Bowtell’s: Uplifting Family Farming

Cow photo

The topic of meat is complex and divisive. Some nutritionists will say red meat is bad for you, that it’s too acidic and contains too much saturated fat and hardens your arteries and therefore you should cut down or even cut it out of your diet, whilst others say it’s vital for energy and full of protein and minerals such as iron and our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived off the stuff so we’ve evolved to eat it. Of course the issue of animal welfare literally soars to the fore when many people discuss eating meat – highlighting many animals’ low quality of life, their often cruel and cramped conditions, whether the animal suffers, the inhumane ways they’re killed (many of us questioning whether it’s necessary to kill any other living creature for our consumption at all). Then there’s meat in terms of the environment and climate change, which can leave you a little foggy-headed when you hear that two-thirds of available fresh water on the planet is used in farming; a third of all crops are used to grow feed for farm animals, such as soya for Europe’s chickens and pigs, which contributes to huge deforestation of the rainforest and loss of biodiversity; and 14.5% of global greenhouse gases are produced by meat and dairy farming which is more than every car, train and plane combined. Then there are questions of all the pesticides, chemicals, artificial hormones and antibiotics used in the production of meat.

All of this can quickly become overwhelming, and it’s easy to switch off from it all – to shut our eyes and block our ears. All of those facts and figures paint a picture of farmers and their practices as detrimental to a myriad of life forms and to the planet itself. But a fundamental point in all of this is that most of this negativity is the result of factory farming – producing meat on an industrial scale. What about the brighter picture? All those small family farms that care for their animals in an intimate, personal and compassionate way? Those farmers who live and breathe farming and for whom it is a proud and rewarding tradition?

Our local Hampshire butcher, Toby Bowtell, is one such farmer. The Bowtell family have been producing meat using the same plot of land for five generations now. They’re what you might call small artisan producers, supplying to a specific market of local people. A kind of remnant of what farming used to be.

IMG_4817 copy

Almost as soon as I sit down with him, the topic of the horsemeat scandal of January 2013 comes up, and Toby simply shakes his head. After the scandal hit the media, much of the British public suddenly stopped buying red meat. People decided white meat such as chicken could be much more ‘trusted’. This meant there was a run on chicken, so big supermarkets such as Tesco demanded and bought huge supplies of it. The effect of this upon the smaller producers was disastrous.

“It takes us three months to grow and produce chicken,” Toby says, “and I can’t suddenly up production at the drop of a hat. We buy day-old chicks and because the chicken market had gone so big everyone bought extra chicks, so then the bigger your buying power and the higher up the food chain you are, the more you get.”

“We only buy 200 chicks at a time and so when there’s a shortage it’s the little people at the bottom of the pile like us who lose out. It means we get nothing, which from the perspective of the huge European chick producers is just, you know, tough.”

The reality of the situation was that since the Bowtells couldn’t get their hands on chicks at the beginning of 2013, they ran out of chicken every week throughout the spring and early summer, meaning their customer base suffered. And what’s more, they take much time and care over the production of their chicken, buying in a French breed of chicks called Sasso which are specially developed for the free range and organic market.

“Sasso are slower growing and they’re produced to run around outside, so they’re proper outdoor chicken as opposed to indoor chicken. Commercial chickens are bred specifically to be ready for the table in 40 days, whereas ours are ready in 90 days.”

The fact that the Bowtells take more than double the amount of time to grow their chickens than those produced by the big corporations for the mass market shows the dedication and effort small farmers put into their trade. Traditional methods, a hands-on attitude and direct contact with the animals they look after means they’re literally in the thick of it, entirely involved in the process of producing meat from another animal for human consumption.

IMG_4822 good

The family grows all the grass for feeding their sheep and cows themselves, giving them silage during the winter, and they only use artificial fertiliser when the dung they use as natural fertiliser runs out. Furthermore, they buy in free range piglets from a family friend not far away in Hampshire, and they’re kept in fairly natural conditions.

“They’re what we class as open barn,” Toby explains. “They have fresh air, daylight, straw on the ground and plenty of space to run around. And if they want to lay out in the sun or rain they can but most of the time they lay in the straw in the warm. But then if it’s minus 15 degrees outside, it’s minus 15 – the barn’s not heated and has no kind of climate control. The weather is the weather.”

Just like with turkeys and chickens, if everything is in a temperature-controlled shed, farmers can calculate that if a chick comes in at one day old, then if you feed a specific amount and type of food at a certain age it will be a certain weight. But if, like the Bowtells, you run an outside system, the animals simply are what they are.

