an explosion of realisation that the conventional monoculture type of mainstream farming was heading down a cul-de-sac of its own making. That cul-de-sac, – literally translated as the bottom of a bag, – is now well and truly here; no longer a distant possibility but ‘Help! There is nowhere to go down here!’

The fact is, in the past 30 years soil degradation and loss of our wild bird and mammal populations, directly related to loss of habitat and isolation of what habitats remain, are all realities we cannot ignore. Our pollinators are under strain which puts our own food sources in danger, and that is just for starters. Look around – there is more biodiversity in a city than in the countryside, that cannot be right!

HOWEVER, as with all good stories there is the possibility of a happy ending and the 80’s held a clue.

Sorry, I haven’t introduced myself, my name is Pammy, and I have been in and around the farming world since I was about three. There were no structured preschools in the 60’s when I was growing up but I was ‘farmed out’ to our neighbours who were retired farmers and I hung out with Coco the Jersey calf, her mum, Cringethie Chrysanthemum the house cow, some stinky ferrets and loads of various poultry. Now I hang out with hundreds of cows on a regular basis but in between I have had dealings with pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, horses, cats, dogs and budgies! (Not to mention gerbils, hamsters, snakes and pet rats). And I have a deep love of the countryside, its natural flora and fauna and good old fresh air.

So, I see the changes of the 80’s in farming which we were caught up in, as a pre-wave of energy. Those 80’s farming pioneers, many of them concocting their own versions of environment sensitive farming – and I include my family in this – now have thirty years of experience and factual evidence to prove that farming can work in partnership with the natural world. Going back further in time, I see the ‘love-ins’ of the 60’s as a pre-wave to the 80’s – didn’t Joni Mitchell say ‘They pave paradise to put up a parking lot’? Or similar, I’m not good on actual quotes, so excuse me. I am also not particularly good on facts and figures but I do have my own version of boundary tests that I apply to situations, and they will come up frequently in my future farming/ countryside/food features and blogs.

1st, BOCS!! a phrase I often shouted at the radio – Blooming Obvious & Common Sense– watch out for it. BOCS for short.

2nd, I call it my 7th generation brain, and it kicks in all by itself. When a new subject or proposal comes my way I cannot help cogitating on how my part in this will affect the seventh generation coming along in the future. I can’t know the answer, of course, but it is a trick my mind always plays on me. Better not have me on the committee for wanting a third runway at Heathrow then!

Probably the most significant part of my farming life is the middle part, from 1997 to 2017. In that time, my husband, business partner and father of our children, and myself created a special little farm. So when I refer to we, it is not the Royal ‘We’, but to the fact that together we made this thing happen. No doubt I will say more about the specifics of that farm in the future, but it is the principle of how we made our farm work that I’d like to bring to your attention.

Basically, we implemented a Positive Health Management System– a bit of a mouthful, I know, so let’s call it PHMS. Because when we started our own farm we were doing something totally new and were pretty terrified we decided that there would be rules about how our new venture was allowed to come about. I had been brought up in a family, typically British, ‘Oh, if there are two ways to go about things – I’ll always choose the wrong one’ my mother would joke in her self deprecating manner. Well, I was determined not to go down that route. I had heard of self-fulfilling prophecies. We had put our whole life’s effort into buying the plot of land, failure was not an option, hence deciding on a PHMS. It had to do with the animals, but also, the land (7th generation brain steps in) too.

PHMS Rules:

  • Look to the highest manifestation of good health our animals. By learning what that can be, and what it looks and feels like, any part that is off mark or out of kilter will become obvious and can be dealt with accordingly.
  • Never talk negatively about the farm, animals or new business, not even in a joking manner. This is not a rose-tinted spectacles approach but a serious attempt at using our own energies in a positive manner and drawing good ideas, synchronicity and serendipity our way. Discuss new ideas in the light of ‘BOCS’ despite ‘scientific evidence’ to the contrary – TRY NEW THINGS OUT YOURSELF!!

