Climate change in the South West: regenerative or regressive farming?

Posted in: Environment

Posted on: 09.06.2021

Good Energy is collaborating with award-winning environmental photographer Toby Smith to produce a series of photo-essays visualising climate change in the UK. Toby will be focussing on the changes and challenges of land-use but also cultural and technology innovations in sustainability around the South West of England.  

Following on from my case study at Riverford Organic Veg Farm, I remain in Devon to meet Peter and Henri Greig of Piper’s Farm - a farm network and home delivery service. Piper’s represent and distribute produce from 25 local family farms - all bound by deep roots in ethics, value and tradition. The mutual benefits of increasing biodiversity by reducing intensity sit well with their focus on quality over quantity, and could complement a move to reduce meat and dairy to drive down global carbon emissions. I also met with other farmers within the Piper's Farm network throughout the day.

Peter explains that in the mid 1970s, British farmers were encouraged by the state and private sector to use chemical inputs, make unsuitable land productive and purchase feed to increase the number of animals reared per acre.  Breeds were selected for yield rather than their suitability to local land or climate. These practices destroyed traditional balanced farming systems, communities and pasture. Today, without those subsidies it remains a precarious place financially and mentally for many farmers.

Devon’s rolling terrain and damp climate is excellent for grass, not cereals, and so has a rich, proud history of livestock and dairy farming.  Peter measures the density of his pasture with millimetre accuracy before dividing his field into equal quadrants and calculating strict time limits for grazing. The next morning, he will turn out his prized Red Ruby bullocks, offering them a species rich, gut-flora-boosting diet without a risk of over-grazing or eroding the soil.

A growing number of UK consumers are reducing or completely eliminating meat from their diets.  The inherent inefficiencies of ‘growing' animal-based protein can never compete with the land-area or carbon efficiency of wholly plant-based diets. However, a reduction in chemical or feed inputs in pastoral farming undoubtedly makes for a more sustainable agricultural practice.

There is also a huge interest in both ‘no-till’ and ‘regenerative’ farming in UK farming culture - where rotating grazing animals can fertilise the land and perhaps even help permanent carbon sequestration with their dung and urine.  

It was falling commercial milk-prices, not our changing diets, that forced David to sell his prized dairy herd in 2016. It was a disruptive and painful decision to abandon generations of knowledge and investment in both cattle breeding and expensive milking equipment. The labour, housing and well-draining farmland is now shared between David, his wife Jane and the growing families of their sons John and Mark.

Fodder beet is directly grazed, and the land fertilized and rooted by their saddleback pigs before rotation with pasture fed lamb and seasonal turkeys.  Mark explains how, as individuals, they all have different strengths and strikingly individual perspectives on climate change. However, they share an ethos towards the farm’s sustainable future, the need to adapt and drive towards self-sufficiency. There is a plan to grow barley in rotation, negating the need for any commercial feed inputs. Animal feed - often based on soya grown on deforested land in the tropics - is an enormous contributor to both global habitat loss and the carbon cost of meat production.

A trailer of Suffolk cross lambs is shorn by John before being turned out to graze under the blossom of a local craft cider orchard. Across the UK, dozens of livestock farms are now planting new trees in experiments hoping to repeat the success of traditional European Silvopasture. Farming livestock amongst trees could be a novel way of increasing farm productivity, carbon sequestration and biodiversity while also reducing flood risk.

Pete is a sixth generation Exmoor farmer, focussed on nurturing his land in a time honoured way with a tireless work-ethic and family wisdom. He is unapologetic about his opinions of veganism, concerned about the rapid and permanent harm it could inflict on policy, land-use and with it hundreds of farmers, their families, communities and the important landscape they inhabit and maintain.  

Katie, his daughter, shares the infectious level of pride and connection to Exmoor but revels in the opportunity to learn and debate these issues at agricultural college. Katie is emblematic of the encouraging increase in young farmers with fresh approaches and energy to engage in farming.

Pete and Katie together dilute the negative but very real stereotype of isolated, aging men and machinery. 

Later that afternoon, we follow the supply chain back to the M5 and stroll around Piper’s enormous freezer. Sized to stockpile ready for the surge of Christmas orders, the shelves are lined with meticulously packaged, perfect portions. It's a chilling distillation of thousands of acres, generations of experience, human labour and resources. The experience is surreal - an icy, sterile convergence that exists between the warm characters of the farms, our forks and hotly contested debates of meat consumption.

Toby Smith

Toby Smith is an award winning environmental photographer, based in Stroud. We're collaborating with him to produce a series of photo-essays visualising climate change in the UK. 


Read more stories by Toby Smith

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