I have made a start on researching existing local initiatives of every kind that have a positive contribution to make to a low carbon, resilient future. Local for me is Shropshire and across the Welsh border. I have started with the easiest and probably the most obvious thing – food – because it is of course crucially important.
The local food movement has been gaining a great deal of momentum in recent years and I wanted to look deeper than local food shops, jam and chutney makers etc to food producers whose work and methods demonstrate at a fundamental level how to produce food in a low carbon way now and in the future. I have found a number of interesting farms and associated enterprises but to begin with here are two Shropshire family farms. They have both been purposefully standing up for what they believed to be the better way for many decades. Now in the fullness of time they are recognised for their invaluable contribution to preserving the best of the past and using it to focus on a sustainable future.
Pimhill Farm, Harmer Hill, Shrewsbury, SY4 3DY
Pimhill Farm is a mixed organic farm with a dairy herd of 260 which also grows wheat and oats. Interestingly they have a mill on the farm for processing their own grains. The family has owned the farm since 1923 and it became organic in 1949:
Sam [original owner] and Richard [his son] had been concerned about the direction of the farm due to a breakdown in fertility in the cows. This coincided with a time when nationally there was a great push for agricultural production as a result of food shortages during the war.
Richard and then Sam were so impressed by Friend Sykes’ book [Humus and the Farmer, Frank Sykes, 1946] and his emphasis on the importance of soil health that they took the decision not to use artificial fertilisers and chemicals -effectively, not to follow the conventional route. In 1949 they went ‘organic’ (though at the time it was not known as such). This was not done with a market in mind: it was a decision taken on the strength of their belief that this was the best way forward for both their land and for their livestock.
At Pimhill they have never lost sight of the fundamental importance of healthy, fertile soil. In an article dating back to February 1965 – An English Organic Farm by Sam Mayall he says that “a good soil seethes with creatures, many forms of life. All treatment of the soil must be based on that fact and this life must be fed. It means that all animal and plant residues must be returned to the soil”.
Pimhill oats, oatmeal, muesli, biscuits and flour are widely available in Shropshire and I expect further afield as well, plus on line. We have been using their oats for porridge for some years and can recommend them. I have to say I have not as yet tried their bread flour, which I had better rectify as soon as possible.
Fordhall Organic Farm, Tern Hill Road, Market Drayton, TF9 3PS
Fordhall Farm is adjacent to the massive (and much more widely known) Muller Dairy factory. They rear cattle, sheep and pigs on an extensive grazing system and have been chemical free for over 65 years. The farm comprises 140 acres of grassland, wetland, woodland and streams.
Arthur Hollins took over the tenancy at Fordhall back in 1929 at the tender age of 14, after his father passed away. Following the intensive food production of the war effort, the land left to Arthur amounted to no more than a fallow malnourished soil, but the new farmer was soon struck by the big difference in the rich growth in the woodlands.
Arthur grew to understand that “Mother Earth” would correct man-made errors if left to heal herself. Shortly after the Second World War he vowed never to put chemical fertilisers on the land at Fordhall again, relying solely on natural animal muck as fertiliser. He let the grassland fields return to nature, and built up a herd of dairy cows to supply milk to the yoghurt enterprise set-up alongside his first wife, May. Being among the first in the country to make LIVE yoghurt they were soon supplying many famous London and Edinburgh stores and markets.
Even while business was booming, Arthur always found energy for his research. He was adamant that farming could work in harmony with nature and he spent his whole life reinforcing this idea. Even when many were saying he was a crackpot, he knew that this was the only style of farming that was sustainable. It is this importance of sustainability that has been easily absorbed into the Fordhall Community Land Initiative today.
The full story of the farm’s history is told in Arthur Hollins’ book “The Farmer, The Plough and The Devil”; what a man he must have been, to plot such a sure course from the age of 14.
The family were tenant farmers and did not own the land; they came very, very close to losing their farm when the landowners considered selling to neighbouring Mullers. Thus it was that Arthur Hollins’ youngest children Charlotte and Ben ( at the ages of 21 and 19) set about securing their own tenancy in 2004. In 2006 it became England’s first community owned farm when it was bought by The Fordhall Community Land Initiative (an Industrial and Provident Society with charitable status) with 8000 shareholders across the UK and wider world. Shares can still be purchased (£50 each); they are lifelong and non profit making. Purchase of one share entitles the owner to a vote at the AGM. For anyone who would like to know more about the larger challenge of setting up a community owned farm Charlotte Hollins has put together a guide available here.
A system of “foggage farming” ensures that they can keep animals outside on the land all year round and feed them almost entirely from their own pasture……….
Fordhall operates a system of outdoor grazing called ‘Foggage Farming’. This means that our cattle and sheep live outdoors throughout the year, making them completely grass fed. It is a Permaculture based system developed by the late Arthur Hollins, as he tried to move the farm away from a reliance upon costly outside inputs.
The system relies on a diversity of grasses and herbs in our pastures – in fact over 70 different plant species have been recorded in our pastures! This variety provides a healthy diet for our livestock and the tight root structure of our permanent pasture means that our livestock can be wintered outdoors without ruining (or poaching) the ground.
Fordhall consists of both wetland meadows and sandy hills, this allows the livestock to be rotated around the farm throughout the year; grazing the wetlands during the drier summer months and moving up to the sandy hills near the farm for the wetter winter months.
We do have to supplement with some additional hay in the height of the winter, and Ben is able to cut this from a traditional hay meadow he rents from Shropshire Wildlife Trust near Whitchurch.
This system means that Fordhall does not have to rely on buying lots of dry feed or grains during the winter months, providing a degree of shelter from market forces as well as a healthier diet for the livestock. The compromise is that our cattle and sheep grow slightly slower than the grain fed animal, however the flavour that develops within the meat is unrivalled and they are living the way nature intended.
To compliment this system our cattle calve only in the spring. This means that we never calve in the autumn, so that no cows are trying to feed young stock through the winter as well as themselves. Similarly, the sheep lamb slightly later in the year, beginning at the middle-end of March; again as the fresh grass is beginning to show, allowing the mothers to develop plenty of milk to feed their newborn.
This system is sustainable, healthy for the livestock and low in embedded energy. For more information on the benefits of grass fed meat see the Soil Associations recent report on Carbon and Farming.
Looking beyond the farm to the wider community Fordhall has had a community gardening project which has now become a sustainable “Care Farming Project” to teach people in the community about growing their own produce, to eat more healthily and to engage with the environment. There is much more fascinating information and inspiration on the website do have a look!
I don’t eat meat (except poultry on the rarest of rare occasions) but am so very pleased that for those who do, this farm is such a wonderful example of a viable, ethical and people friendly enterprise that has stood the test of time.
I have known about both Fordhall and Pimhill since I moved to Shropshire in 1989, but it has not been until today that I have understood more clearly the importance of their work and example. Since the 1920s (which I guess will be before everyone likely to be reading this was born), pre-organic, pre-permaculture, pre-Transition – these two farms they have withstood the external pressures on farmers to compromise their integrity and the soil’s fertility with the use of chemicals. They have achieved the still greater feat of remaining economically viable throughout many decades when small farmers were swallowed up by ever larger ones and have come to the 21st century with much to teach those who would like to learn.