Now, life is tough, there is no denying that, and new ways of doing things mean breaking old habits. It is perfectly reasonable to feel scared, sick and nervous when setting out on a new path but if we are to have a revolution to take our world into a future where the 7th generation is safe we had better get on with our own PHMS. I’d like to change the last word of the acronym to Positive Health Management Strategy rather than System, but still PHMS and still the rules apply. There are farmers and land managers all across the country, the world in fact, who have just the information we need to put this strategy in place.

I intend to write about and show examples of the great things that are happening already, just waiting to be scaled up.

So watch this space for stories and information about:

  • Trees!! They grow faster than you think! And do so much good for the world.
  • Animals, as friends, food and fertiliser.
  • New and exciting non-invasive health and behaviour management for plants and animals.
  • Basket cases and the case for baskets!
  • Returning wildlife.
  • Bringing jobs back to the countryside.
  • Extending existing projects e.g. Give Wildlife a Home beyond the garden.
  • Innovation in the food world.
  • Integrating countryside and human health.
  • Consumer to customer – how to …….
  • …….lots more positive stories.

Stay tuned!

About the author: I’m Pammy, a farmer of many years who teaches courses, and writes about farming, animals, and much more.

Pammy

Meg’s Musings – Why I have a beef with the EAT-Lancet Commission

Cattle in field in summer

Cattle in field

The EAT-Lancet commission report was released this week, grandly entitled “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.”

This commission’s report promises to save the planet by transforming the food and agriculture sector by radically changing our diets. Globally. For everyone, wherever and whoever they may be.

Eye roll time. Here we go again. As a livestock farmer I am getting all too accustomed to being told that rearing animals, particularly cows is the reason our climate and environment is in jeopardy.

Apparently, cows do more harm to the planet than the oil and energy sector, industry, aviation and transport.

Bulls**t.

Because the sponsors of the report completely believe this narrative, this is the general feel of the paper. Meat bad. Plants good.

A deficient diet is healthy apparently

So, the EAT-lancet report has formulated a diet that has abolished red meat, or at least limited it to 7g per day, eggs to ¼ per day, chicken or fish to 28g per day.

Instead it suggests we must eat more vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, plant oils and many more grains. By doing so we’ll save vast tracts or land, nitrogen fertiliser, reduce methane production and save reservoirs full of water.

We will be healthier, our rates of mortality will drop by the millions and cancer rates will plummet.

Too good to be true?

Well of course it is. It’s the stuff of pipe dreams and unicorn tears. The vast majority of this report (47 pages) is made up of estimates, assumptions and predictions based on epidemiology studies. In short, they have tested a disease hypothesis in a lab to see how many people fit their predictions, not actual people in real life.

When they do cross reference studies that have tested actual living, breathing people in real life scenarios it inconveniently turns out that red meat is rather good for you, but these papers are dismissed, glossed over or barely mentioned.

Their reasons? Some of the studies have taken place in parts of the world that are significantly malnourished to start with, and the addition of red meat to those diets has improved health and mortality immeasurably, so they don’t count.

Ironically those malnourished people in the studies were consuming a diet similar to the one EAT-Lancet commission has just advised we all embrace….

But I am not a nutritionist, and despite the paper’s dietary recommendations alarming me, I’ll leave the nitty-gritty to the experts. As predicted, every response I have seen so far have been scathing at best and genuinely concerned for human health at worst. Thisarticle is the clearest cut and easiest to digest so far.

It’s the how not the cow

The section of this report that concerns me the most, (and others like it) is the vilification of the cow.

When did this noble beast become the scape goat (cow?) of human failings in creating climate change and the escalation of non-communicable diseases?

We are consuming less beef than we ever have but metabolic diseases and environmental degradation is escalating, so why are bovines to blame?

I can only assume that the large and obvious nature of a cow are inflammatory to those of a ‘plant-based’ bent. The vegan propaganda films, ‘Cowspiracy’, ‘Earthlings’ etc to name a few have skewed the debate, and the intensification and scaling up of beef farms in the USA have alarmed animal rights activists and environmentalists alike.

