A farmer’s tale

Will Best

30 May 2011

Soil Association farmer Will Best reflects on farming organically since the early '80s, and the changes and growth the market has seen in that time, as well as what the future may hold for the sector.

When I was lucky enough to become the 22 year old tenant of my father’s rather rundown 200 acre chalk land farm in Dorset in 1970 I was desperate to modernise it and make serious increases in its productivity. At that time continuous cereal cropping on the one hand, and intensive meat production, including ‘barley beef’ on the other, were becoming established as apparently feasible farming systems, and were being backed by economists and consultants as the way forward. Dairy herds were gradually increasing in size and moving out of cowsheds into cubicles and herringbones. This lowered the requirement for straw, and straw burning was becoming widespread, while slurry was becoming a problem, as opposed to manure being an asset. And with silage replacing hay, farms were less fragrant than before. However, nobody thought of not sending their cows out to graze from March to October.

I started milking 30 out-wintered Friesian heifers through the old abreast parlour and buying several times more fertiliser than the farm had ever seen. By 1976 we had our herringbone, silo and cubicles and around 70 milkers, which was well above the national average. But we were also coming under the influence of John Seymour and starting to do things like making our own bread, yoghurt and cheese and curing our own bacon; the self-sufficiency movement was quite big at the time and kind of chimed in with our long hair and flared jeans. From there it was not a big step to start trying nitrogen fixing crops like lucerne and peas, and to take our children to a homoeopath. But organic farming was almost non-existent, and it was only when Pam saw an advert for a Soil Association meeting at Taunton in about 1982 that we were aware that it was active at all. We went along and were greatly encouraged by what we heard and who we met, including a slim moustachioed Hugh Chapman.

Suddenly a new world was opening up. We discovered that Lawrence Woodward had recently established Elm Farm and that Patrick Holden had formed British Organic Farmers. These men were younger than me but way ahead in their thinking and it was time to catch up. Pam, who had already started selling pork and sausages ex farm, started a sheep flock and Lawrence worked out a conversion plan for us. Essentially, we reduced cow numbers back from 90 to 70, cut our arable acreage a bit, tidied up our rotation, introduced white and red clover and cut out the chemicals. Some fields took to it straightaway, while others, particularly where there had been long runs of cereals, took a few years to become productive. We scrapped our cubicles and put up a covered yard for loose housing on straw.

New opportunities

We harvested our first organic wheat (sold for milling) in 1986. Some of it was Maris Widgeon, and a local thatcher cut it with his binder and used the straw for combed wheat reed. This has been a feature of the farm ever since and certainly in the late 80s and the 90s made a good contribution to farm profitability. For some years we did everything ourselves including the threshing, cutting about 20 acres a year. Now we have dropped the acreage a bit and a thatcher friend takes charge of the operation. Selling milling wheat to local mills was a good earner and we even for a while had our own brand of locally grown, milled and baked bread, sold in a few local shops.

Our conversion plan expected premium prices for wheat, and for our home-marketed meat, but only the standard price for milk, and it was not until 1990 that we were asked to supply organic milk at a small premium, firstly to Unigate in Totnes and then to Busses Farm Yoghurt in Sussex. This all had to be arranged through the Milk Marketing Board (MMB). In 1991 Michael Duveen of Busses Farm asked us to put in a pasteuriser and cartoning machine to supply wholemilk to Waitrose, Safeway and a small London round through his newly formed Farmers Dairy Company. This was the very beginning of organic milk in the multiples, but it developed rapidly. We were soon out of Safeway, to our relief, but experienced demand from other outlets. However, Busses Farm lost out to Rachel’s Dairy and the organic newcomer Yeo Valley, and went into liquidation, taking the Farmers Dairy Company with it; we lost money there, which seemed tough at the time, though we later realised that it was worth it for a listing in Waitrose.

Then the MMB was scrapped and with it the levy of three pence per litre which all producer processors had had to pay to the Board. We found ourselves very much now in charge of our own destiny, installing separation equipment to make semi-skimmed milk and cream. Milk processing and marketing took over our lives, and it was an even steeper learning curve than organic conversion had been. Waitrose were good to deal with. We were pretty scared the first time we went to meet their buyers at Bracknell and did well to hang on to our position. They expected us to get everything right, but in turn they were supportive. We had a couple of very profitable years which helped us upgrade some of the farm kit, but by now the market was growing too fast for us. Even though cow numbers had crept back up we could not produce enough ourselves and OMSCo could only spare a drop to sell to us and it was not from Dorset, where we were the only commercial dairy farm.