Considering all of this, on the surface it’s clear that local, artisan butchers are not to be classed with their bigger competition in terms of the impact they have on the environment. And, Toby reveals, it’s what goes on behind farming practices that presents some good news for environmentalists concerned with conservation and loss of biodiversity.

“An awful lot of conservation is done through farming nowadays,” Toby says. “There’s so much done for the environment that people just never see. They just see fields of corn but it’s about what people are totally unaware of.”

With fields of corn, the outside 24 metres aren’t sprayed which means the right kind of weeds are allowed to flourish and so hosts of insects have something to feed on which in turn are food for the English partridge. Another example is that big square patches in fields are left undrilled specifically for skylarks. In fact all kinds of birds such as buzzards, red kites, songbirds and barn owls are now being positively helped via agriculture.

IMG_4814 copy

“Over the years farming techniques have developed at such a rate that barn owls were disappearing. But now headlands are set aside so there are places for mice to thrive. On these headlands there are flowers that produce the right kind of seeds and the hedges don’t get cut so there’s bramble, which means the mice can eat the blackberries. The result of all this is that there are more mice, and so the barn owls can then survive because they can hunt them.”

Just this example alone demonstrates the complexities of food chains and on what each particular type of animal depends for survival. “It’s conservation as a whole,” Toby says. Twenty-five years ago they were ripping out hedges and cutting all the wildflower meadows. But now there are incentives for farmers to re-sow those meadows and all over the country hedges and trees are being replanted.

“It’s all sort of driven towards things being put back to how they should be. It’s a responsibility. Everyone’s different – we’re only tenant farmers – but I feel we have a duty to do our bit, to make sure the trees don’t get damaged, that the ground is looked after properly and that the dung’s put on at the right time and so on. There are a lot of people on this planet and I feel we should be preserving what we have, and if that means eating a little bit less meat then you know, that’s what we should do – and I’m a butcher!”

Toby suggests that one easy thing we could do to help the environment is to shop at farmers markets so that the meat you buy is grown locally and the miles and energy involved is less than that produced for the mass market. But, as this suggests, whether or not we do this isn’t up to him and it isn’t up to the manager of an agribusiness.

“I’m very proud of what we produce,” Toby says, “but I would never knock the farmer that produces millions of tonnes of wheat or battery farmed hens because while the general public want cheap chicken people are going to grow mass produced chicken. It’s people’s choices and the only way that will ever change is by people changing themselves.”

IMG_4833

Toby touches on a very important issue in terms of meat production – the way we think about our food. It’s very easy wandering round a supermarket to simply slip a packet of chicken breasts off the shelf and into your trolley without a single thought. Almost like an automatic action. Sealed in plastic, sitting on a white sterile shelf, the whole experience is so clinical, so detached, so impersonal.

But animal farming is just the opposite. It’s intimate, involved and intricate. To eat the flesh of another animal, human beings have to be personally involved with the rearing, growing, feeding, killing, butchering, gutting and slicing up of it. At least, we had to be until the advent of factory farming with assembly lines of cows and pigs hooked up on machines. And this is where a big part of the problem lies. We’ve become distanced from animals, from the whole process, which has allowed us to eat as much meat as we like with no cognitive association between steak and cow or bacon and pig.

Moreover, people want cheap food – particularly meat, which Toby is quick to recognise. “It’s all about supply and demand and unfortunately food is not something that a huge majority of people hold as an important thing. Everyone has a set amount of money and they’re entitled to choose what they want to spend it on. You don’t have to have an iPhone, you don’t have to drink or smoke, or you don’t have to buy £100 trainers. But if that’s what people spend their money on then there’s always going to be consumer demand for cheap, economy meat.”

All of this is certainly true, but as a recent article by Foodtank reveals, there are in fact many hidden costs in the production of ‘cheap’ food via conventional agriculture. Apparently being the obesity epidemic globally costs us US$2 trillion in healthcare, procured from our own wallets and purses through taxes. Then there’s the cost of soil erosion, pesticides and fertilisers, the need to create more and more artificial pollination as bees continue to decline, the scarcity of fresh water and the need to purify it – many of which are either overlooked or ‘invisible’ and play no part in countries’ estimation of their economic value. So, in reality, cheap meat isn’t cheap at all.

Therefore, all in all, industrial-scale farming seems purely negative and harmful – to our health, to our wallets, to animals and to the planet.

Fundamentally, there needs to be a shift in our thinking, in the way we view animals. And going to a local butcher’s farm shop to buy your meat (perhaps seeing the cows in the fields flicking their tails or the chickens running around in true ‘free-range’ fashion) rather than a supermarket is at least one step towards this. It’s almost like a step back, in a way. That’s certainly what it feels like when I visit the Bowtells, walking through the farmyard, seeing their cows up on the hill, going into their little shop which has its own gritty character. I distinctly remember always running to look at their pigs when I was younger and loving leaning over and watching them lounging in the hay. Happy pigs make me smile, and they definitely make me think twice (or more accurately ten times) about buying sausages.