And they’re right to a certain degree.

Putting thousands, if not tens of thousands of cattle in a pen and pumping them full of corn is an abhorrent way to farm. Fed hormones, antibiotics and starchy grain to maximise growth rates and shorten time to killing weight is an environmental and animal welfare car crash. Cutting this sort of red meat out of people’s diets makes total sense. It is no good for anyone or anything.

But this isn’t the only way of rearing cows. In fact, despite the numbers in these horrible feedlots, it isn’t the normal way either.

The grass IS greener

In the UK, as is the case in many nations across the globe, the vast majority of cattle are reared on grass, even if they receive supplementary feeding these ‘concentrates’ tend to be waste products of the human food and oil seed industries- the pulp left from making beer, extracting vegetable oil, making plant ‘milks’. Feed that is not edible unless you have a rumen- a sophisticated digestive system evolved perfectly to utilise complex long-chain carbohydrates like cellulose and convert it into high quality, easily digestible protein. Packed full of iron, vitamin B12, omega 3, CLA etc etc.

But it is their utilisation of grass that is their true superpower (and that of sheep, deer and goats).

Roughly 40% of land use in the UK is grassland or semi-natural grassland. Grassland also makes up an important part of crop rotations, fertility building in-between cereal crops.

This use of grass is no accident, in a temperate climate grass grows at altitude, almost irrespective of topography. It tolerates drought and flood, protects and holds onto the soil, sequesters carbon and grows at a huge range of temperatures.

The most important part is that it grows from the base of the plant. It has coevolved with grazing animals to be eaten.

If recommendations were followed in the EAT-Lancet report and red meat was all but abolished, more land and resources for human food would not be suddenly made available as the report has wildly claimed.

Grass grows where cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruit and nuts cannot. Without utilising cattle and sheep to graze these areas and subsequently enter the food chain, we become more nutrient deficient, unable to produce enough complete protein from plants to feed our population.

As Sustainable Dish eloquently point out, ‘cattle upcycle nutrients’ taking inedible cellulose and converting it into food we have evolved to eat.

But cattle play another role.

Holistic land managers

Their grazing, if managed correctly and holistically and where artificial fertilisers aren’t used, stimulates the plants they eat to regenerate, increasing root mass, growing more leaves and locking up carbon. Their hoof prints break the sward, allowing wildflowers to germinate in the pockets of exposed soil. Their manure completes their nutrient cycle, returning vital minerals and elements to the soil to stimulate plant growth, and attracting insects, and consequently birds and mammals to their pasture to exploit the feeding grounds.

Cows are creators of biodiversity, generators of fertiliser, a fundamental component of the carbon cycle and crucial to the health of pastures and grasslands, marshes and moors, as well as an important way for increasing soil fertility in-between cereal crops.

The commission’s report does identify that the production of artificial fertilisers is hugely polluting and energy hungry, and its overuse is causing eutrophication, ozone production, soil degradation and the decrease in plant nutrient carrying capabilities, but does not see that the use of organic farming practices like crop rotation, composting, agroforestry and other agroecological techniques and above all else, LIVESTOCK- particularly cows all have the power to abolish or hugely reduce its use.

Plant-based is not planet-friendly

Unfortunately this does not fit with the ‘plant-based’ utopia they are trying to promote, so instead it recommends more precision farming in the developed world to reduce fertiliser use to allow the developing world to use more…. This is one of the many bizarre suggestions in the report loosely disguised as ‘sustainable intensification’.

The promotion of seeds, nuts and vegetables would unfortunately increase both chemical and water use. Thirsty vegetables and salad crops have been responsible for ground water depletion in countries that have the climate to grow them more consistently than the UK can.

Almeria in Spain is predominantly under glass and plastic to satiate Europe’s desire for out of season fruit and vegetables. If this demand were to increase as people look to plants to provide protein in place of meat, these alien and chemical laden areas would expand, and the environment, biodiversity and the climate would suffer.

