A farmer's life in the 21st century
PUBLISHED: 10:04 27 September 2016
It's a very busy time of year for farmers in the county as the fruits (or crops) of their labours come to fruition. Sandra Deeble looks at the state of the industry in Herts and how it is evolving to meet challenges
‘The outside world probably assumes that Hertfordshire is a very urban county,’ says Ian Pigott, whose family has been farming in the Harpenden area since the 15th century. ‘Yet although there’s less livestock than a decade ago and sadly very little dairy farming, the county grows a huge acreage of combinable crops: oilseed rape, wheat, barley and oats.’
Pigott returned to the Thrales End family farm in 1996 after a stint in the City and now farms 1,700 acres of land in Harpenden. Flour goes to local mills – Bowman’s in Hitchin and Heygates in Tring. His crops include wheat for biscuits and breadmaking and malting barley for the whiskey market.
‘Working in the City I came across a lot of bright young people who were very disconnected with where their food came from and held farming in very low esteem, largely as a result of poor communication on the part of the farming industry.’
He has since made it his mission to connect people with where their food comes from. His achievements are impressive, with accolades including the Countryside Alliance Rural Hero award for founding the national open farm day, Farm Sunday, and the Bullock Award for an ongoing commitment to reconnecting children with food and farming. Pigott’s Annables Farm at Kinsbourne Green is a LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) demonstration farm.
When I first call Ian to arrange an interview, his young son answers the phone and informs me that dad ‘is at The Farmschool’.
The Farmschool is a charity run by Ian, where eight to 15-year-old school children spend a day at the farm making their own butter and bread and the activities incorporate maths, science, history, religion and PHSE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic). Adults are also welcome. Last year, Ian was awarded an OBE for services to agricultural and countryside education.
Stewardship and succession are big issues for farming families and Ian acknowledges he is lucky. ‘My father understands the importance of change. He is very supportive of our education work. One of the greatest challenges on many family farms is the older generation not giving the successor the chance to make their own mistakes.’
The new farmer
Robert Law at Thrift Farm near Royston is ‘a first generation farmer’. He farms arable crops over 4,000 hectares and has a flock of 2000 sheep. Two thirds of his cereal – wheat, barley, oat and rye – go to Jordans in Biggleswade. Sugar beet goes to the sugar factory in Bury St Edmunds, and the lambs go to Leech and Sons in Melbourn, a butcher renowned for local produce.
‘I’m a newcomer,’ says Law, who has been farming in Royston since 1981. I was born in Newmarket and my father was a solicitor. Aged 14 he sent me out to do work experience on one of his father’s farms. I got the farming bug and here I am.’
Robert garnered Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year award in 2006 and now writes a regular column for the magazine.
The day before I visit, he was in London with the Farmers’ Union, helping farmers to prepare for a meeting with Andrea Leadsom, energy and climate change minister.
There is much talk - brought into focus by Brexit - about whether farmers will be given more payments in the future towards environmental stewardship. Robert is already ahead of the game. ‘We’ve planted 80 acres of woodlands here. We’ve restored hedgerows, put ponds in and created wild meadows. We farm intensively – crops and livestock. I farm wildlife intensively as well.’
He grazes sheep on nearby Therfield Heath, a Site of Special Specific Interest.
‘We’re not organic farmers but we’re environmentally aware and it’s a sustainable form of farming we do here.’
The land is good to him, he says. ‘We’ve got this long ridge of Hertfordshire chalk. For sheep and cropping, it works really well.’
Farm to farmshop
Grazing at King’s Meads Nature Reserve, between Hertford and Ware, is a beef herd belonging to Catherine Smith, third generation farmer at Foxholes Farm in Hertford, also home to an award-winning farm shop and butchery.
While her grandfather and father would have got the local farming gossip from Hertford Cattle Market, now she finds out what’s happening on Twitter. ‘You have to go with the flow and you have to adapt,’ says Catherine, who remembers sitting on a crawler tractor as a child and throwing bales onto a trailer by hand. ‘A lot of farmers are very blinkered and won’t change.’
Change has involved switching to a beef herd – her dad had a dairy farm and milked two herds – and learning butchery. She started selling her own beef from the farmhouse and in 1998 and then at farmers’ markets. She opened her Foxholes Farm Shop in 2007 and Granny Smith’s Tea Shop in 2013 and profits are growing each year.
Making milk work
Making a profit - and indeed suriving - has never been harder for farmers.
This time last year, dairy farmer Charlie Wray, of Wayside Farm in Kings Langley, was ready to give up. While there used to be 162 dairy farms in Hertfordshire, today there are just a handful, with only two Jersey herds, Charlie’s and Amwell Place Farm run by Jenny and Barry Daw at Hertford Heath. Charlie started off with half a dozen cows at Little Gaddesdon, supplying raw cream to Ashridge Management College, before gaining tenancy of his Hertfordshire County Council farm and moving to Kings Langley.
Together with his family - his son Tom now has longhorn cattle - Wray works 15 hours a day, seven days a week. He says it is now almost impossible to make money by selling milk. When selling through a co-operative, he explains that, ‘It costs us 31p and the co-operative pays me 22p. You don’t have to be Carol Vorderman to work that one out. And yet nobody looks at the price of milk in supermarkets. Customers would pay more for it.’
He talks about a time when we would spend 60 per cent of our income on food. Today it’s down to 7 per cent.
Wray bought some of the last heifers from the former Ovaltine farm which can be seen from his farm and he has found a way of keeping going – selling raw milk.
