Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Down on the farm . . .

A few months ago, I introduced the National Trust's new 'My Farm' project. A lot's been happening since then!

Back in May I wrote about the first members' decision about which crop to plant in a particular field. In the end, the decision was for the most clearly and reliably commercial option - sowing wheat. Scott, one of the the farmers on the estate, was delighted . . . it was the decision he would have made.

The next decision to be put before members was about livestock. The sheep flock was to be increased, so the question was: should they go for additional rare breeds, or for a 'safe' commercial breed? The project billed this, on their website, as a 'head vs heart' decision, but I'm not sure that's really accurate - there are very good 'head' reasons for stocking rare breeds. The issue is really, in my view, about short-term, self-centred, commercial return; or long-term, socially responsible approach to sustainability in livestock management. Rare breeds are pools of important genes for future breeding. When we face an uncertain future in terms of food production, keeping open as many options as possible is part of farming sustainably.

Scott originally posed the question as
We originally asked: 'What sheep should we buy' but actually it's more along the lines of 'What sheep should be breed?' To date, Wimpole has kept sheep only on the parkland, which is suitable only for grazing. The sheep kept here are all rare breeds, as part of our work with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and we should be very clear this is not under threat in any way. However, as we start to establish the organic rotation on the arable farmland, 2/5ths of the farm will be sown with grass and clover at any one time – so we have the opportunity to expand the sheep flock, as their fertility will be important to this phase. We have a decision to make as to which sheep to breed on this land. The question is essentially whether to continue our work with rare breeds, or to start keeping a more commercial breed.
This was followed by a video of a discussion about the market for different kinds of meat, and then one about rare breeds vs commercials. Some of the points made in this latter were [edited from the transcript]:
Scott: On paper, financially, it would be obvious to go with the commercial sheep. But there's the genealogy and everything else that goes with the Rare Breeds. Tell us why we should extend the Rare Breed flock?

Mark: It's probably true that the figures don't stack up, but anyone now can go out and purchase reasonable quality lamb from the supermarket, that isn't very special or different from the next leg of lamb. I think keeping and breeding Rare Breeds adds another aspect to it, that you enjoy the meat more because you know they've lived longer, they take longer to mature. A visitor once bought a half lamb off me and described it as "the taste of Wimpole". And I feel that the Rare Breeds are the taste of Wimpole. Anyone can farm regular sheep and get a lamb into the supermarket as soon as possible. Because we take longer to rear them, longer to grow them, and probably give them a bit more love and attention, I think that comes out in the flavour of the meat. So as a unique selling point, I'm always in favour of keeping Rare Breeds.

Scott: So as a stockman you've probably got a passion that if we don't look after these Rare Breeds, they become extinct right? And once they're gone, they're gone.

Mark: Once they're gone they're gone. Someone has to do this. And I think we're uniquely set up here at Wimpole to carry on this work. We're all used to dealing with these Rare Breeds and their unique characteristics.
There's a video clip of a discussion with school children about rare breeds vs commercial stocks (and you can also read a transcript).

Then Morris talked with an agribusiness consultant (Keith Preston) about the economics of the flock [edited from transcript]:
Morris: We're proposing to increase our sheep by 100% - an extra 100 ewes this year. What would you do in that situation?

Keith Preston: I think you have to look at how the Wimpole business has evolved. Initially they ran a commercial flock and some rare breeds, and it was a financial disaster. We restructured it on the basis that we'd keep the rare breeds, and have enough sheep to provide a gene pool for each of the breeds, and the lambing weekend. So that's why we've hit at the 300 ewe flock. You've now got a fantastic opportunity because you've got all these green manures that are part of the fertility building phase. In the past there was a constraint because there was only a certain amount of parkland. The parkland was managed extensively, but now you've got lots of forage. So, the real challenge is going to be, can you absorb these hundred sheep into the existing management without increasing your labour costs.

Morris: So that would suggest the commercial breed gives us potentially the better returns.

KP: I think it'll be an interesting challenge, won't it? I mean, my own view is that Wimpole's got a fantastic opportunity, with all the visitors that you get - it's just a fantastic site for a farm shop. So, if you think you've got a quarter of a million people visiting the park, we don't have to sell to many of them to get rid of all the progeny from the 300 or the 400. So can we actually add more value by extending our rare breeds, and making sure we get the rare breeds that will come up with the goods, because some of the breeds are rare for a very good reason, that they have attributes that make them not worth keeping. But, they have a wonderful role in the gene pool.

Morris: So either could work, and the pressure is on the marketing.

KP: The marketing, yes. The simplest, if you're just going to put them into the supply chain rather than direct marketing, would be to go for the commercial breed, because it will give you more performance, and will be a nice test against the rare breeds, and how they perform as well.
And then there was a discussion with Richard Broad, from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust [edited from transcript]:
Morris: Richard is the field officer for the Rare Breed Survival Trust, and has come to convince [the members] to vote for the rare breeds. Richard, why is it important that people like ourselves keep these rare breeds?

Richard Broad: The RBST was started in 1973, and prior to that in the 20th century we lost 26 different breeds of cattle and sheep and pigs. Since then we haven't lost any, and we're trying to maintain their genes. They are lower cost, there are lower inputs needed as far as buying in concentrates. And most of them are very good at converting cheap products such as grass and grass-clover into meat and sheepskins and things like that which we can use.

