A couple of weeks ago farmer David Corrie-Close wowed an audience of politicians, fellow farmers and NGOs with the inspirational story of his and his wife Bekka’s commitment to farming with nature. Here David shares more about their experiences.
When I was asked to speak at the Farmers’ Market event at Westminster in June, I was very quick to say yes. I was later sent the list of speakers and the guest list. My enthusiasm was displaced by the feeling that I was under quite a lot of pressure! My brief was to tell a large group of MPs and peers about the huge momentum behind the nature friendly farming movement; it was to tell them that frontline farmers are ready to embrace an agriculture bill that puts nature at the core of our businesses and makes the UK a world leader in truly sustainable food production.
To do so, I started by telling them about my business, The Horned Beef Company Ltd. I’m pleased to be able to share this with you too.
In 2015, with no farming background, no agricultural qualifications and very little money, I convinced my wife Bekka that we should buy 4 Shetland cows. Inspired by an apprenticeship with an organic beef farmer and a strong sense that I’d found my calling, we set about the ‘conservation grazing’ of land owned by the National Trust, Wildlife Trust and private landowners in environmental schemes.
This meant extensive grazing with low stocking rates on land that has a low productive capacity of food; perhaps it has thin soils or it is unimproved by agricultural methods or artificial inputs. For me, this kind of land is where I’d learnt to farm. It is beautiful, often a mosaic of habitats; it is an environment where native cattle thrive.
I rejected the idea that we are land managers using livestock for conservation; we are farmers who maximise the natural productive capacity of food on the land. Working with nature, wildlife thrives. This is farming with nature.
The real beauty of this concept is that it can describe what we do and what my neighbour (a dairy farmer) does too. On deeper soils, he produces more food! He cleverly manages his grassland to keep it, and his cows, healthy; a diverse sward and rotational grazing are important parts of this. An abundance of hedges, fruit trees, ponds and woodland give more structure and diversity to his farm.
Of course, it is incredibly difficult to collect a modern income from a farm’s edible outputs. Even with our 100-head herd today, it’s not enough for our one-and-a-half man band. We keep inputs ultra-low and maximise the value of our outputs by direct marketing. Still, we rely on the current subsidy system to bridge the gap and help us put food on our own table.
In a short space of time, our farming ethos has attracted a great deal of public and media interest. BBC Countryfile and Radio 4’s On Your Farm features resulted in contact from individuals wishing to invest in our community supported agriculture scheme. £20,000 locally, fast became over £30,000 from people keen to support the new face of farming.
Our own farming with nature campaign also has a significant social media following and has encouraged over 500 subscriptions to our mailing list. We were absolutely thrilled to sell out of our latest offer of beef in 36 hours.
The icing on the cake was the signing of a tenancy agreement in May this year with the UK’s largest landowner: the National Trust. This deal was not done by outbidding the next person in pounds and pence but by offering something different: the right attitude and a shared vision for our countryside.
On our new farm, just outside Kendal and within the Lake District National Park, locals and tourists go out of their way to use the many footpaths that cross our land. Partly for the dramatic landscape, but they also come here because its different: it is managed in a way that promotes an abundance of wildflowers, birds and bees; we have orchards, copses of trees and areas of untidy scrub; the meadows represent some of the 3% of the species-rich hay meadows that we have left in the UK.
The physical and mental health and wellbeing that is found by surrounding ourselves with this diversity is immensely valuable; as too is the diversity of species that can be found here.
The idea that I could be rewarded for producing these ‘public goods’ and protecting and enhancing our natural capital is a 21st century revelation that will transform agriculture. Of course, we must tread carefully for economic, social and cultural reasons, but ecologically it is imperative that we act now. This immensely complicated task will take the greatest minds of a generation to find a way to make it work.
I’m most familiar with the good things going on closest to home and those I read about in the press. However, since the end of last year I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with the Nature Friendly Farming Network. From almost 2000 members, I’ve learnt a great deal about the challenges and opportunities within different regions and sectors of this diverse industry. Going forward, this sharing of knowledge and experiences, and the public and media engagement nationwide about farming with nature is exactly what we need to smooth the transition into our new farming regime.
For me, the most encouraging thing is the energy and the unity of a vast group who will help to shape a new bill for agriculture that describes farming and nature in harmony. For now, I am proud to produce food and to look after the nation’s greatest assets.
As a farmer, my plea to you as a citizen, a consumer and a countryside lover is straightforward: ask your MP to support a set of farming policies that makes food security possible now and in the future.
Blog by David Corrie-Close.