Pertwood Farm: Truly Organic

IMG_7231 copy

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the differences and advantages/disadvantages of conventional food versus organic food. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition earlier in July stated that organic crops are up to 60% higher in antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones, and that there are significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in organic crops, which, interestingly enough, contradicts a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) that found there were no significant nutritional benefits to be had through eating organic food. And only last week a report was published revealing that 63% of bread in supermarkets contains pesticide residues, 25% of which has residues of more than one pesticide. It’s tricky to know what to believe and a large part of the problem is that lots of people don’t really know what organic food production means – myself included! To solve this problem, at the beginning of July I went to visit Pertwood Organic Farm in Wiltshire to see what ‘organic’ really looks like.

Lower Pertwood Farm has been organic since 1988, its entire 1850 acres certified by the Soil Association. Currently owned by Wilfred Mole, who also farms in South Africa at Sandstone Estates, Pertwood has its own range of wheat-free breakfast cereals, as well as supplying oats to muesli and porridge brand Alara, which is 100% organic. As soon as I go through the gate the farmland has an atmosphere of both tranquillity and energy, giving me the feeling of how alive it is. Immediately I spot buzzards and hear swallows chattering. Mr Mole is enthusiastic about the farm, pointing out ancient Celtic longbarrows (human-made mounds involved in crop rotation) in the nearest fields which he’s not allowed to touch, and high up a chalk strip which is a new pipeline being put in by Wessex Water. He shows me the long mound of topsoil that they dug up about six months ago.

IMG_7218 copy

“Look at that,” Mr Mole says, grinning. “They just pile up this crummy soil and the plants love it to bits. The mound’s got every sort of plant known to man growing on it – crops, weeds, flowers. It would actually be interesting to do a plant population analysis to see what’s there.”

IMG_7158 good

The plant life is unbelievably impressive, and I can’t help feeling it wouldn’t be so teeming if the farm wasn’t organic. Amazingly, Mr Mole has made a deal with Wessex Water to turn the pipeline land into an RSPB reserve when they’re finished. It’s a running theme here; following the ethos of farming ‘with nature’s best interests at heart’, this year 30 acres of land are being turned into wildflower meadows in order to create an ideal habitat for bees and butterflies. This, with a bit of luck, will have the added bonus of increasing crop yields.

IMG_7156 copy

Mr Mole shows me one of the fields which is going to become a wildflower meadow, just beside the main road. “It’s never been a great field,” he says. “It’s really high up, on the crest. We can probably break even with the crop but you may as well plant flowers on it instead.”

As we bump along the fields in his battered 4×4, Mr Mole explains how organic farming works. They rotate their crops with livestock and clover lay, and there are no chemicals or fertilisers involved other than muck from cows. “What you do in organic is to build the fertility of the fields you rotate. You keep about a third of the farm in grass and clover which reinvigorates the land and it’s good for the livestock.” A lot of the fields I see are what’s called fallow, where after a crop has been harvested and ploughed, they leave the grass or clover to grow for a year, during which time they cut it for silage and re-grow it (all the while letting sheep or cattle graze on it), and only then do they plant seed for the next crop. Doing all this continually replaces nutrients, improves soil fertility, helps control pests, protects the soil from erosion and supports biodiversity.

IMG_7160 good

“If you look at that field there the grass grows like mad and then you look at what grows in a classic example of a conventional farm; it’s not nearly as vibrant. When you walk through conventional farms you see how brutal they are – there are no hedges, there’s nothing. I’m growing a hedge now, in bits and pieces, but in total there will be 2 miles of it.”

Stopping beside an oat field, we get out to have a closer look at a typical organic crop. I am astonished at what I see – at first glance it looks like a field full of weeds. When we lean in closer, I literally can’t see the earth below. There are daisies, poppies, charlock, grass and loads of other plants I can’t identify. I instantly realise I’ve never seen a crop like this before; every other crop I’ve ever walked past or run through has been a conventional one.

IMG_7172 smaller brighter again

Mr Mole points to the long wispy stems, a pale but shimmering green. “These are the oats and if you look here you’ll lose count of the plants. There are flowers, there are weeds. It’s very natural, that’s the first impression you get, whereas a conventional crop is spotless, abnormally so. The good news is that the oats have generally outgrown the other plants and because it’s been such a good year they’ve been totally unaffected – they’ve got sun on their back and they’ve got wet feet, so what more do they need? The fact they’ve got a neighbour doesn’t matter.”