We were reluctant to invest in plant to process more milk when we could not buy the milk we needed. We valued our own brand more and more, and did not really want to do supermarket ‘own label’, so we lost our prime position in Waitrose. The solution we eventually came up with was to have Coombe Farm do the processing for us and to concentrate ourselves on sales and distribution. This worked well, and we built up some good rounds to independent retailers and wholesalers locally, around Bristol, to Southampton and Brighton, and around London. So when, 10 years ago, there was a flush of organic milk and the price paid to farmers collapsed to unviable levels, we had our own route to market and continued to pay our farm a good price. I only ever wanted to be a farmer, but that involvement with the market was fascinating. We had over 100 trade customers, all of whom we knew personally, and we learnt how to look after them, how to produce a top quality product (and deliver it efficiently), and how, through good graphics, words and deeds, to sell to the consumer the farming story behind our products. This, in turn enabled us to farm the way we consider right, to keep the farm beautiful, to be good to our animals and to do the things that our customers wanted us to do. I also learnt a lot of other things like truck driving, and ‘the knowledge’ of how to get about London while avoiding the congestion charge.

Meanwhile Coombe Farm took on the Waitrose own label business, Yeo Valley went from strength to strength and moved into liquid milk (packed at Coombe), and then, when we were expanding fast and beginning a grant funded move into butter production, I had a brain haemorrhage and nearly died. The butter project was shelved and we thought again about putting up a new processing plant. As I was nearly 60 and now with a medical history, it didn't really stack up, so in 2007 we sold Manor Farm Organic Milk Ltd to Coombe Farm and we now just sell our bulk milk to them, apart from a small, but growing litreage which we sell unpasteurised directly to private customers.

Lessons learnt

When we started organic farming we were very aware not only that the amount we could produce would be limited by the farming system, but also that any produce leaving the farm would be taking valuable nutrients with it. Therefore it seemed essential to us to try to maximise the financial return from everything we sold, which inevitably led to our doing our own processing and marketing.We also wanted to take the opportunity to escape the squeeze experienced by the farming industry between huge powerful businesses selling the inputs and other huge powerful ones buying the products. Getting away from the clutches of the input sellers is easy: you just sign up to the Soil Association Symbol and stop buying the inputs. Escaping the unscrupulous power of the big buyers is more difficult, but if you are small enough it is possible. We didn’t realise when we started our venture that it would attract such interest from our fellow farmers, but it did and it soon became clear that if we succeeded others would follow, while if we were to fail organic farming would be slow to catch on in Dorset.

The milk company helped us to succeed and to be able to demonstrate to our neighbours that farming without chemicals could work and be enjoyable. Now I am impressed and sometimes amazed at the amount of organic farming in Dorset. We grew up with Schumacher and Small is Beautiful, but many of the organic herds around us now are far bigger than ours and I don’t feel critical of them, providing that their husbandry is good. If you have a good setup and the farm layout is good it is not a problem getting 250 milkers out to graze and back for milking, and if you are selling bulk milk, even at the best available organic price, you need economies of scale to be viable.

Having converted our farm for idealistic reasons, we were unexpectedly lucky to find ourselves in on the ground floor of something that soon started to grow rapidly, and therefore in a very fortunate business position. No doubt, had we been more astute, we could have achieved a lot more with our business, but one wonders what opportunities there are for young people starting out now with limited resources. The point about the position of us and others like us in the 1980s is that we were part of a movement. The farming community tends to be inward and backward looking and not very good at spotting trends. We had not consciously spotted a trend, but were going through a thought process which was shared by many non-farmers, who became as consumers the basis of the market which we were able to supply. So the flourishing farmers of the future may be those who are in tune with the ethos of now, whatever that is: local delivery, unpasteurised milk, new cheeses, something to do with social networking? There are great examples of people doing things on a small scale that they believe in and finding their own markets. And long may they thrive, because a future of great swathes of oilseed rape, mega dairies of permanently housed cows, and homogenised, lifeless food is too terrible to contemplate.

Will Best is a Soil Association licensee, who together with his wife Pam, has farmed the 200 acre Manor Farm in Dorset for more than 40 years.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

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