After Manchester, I took a bus down to Devon in the south of England. Devon is beautiful, lush, verdant, green and bursting with agriculture, a far cry from the bleaker industrial north. (Though don’t get me wrong the north has its charms as well.) I went to Devon to work with Pipers Farm. I’ll speak more about them directly in the next post but here is a brief overview. Pipers is a small family farm owned by Peter and Henri Grieg. They have a small butcher shop in Exeter and sell meat and prepared food on line. Pipers raises some of their own meat but the majority is purchased from local farmers that share their philosophy for naturally and humanely raised, heritage breed animals. For this post I would like to talk about two of the farms that I visited while staying in Devon.
Peter dropped me off at South Coombe Farm right around lunch time which was lucky for me. I sat down with Glyn and his father Martin to a beautiful, albeit very simple lunch of cold lamb, wheat bread, salty butter and whole home grown vegetables and we tucked in. Grandpa spent most of the meal telling me about his garden. He is very proud of his little vegetable plot and well he should be. The garden is diverse and productive especially considering he is the only tender at 86. He said that his best run of eating only what he grows were two years where all he had to purchase to feed his family were 2 cabbages. “It was a very cold February” Martin loves to live off of the land and survive on what he grows. He is disgusted with the current culture of purchasing whatever you feel like eating. He is the ultimate example of eating locally and seasonally.
South Coombe Farm is currently owned by Glyn and Christina Comont and is located just outside Crediton in Devon. They raise sheep and cattle and they breed saddle back pigs that are sold to Piper’s Farm and raised to weight on another property.
The land was in the family though Glyn purchased an additional 20 acres once ownership came over to him. His father, Martin mostly raised sheep but since taking over Glyn has focused more on the pigs. The total farm is about 110 acres, all of which is either in production or under environmental easement or both. Glyn has all sorts of small environmental projects going on around the property. He planted a 12 acre forest more than 20 years ago that he is very proud of. He maintains hedgerows in such a way as to boost biodiversity as opposed to tamping it down, leaving the wild fruit to mature so that it provides forage for wildlife. His fields go back and forth between tamed forage and untamed pastures, leaving fields unused and wild for at least 1 year out of every 5. He even has one field that he has intentionally let go over to thistle (a sin in this part of England) “for the insects, because really the insects are probably the most important thing you’re after when it comes to increasing biodiversity.” He gets some money from the government for his environmental stewardship but really not enough to cover the cost of maintaining it. He also gets what’s called a small farm payment which again, does not cover the cost of running the farm but it all helps.
After lunch Glynn took me for a walk over the property. He walks everywhere on his property, he thinks that using a truck or tractor is just a waste of fuel and happily trudges to whatever task needs doing no matter the distance or weather. It was immediately evident that Glynn is a man passionately in love with his land. He had something to tell about every nook, cranny knoll and tree. There were exclamations over new species of plants, and insects, all he belives as a result of his many environmental efforts. He is a farmer that evokes the Thomas Jefferson quote: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
The next morning we went out to feed the pigs early and I saw that one of the pregnant sows was pulling the long grass from the field and bringing it back to her arc. Apparently this is a nesting behavior. The mommy to be will start pulling the grass and building a nest about 10 hours before she gives birth. Unfortunately we had to pull apart all of her hard work because the grass was very wet with dew and with the chill in the air, Glyn was a little concerned for the babies. We replaced the grass with some dry straw, finished feeding everyone and then it was time to sort out the breeding ewes for the season. We needed to get a hold of each one and determine who was the fittest for breeding new breeders, which would breed for lamb and which were too old to go another season. We gathered all 200 into a pen and got out some different colored ink to code them. Grandpa Martin was the record keeper while Glyn and I caught, assessed and marked. Martin and Glyn have the records of all of the sheep going back for a long time. Martin sat with his ancient record book telling us which numbers should be “super dupers” and which would only be fit to breed lamb. Glyn would like to upgrade the technology and scrap the book, but grandpa guffaws at the idea. At the beginning Glyn was the chief determiner but after several hours I was able to count teeth, check feet and teats for mastitis and began to make decisions on my own. I happily marked super dupers and meat breeders for a while and without thinking about it, found one with too few teeth and marked her for slaughter. As soon as that yellow mark was on, I felt immediately guilty and had Glyn double check. I was right and she was shuttled off with the others. I was sad but such is farming life, better to be sad and have some respect for the animal than cold hearted I guess.
After a long day, all of the sheep were finished and turned back out onto the pasture. We went back up to check on the pigs and feed them dinner and Momma was having her babies. I was covered in sheep shit, sweaty and exhausted and watching her give birth to those 12 healthy piglets was beautiful. I stayed and watched until Glyn dragged me off for dinner. Grandpa had prepared a roasted marrow (a giant zucchini) stuffed with lamb of course. I asked if he ever picked the squash smaller and he said “NO! that’s infanticide in my book.” I think he would be horrified to see the tiny summer squash with the blossom attached I was harvesting for The Manchester House only a week before.