When the crop is harvested it has to be cleaned, meaning that if there are any remaining seeds from plants other than oats, the mix is put through a screen so they’re left only with oats to turn into porridge or muesli.

IMG_7170 copy

The other thing I notice is that there are no track-mark lines which are usually so prevalent in conventional fields. Because Pertwood’s fields aren’t sprayed with pesticides or chemicals, there’s no need for tractors. Mr Mole has actually sold lots of his tractors because they were sitting around all day doing nothing. “From the day we plant the crop there’s nothing we can do,” he says. “We just leave it.”

He admits that sometimes there are traces of disease within the crops, but this is no bad thing. “The plants might get slightly ill but every time you’re slightly ill you’re building your immunity for it not to happen again, and every time you’re given artificial, synthetic things for combating that your immune system is pushed to one side. Why not just see if the plants can cope on their own?”

IMG_7174 good

Carrying on to another field Mr Mole remarks that the oats in it are much thicker. “We don’t always know why; it could be muck related. There are fewer flowers and the weeds are suffering more because the crop is so strong. It’s all about light. It’s a win win in organic – if you can get it right, the crop deals more effectively with the weeds.”

I comment on the abundance of insects hopping, flying and fluttering around, many of them butterflies, and immediately Mr Mole tells me it’s because the crops and fields aren’t sprayed. They really do have such a natural and buzzing feel to them which is lacking throughout most farmland in Britain.

The next thing I see is a field that’s just been ploughed, at the edge of which is something called a beetle bank separating it from the next one. This is one of the requirements of HLS (Higher Level Stewardship), which gives subsidies to organic farmers based on measures they take to benefit the environment. Pertwood Farm’s rotation of crops with livestock is also part of HLS, and they have to plant certain crops in certain places. They even have to plant certain things in the beetle banks. All of this might sound controlling but it’s carried out with the aim of maintaining the environment, diversity of life and sustainability.

IMG_7181 copy

In organic farming you’re not allowed to use conventional synthetic pesticides or chemicals (not even to clean the storage areas, which are usually fumigated but Pertwood vacuums them instead) and because of this organic farmers save a huge amount of money.

“Here at Pertwood we’ve broken the mould that it can’t be profitable to be an organic farmer – it can be profitable because of the cost savings. When you look at the price of chemical fertilisers now, we don’t have any of that. For the average farmer that’s his biggest cost. He’s being taken for a ride – chemical companies and all sorts of people state things like ‘you must spray that’, and everyone trusts them. But as I’ve learnt with my farms, most of what you’re told is wrong.”

The final part of my tour takes us to the edge of an adjacent farm which has been recently acquired by Lower Pertwood Farm. A field we pass is wheat and Mr Mole highlights how the stalks are grown very close together, saying that it had been sprayed with pesticides and given chemical fertilisers in order to achieve uniformity and the appearance of good health. Manor Farm has always been conventional, and when Mr Mole first bought it many of the crops were diseased. Those who worked on it were spraying them and spraying them, but he told them to stop. Why? Because all 250 acres of the farm are being converted from conventional to organic.

IMG_1287

“It’s very good for me to see farmers in desperation just throw chemicals at something to try and make crops grow, to try and protect them from pests and diseases, and then to be able to say to them: ‘Did you know that we’re converting a conventional farm to organic?’ Everyone I’ve told looks at me in horror.”

It’s against the trend to convert from conventional to organic, but Pertwood Farm proves that it’s not only profitable to farm organically, but it also benefits the soil and a myriad of life forms, all of which are a vital part of the food chain. “I’ve got infinite, infinite faith in nature,” Mr Mole says seriously. There may be lots of little details to organic farming, but the ambience of natural energy and array of wildlife at Pertwood is amazing, and this positivity surely must filter down into the food we put in our mouths and so affect us and our bodies in beneficial ways.

At a basic level our cells are made up of various vitamins and minerals, and soil requires approximately 52 minerals, but artificial fertilisers contain only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Without the other 49 minerals (such as manganese and zinc) the soil becomes deficient, which makes the plants deficient and weakened. So, in conjunction with all the pesticides and herbicides sprayed onto conventional crops, a lot of the food we eat cannot help but be deficient and toxic. But, with organic, this can be rectified, as Pertwood reveals.

“I’ve asked for a full-scale test to be done on Pertwood this year,” Mr Mole tells me. “From a few quick tests, the indications are that the fertility has improved hugely while we’ve been here. We’ve really corrected the levels – it was deficient in potassium, in magnesium and all these things. But not anymore. It’s pretty magnificent.”