The volume of plants that must be consumed to plug the gap left by red meat is frankly frightening and unobtainable.

Cows Vs chickens

The strangest thing of all is the assumption by the report that cows eat human food. 90% of everything cows eat are inedible for humans.

They are NOT stealing our food.

In place of beef and lamb people are turning to pork, fish and chicken in particular. These animals seem to elicit less planetary guilt than cows and sheep do.

But pig and chickens are monogastrics. They have similar needs to us in terms of dietary input. The grain and soy imported from all over the world for animal feed goes to feed pigs and chickens predominantly. That is a crisis. But chicken gets the green light as a sustainable protein source with a small environmental footprint.

Pardon?

Billions of chickens raised every year eating millions of tonnes of human food is seen as sustainable?

This madness is echoed throughout the report.

I know what many holistic, organic, regenerative, compassionate farmers know: Cows are part of the solution for the future of food, not the problem….

Vested interests

Unless of course you’re in the business of growing, fertilising, distributing and utilising cereal.

In which case a global diet that recommends an increased consumption of grains, palm oil, soy and monocrops is good news.

Not that I’m a cynical farmer but the Eat-Lancet commission report is bank-rolled by a multi-millionaire vegan animal rights activist who spends her life jetting around the globe to amazing destinations in her own plane and telling the rest of us mere mortals to follow a ‘plant-based diet’ to save the planet.

The EAT movement is part of the FReSH network, a group of multinational companies that all have fingers in the ‘sustainable development’ pie and are well placed to exploit the ‘plant-based’ trend. Among its members are Unilever (just launched 700 vegan product lines), Syngenta (seeds, pesticides, ‘big Ag’), Barilla (pasta), Kelloggs (cereals), Danone (processed foods) and PepsiCo (processed food) to name but a few.

What we’re witnessing here is a global, industry led push to abolish the ultimate sustainable food source: livestock, in order to push hyper processed, cheap, environmentally damaging, mass produced ‘food’ on the masses in the name of ‘planetary boundaries’ and ‘healthy diets’.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Not an analogy they would appreciate, but the vegan movement and propaganda is the front man for control of the food chain by the globe’s largest corporations.

The cow is their chosen fall guy but I for one will not stand by quietly while this ludicrous movement gains traction.

I strongly believe, no – I KNOW that livestock reared ethically and sensitively within their natural habitats are the future of our healthy planet.

I shall have my beef and eat it. I suggest you do too.

About the author: I’m Meg, an opinionated farmer’s wife, who is passionate about animal welfare, the environment and wholesome food.

Meg

Meg’s Musings – Lifting the Fog at Organic Congress

Recently I swapped wellies and waterproofs for something a little smarter and set off at some ungodly hour into the Midlands to Dunchurch Park Hotel, which was hosting Organic Congress 2018.

It was great to see so many old and new faces, all eager to get stuck in to the varied programme which was a two-day feast for a mostly redundant brain like mine; the poor old thing being mainly fogged up by toddler life and cattle these days.

I was there with two hats on: the first as an organic livestock farmer – keen to learn more about advances made in health, welfare and forage utilisation; and the second as part of the exciting new venture – Whole Health Agriculture (WHAg).

The conference was the official launch of WHAg, and as a guest blogger for them, it was great to hear the team put into words what ‘whole health’ concepts and practices in farming really mean. Chairman Lawrence Woodward set the tone, putting the WHAg vision into words at a drinks reception on day one. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that the promise of wine and nibbles lured the crowds in initially but once he was waxing lyrically about the true meaning of ‘whole health’, the room was captivated and stayed put through some lively discussion!

The underlying concept of organic farming is that the health of the soil, plants, animals and man is one and invisible- and I think this concept gets lost in the melee sometimes, focusing on maybe a few aspects that really matter to farmers and the public within that moment.