The next morning, Glyn and Christine drove me over to Yardley Farm in Exmoor. The scenery of this farm was drop dead gorgeous, rolling hills blooming with purple heather and sheer cliffs dropping down to the ocean below. There are small sheep raised for wool running all over the moor. They are almost feral and go where they please. They are herded up a few times a year for de worming and shearing. We also saw a few of the Exmore wild horses which were pretty magical. I was sad to say goodbye to the Comonts, staying with them was a really lovely experience, but that blue ocean made it a little bit easier.
Yardley Farm is currently owned by the Richards family and chiefly run by Jon. Jon’s grandfather was a tenant farmer on the land when the landowner lost all of his money. The landowner put it up for sale and gave the tenants first dibs. Jon’s Grandfather reluctantly purchased the land. He didn’t want to be tied down, though Jon is glad that he made the decision that he did. Grandfather continued to work on the more than 100 miles of stone wall that he began as a tenant and Jon keeps up with the work till this day. He is constantly repairing the walls but says that it is a task he enjoys. “They make the best fences around here, the land is sloped and the animals just break through hedgerow” There are now 3 generations of Richard’s men that have built these walls by hand. He feels the work ties him to his family and they will certainly continue as a family legacy. Jon’s grandfather was still working on a portion of the wall when he passed away, when Jon finished it he put up a plaque commemorating all of his grandfather’s hard work.
Jon breeds Exmoor cross sheep and has about 1000 breeding ewes that are sold in Saibers supermarkets (considered to be one of the higher end chains) around the UK. He also breeds red ruby Dorset beef for Piper’s Farm. The male calves are given over soon after weaning while the females are kept for future breeding.
The Devons are then raised for an additional 2 and a half to 3 years before they reach weight. Their natural diet and heritage breed means that the animals are slow to put on weight but Piper’s is happy to wait for such an exceptional product. Heritage breeds, raised on the land to which they were bred is one of the most important factors to Piper’s Farm.
We spent the rest of the morning touring the farm and in the afternoon we herded up one group of the sheep, gave them a dewormer and let them loose on a new pasture. I got to see Jon’s two dogs in action and they were definitely impressive. Tiny, who lives up to the title was pretty amazing, steering a few hundred sheep over the terrain and into the pen. After work we had dinner, which was of course, lamb. In the morning we got up early and moved more sheep until I was picked up by Peter and Henri to go back to Pipers Farm.
Why did you choose sustainable agriculture and what was your journey to get there?
Glyn: I started out working in the commercial pig industry in intensive units on another farm. I became more and more disillusioned with how they were being raised. The cramped conditions, the overuse of growth hormones and antibiotics. All of those potentially damaging things to our health and definitely damaging to the environment. My father owned this land and I decided to come home to start my own pig production.
What do you think of the current food system in your country?
Glyn: It’s incredibly divided. The transparency is not too bad but things always go under the radar because of the huge convoluted supply chain. Food is bought and sold a ridiculous amount of times before it reaches the consumer. The UK is trying to simplify the supply chain and the groceries say that they are on board but as soon as something shows up that is cheaper they purchase that instead.
What do you see as the future of food in your country?
Glyn: I think it is dividing into 2 factions. 50% of the population here doesn’t care how or where the food is produced. They want cheap and they don’t care. Then there is the other section of the population that are much keener to know where their food was produced. Unfortunately in the supermarkets the cheap guys are gaining market share very quickly. The high end chains are also gaining customers but I think there are a lot of people in the middle being left out in the cold. I think we are going to continue to be divided.
Are you concerned about how climate change may affect your business in the future?
Glyn: Well, I am concerned about climate change and it is a real, serious global issue. I think it probably will affect agriculture and my business but I have no idea how. It’s very difficult to know. My concern is more about what it is doing to the world and how it will affect biodiversity. Already wildlife has had to endure so much. Between human encroachment and now climate change, it feels like they don’t have a chance. That’s why I think keeping my carbon emissions as low as possible is so important. That’s also why I planted that forest. I worked out the math and that amount of trees vs my pigs and sheep makes this farm almost carbon neutral. And I walk when a lot of other farmers would take a truck.
Who do hope will inherit you enterprise?
Glyn: We’ve been talking about this a lot in our family lately. Our daughter Sarah and her husband Max will be moving down here. I’m sure what they will do will be much different than want I’m doing, it will probably be more of a part time farm enterprise for them. Though our other son Robert can’t be left out so there will have to be something for him as well.
Well, that is the end of my visit with South Coombe and Yardley Farms. Next post will dive deeper into Piper’s farm. I’m in Vietnam at the moment and headed up into the mountains to work with some folks setting up an organic vegetable farm. I’m not sure how much internet access I will have so it may be a bit of a wait for the next post.