Morris: On this farm it's good quality grass and clover, really high protein, good food. What would you say the rare breed has going for it as against the financial opportunity with the commercial breeds?

RB: The inputs needed are available on the farm. They're better at converting the grass and grass-clover into meat, rather than having to buy in expensive concentrates. Also, with the rare breeds I think you really need to be looking at what you're going to do with the products, before even you decide to have the rare breed of sheep. Look at adding value to the meat instead of selling it in a market or to the supermarket, maybe looking at it as a branded product: Wimpole best White Faced Woodland meat, or something like that. A lot of the breeds are coloured, which means that skins can sell at £50 to £60 a piece as well. So as an added value product, the horned breeds, the walking-stick makers are interested in the horns. What you need to look at is all the end products, and also trying to sell them as a product rather than just a commodity.

Morris: So, in your opinion the rare breeds stack up equally against the commercial breeds in opportunity.

RB: Definitely. People can sell rare breeds as a premium product. But they need to understand that they need a market, and they need somebody with an ability to produce those products, and sell it to the end producer, without a middle man there. Hopefully at Wimpole you've got access to a restaurant, and also customers that come to the farm as well.
And lastly - they were being really thorough about all sides of this discussion - there's an audio of a conversation with Phil Stocker from the Soil Association [edited from transcript]:
Phil: I’m Director of Farmer and Grower Relations at The Soil Association, overseeing our work for farmers and growers. I provide information and advice, and make sure we have an interesting programme of activities.

Scott: We’re about to have a vote on which sheep should we breed. Morris has the opportunity to extend his flock for roving grazing across Wimpole Farm, of up to 100 ewes. He’s got a dilemma as to whether just to extend the existing rare breeds or to buy in some commercial breeds. He hasn’t got any commercial breeds on site at the moment. We’re putting this vote to our members, and I wondered what The Soil Association’s take would be on that in terms of organic farming? He wants to increase from 300 to 400 ewes.

Phil: You should consider whether he’s got a market for that rare breed meat, and if he can expand by another 100 ewes and still find a market. If he’s got as many of this particular breed that he can sell, then he’s is likely to be selling more into the open market and he needs to think about a more commercial ewe breed. The rare breed is likely to be producing a carcass which is likely to be a thinner, less fleshy, less meaty carcass. There is a market for that but it’s usually selling direct to the public.

Scott: From an organic point of view is there any real difference in rare breeds grazing compared to commercial sheep?

Phil: There’s a difference between rare breeds and indigenous breeds and certainly some of our more native breeds are probably better at grazing, and do well on foraging lower grade, rougher; whereas some of our more commercial improved breeds want improved grass to perform well, and are more reliant on concentrate cake feeding as well. So I think some of our more native and indigenous breeds are quite different to other rare breeds. Some of our rare breeds thrive very well on particular habitats, in upland situations or in coastal regions where they’re raised on coastal grasses. Some of our rare breeds are very closely adapted to the conditions where they were initially developed but there’s no requirement for an organic farmer to use a rare breed. There are benefits in organic farmers using traditional and indigenous breeds, but The Soil Association’s view would be that the most important thing is really that the sheep are developed on farm, on site and allowed to adapt and to evolve to the situation on that farm. You know sheep will become accustomed to the grass type, to the climate, to the topography, to the mineral status of the soil and the most important thing is to have a flock of sheep which are permanently on the farm and are allowed to adapt to the farm’s unique situation. 
In the end, the members voted for rare breeds, interestingly a different outcome from the crops question; and the responses of Morris, the stockman on the farm are very interesting when set in a global context[edited from transcript]:
Morris: Very clear win and very interesting result. I must admit I’m disappointed. This was an expansion to our sheep and wasn’t detracting at all from what we do with conservation. This was an opportunity to increase our revenue increase the potential for the farm. I saw this as a as something to expand on, where we could increase production, put more food into the food chain, and I feel - you watch the news last night [famine in the Horn of Africa] - this is a decision we’ve made with food on our plates. If we were in another continent without food on our plates, what would we decide?

Scott: Why do you think they went for rare breeds?

Morris: There is a tremendous value in the conservation work we do and there’s a huge need to ensure those genetics go forward and I’m not decrying that work - it’s important that we do it. But we must always remember that at the back of our minds that there’s a population to feed.
After all the discussion about whether to buy rare breeds, the next vote was on which rare breed! There was a members' discussion on the website about sheep genetics. The choice was between extending the current flock of Norfolk Horns, or bringing in either Oxford Downs or Hill Radnors. The Oxford Down emerged as a clear victor with 66% of the votes. These are large, hefty sheep and probably supply more 'commercial' type benefits than the other two (interesting in the light of the discussion about rare breeds vs commercial).

Other things have been happening, of course, and I'll summarise them briefly. After the decisions to sow wheat in Pond Field, there was a subsequent decision on which variety to sow, and the vote went to Magister, a high protein good milling wheat, perfect for bread making - a good commercial decision this time. And they posted some recipes online to get people baking!

Meanwhile, Queenie, one of the farm's Shire horses, lost her foal in a neo-natal death. The labour and birth were webcast live, and had attracted a lot of interest, so this was an emotional experience for a lot of people.

More updates in a few weeks. If you'd like to sign up as a member - either as an individual or on behalf of a class of children, say, you can do so here. You don't have to be a National Trust member to join in.

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