I really feel that WHAg has evolved to get back to the roots of organic farming- putting ‘health’ back at the heart of the conversation. That health is not a ‘state’, it is a dynamic process that has many influences, but perhaps vitality, an unmeasurable concept, from holistic farming practices is really what defines it. It’s a slightly abstract thought, and one that got under my skin over the course of the conference.

By listening to the guest farmers from a variety of farm types, there was a recurrent theme; observation and gut instinct are worth more to a farmer practicing holistic/organic/biodynamic farming or gardening than any metric.

This is so refreshing to hear, and a relief to know that there are others out there that feel the same as we do.

I saw as many sessions as I could, spoke and listened to academics, gardeners, farmers, politicians and marketers- all passionate about their field of expertise and their enthusiasm catching.

Agricology kindly recorded all of the sessions, so I was able to tap into the ones I’d missed once I got home, becoming enthused all over again about Silvopasture, herbal lets, homeopathy and soil health.

I got back to our farm and at first light headed out to look at our cattle still out under winter skies amongst the trees of the parkland; I’m pretty sure our cattle have vitality – but there is always room for improvement.

I think I’ve got the Whole Health Ag bug now. Thanks for a great congress – I can safely say the grey matter is emerging from the toddler fog!

About the author: I’m Meg, an opinionated farmer’s wife, who is passionate about animal welfare, the environment and wholesome food.

Meg

Meg’s Musings – Is This Farming as it Should Be?

meg with her dog and child

Hi, I’m Meg, an opinionated farmer’s wife, who is passionate about animal welfare, the environment and wholesome food. Also mum to an adventurous toddler, Oscar – I juggle keeping him alive and entertained alongside working and helping out on the farm – (which you can read to mean interfering!)

My husband, Dale, and I, – and no doubt countless others, – are farming to a standard far in excess of any available certification and yet we have no way of communicating that to consumers, nor we do we get recognition for it – and that’s a scary thought. Enter stage left Whole Health Agriculture with a definition of holistic farming as it should be. They got my attention, and  –  happily – I got theirs, so you will be hearing from me regularly via blogs, articles and videos etc.

A Bit About Me

We moved here to the Peak District while I was still on maternity leave from my much loved job as Conservation and Education officer at Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berkshire. There I ran school and educational visits, teaching about organic and holistic farming, food provenance, and the importance of working hand in hand with nature to create wholesome food. For two years prior to this I worked for the Sheepdrove Trust on campaign projects about genetic modification, which also taught me a lot about food chains, provenance and trust (or lack of) in the food industry.

While our move up to the Peaks was brilliant for my hubby, – a career move from farm foreman to farm manager, – for me, leaving behind friends, an area and a job I loved, and now stuck at home with a baby, staring out of the window at the driving rain (it does that a lot here!) – it was a wake-up call. The job opportunities for a woman coming off maternity leave with a background in holistic farm education and conservation are like rocking horse poo – rare at best!

And so, when I was invited to join the Whole Health Agriculture community, it was a no-brainer on many levels.

Hand Knitted Yoghurts

We weren’t always ‘hand-knitted yogurts’ as my mother calls us! My husband came late to the farming party; although I have farmers in my family, Dale has an urban background, qualifying in motor mechanics before going on to run catering establishments. Not exactly a rural grounding.

But when we got together we decided that we wanted a change, so Dale scraped together bits of dairy experience, using my farming friends to get a foot in the door and after what seemed like 1000 job applications, a contact of a friend (always the way) agreed to take him on as an apprentice- and the rest is history.

Dale’s path was probably set by the three elderly brothers who took him on. Each brother had a different approach, but the eldest was the most influential, using cues from nature to determine when to apply slurry, how to judge what and how much food each cow needed, and avoiding metabolic, hormonal and lameness problems by basically letting cows be cows.

For us, it was a natural progression into organic farming, but the farm we ended up on next was only into organics for the economic safety net it gave the business. They flouted rules and bent the standards to fit their conventional model and we only stuck it out for 8 months. I had a theory that their repeated TB breakdowns were linked to their poor way of treating the land and the animals in their ‘care’.