He started with a small domestic fridge a year ago and then invested in a vending machine. It could be the solution for getting a fair return.
‘People can’t believe it’s milk,’ says Charlie. ‘It’s got everything in it. Jerseys are the best cows you can get.’
The taste is bringing people come back for more. Charlie says several of his regular customers are also telling him that while they weren’t able to digest pasteurised milk, they are now enjoying breakfast cereal with raw milk. One fan is Hertfordshire Life health columnist, Janey Lee Grace.
While it will take more investment, he would like to start making products with raw milk such as cream, butter, cheese and ice-cream.
Someone who has just won two Great Taste Awards for her ice-cream made from Jersey milk is Claire Daw at Amwell Place Farm in Hertford Heath.
Claire recently eschewed a place at Harper Adams University in Shropshire to stay on the family farm to make ice-cream. I am pleased to confirm that Just Dawlicious ice-cream deserved its award and that buying a tub while Jersey calves crane their necks to watch you, is delightful. ‘Jerseys are so inquisitive,’ says Claire who is building her new business slowly and whose ice-cream is starting to be enjoyed at local cafes and restaurants, including Hopleys Café in Much Hadham and the White Hart in Welwyn. The Daws have also invested in a vending machine to sell raw milk.
The whole family won the dairy heifer interbreed championship award for their home-bred Jersey, Bluegrass Actionmans Action Jane, at the Livestock Event in July.
Challenges and legacy
Despite challenges presented by weather, fear of devastating infection such as TB, and family succession, all of the farmers talk about how farming is a way of life, and how the love of their animals – from the now departed heifer Mitten at Charlie Wray’s farm to the newly-born Roxy Moosic, named thanks to a question posed on Twitter by Claire Daw, there is a desire to keep going.
‘When I leave this world I like to think that I’ve improved the countryside here,’ says Robert Law.
Ian Pigott is concerned about Brexit for UK agriculture because, ‘the countryside will be the casualty if there is no recognition of the social and environmental contribution of farmers. We have the highest levels of welfare and environmental stewardship anywhere in the world. British farmers are extremely resilient and creative. But I struggle to comprehend why as a nation we are obsessed with energy security but place no value on food security. Buying cheap food from abroad with no regard for how it is grown is exporting our environmental responsibilities.’
Ian would like us all to adopt the mantra of a French farming friend, ‘We don’t own our land; we borrow it from our children.’
The world’s oldest agricultural institute
Rothamsted Research in Harpenden employs 600 people, with 22 different nationalities represented. It is predominately supported through public funding and was founded by Sir John Bennet Lawes in 1843 as the Rothamsted Experimental Station.
Rather than being a shady, secretive institution where experiments are carried out, the scientists are keen to talk about the work. ‘We pride ourselves on being a very open organisation,’ says Professor Johnathan Napier, Associate Director for Crop Science, pointing out that people can walk on footpaths nearby, and that in October, the Herts 10K begins and ends at the site.
Johnathan studied agriculture at Nottingham University where one of his tutors was Don Grierson, whose research with tomato puree led to Sainsbury’s selling genetically modified tomatoes in the 90s.
He is currently involved in his own GM field trial on omega-3 fish oil at Rothamsted for which DEFRA gave the go-ahead.
With ‘not enough fish in the sea,’ he says we will rely more on farmed fish – oily fish such as salmon - in the future. His crop of Camelina sativa plants are genetically engineered to make omega-3 fish oils in their seeds. In the sea, fish obtain omega-3 fatty acids by consuming marine algae. Farmed fish are unable to absorb sufficient omega-3 in their diets so they are currently fed ‘small, bony fish’.
‘The aim of our research is to replace or substitute some of the oceanically-sourced fish oils used to feed fish such as salmon with our GM plant-based fish oil.’
Unlike the Rothamsted GM wheat trial four years ago, which resulted in a much-publicised demonstration and police presence, the fish oil trial has been undisturbed.
‘We’ve certainly not had any threat to our omega-3 trials,’ says Napier. ‘That’s a big difference from 2012.’
The results of the GM wheat trial were published in June last year. The wheat did not repel aphids as was hoped. Learning from the tests, a follow up project is currently being planned.
With roughly 85 per cent of all US corn crops now GM, will we soon be consuming GM food (currently banned under EU Law) in the UK?
‘It will only happen if the population can see the benefit. It’s not a magic bullet. It’s just one of the tools in our tool box.’
The Rothamsted tool box also contains drones. They were exhibited recently at a ‘Cereals’ event close to Royston. ‘It’s the Glastonbury for farmers,’ says Johnathan.
‘We’re trialling drones as a way of monitoring how a crop performs in real time,’ he says, adding, ‘UK farmers are very nimble and adaptive to grasping new technologies.’
Accessing data, he says, will be critical in the future. ‘Being able to see a long-term weather forecast. Knowing when is the best time to spray. When is the best time to sell my crop. And we talk a lot about “sustainable intensification” which is how to ramp up food production while treading lightly. Farming is facing the challenge of feeding nine billion mouths on the planet.’
In the Rothamsted Research canteen, where one quarter of the staff come from the rest of Europe, Napier says that talk recently has been very much about Brexit. ‘Although the main lunchtime conversation at the moment is Pokemon Go,’ says Napier.
Insect and bird migration: revealing the mysteries of flight is a free public event at Rothamsted Conference Centre on October 13, 7.30pm to 9.30pm.
Rothamsted has just opened a photo-story competition for children and young adults. See rothamsted.ac.uk/events/illuminating-life-photo-story-competition for details.