We’d got the holistic/organic bug by now, though, and our next move, to one of the biggest organic mixed farms in the country, Sheepdrove, was a no brainer. This was much closer to how we imagined organic farming to be – high welfare, wildlife and habitat focused, zero input and we loved it. It still had its issues but we felt we were on the right path. My job of Conservation and Education Officer dovetailed brilliantly with Dale’s role as farm foreman. Conservation measures were upheld and improved, probably because I became a banshee if I thought my bumblebee transects or pockets of Devil’s Bit Scabious were about to be jeopardised by marauding cows or over-enthusiastic hay making!

With charitable funding I also managed to get on-farm surveys and research carried out by some of the country’s leading experts in insects, barn owls, harvest mice, bees, fungi, worms and birds, and their findings cemented my belief that farming both holistically and profitably IS possible.

The Challenges of Whole Health Farming

After five years at Sheepdrove, and with a new baby, our little family left for a soggy organic beef farm in the Peak District; in sole charge of it this time and determined to do things the way we feel they should be done.

However, we are still being hampered by restrictive rules and a lack of cohesive and common-sense approaches to regulating farms and/or supporting them. This farm has been organic for over 30 years and fully under Higher Level Stewardship for the last ten. There is little cohesion between the two policies. Being organic and under HLS should be the holy grail for how farms should be managed and funded but there are holes in the regulation, or the rules for HLS are so restrictive that, actually, biodiversity and welfare suffers.

My husband and I have simple objectives, honed from our varied experience on very different farms. Firstly, the importance of welfare and behaviour; the two are inextricably linked. If your approach to farming livestock is guided by the behaviour of the very animals in your care, their welfare should be taken care of. An understanding of herd interactions and the power of observation should not be underestimated.

Secondly, improving biodiversity and pasture health. We don’t use any external inputs and are keen to learn as much as we can about the diversity of grasses and herbs and the benefits they can bring to soil and livestock health.

The biggest change we have made to the plant and pasture health of the farm, and consequently the cattle health has been the use of rotational grazing. (More on this later!) Our biodiversity is improving slowly- but more to be done.

The biggest reason for sticking with organic farming for us is the avoidance of chemicals and routine drug use. We still use far more than I would like (for treating blowfly on the sheep and fluke in the cattle) and we’re looking for ways to avoid/limit this in the future. We have already cut down flukicide hugely just by managing pasture and water cleanliness but the aim is to abolish completely.

I’m a strong believer that the health of your environment directly influences your own health and the health of the animals in your care. You are what you eat. It should, therefore, be obvious that you are also what your food eats . . shouldn’t it? And that, if you are organic, this goes without saying . . .

It’s Organic, Jim, but Not as We Know it!

When we first arrived here I was massively frustrated by the lack of organic farms in this area – there are a few but they are not abundant and are mostly dairy and, even ours had, for years, been managed by people who believed farming organically was just a way to make more money but with irritating hurdles. There was a mind-set of ‘but we’ve always done it like this’ and suspicion of anything new. The conservation measures put in place by the farm owner were seen by the farm staff as ‘anti-farming’; something to be attempted half-heartedly to tick boxes.

And then there was the attitude of the farm vets. We’d only been here two weeks when one of the vet partners came to introduce herself, and spent an hour boasting about how she’d got the measure of the Soil Association, and could get a derogation for anything, any drug that we wanted. I was shocked at first and then furious.

This is obviously a much larger problem. It stems from a complete arrogance and lack of understanding from the vets and a total reluctance and/or ignorance of holistic farming methods from farmers/stockmen.

Why isn’t this being picked up on?

It seems being Organic is not as Organic as should be.

And if I have questions about the way food is produced- what hope does the general public have?

I intend to find out . . . .  watch this space!

About the author: I’m Meg, an opinionated farmer’s wife, who is passionate about animal welfare, the environment and wholesome food.

Meg