In Land of Plenty Charlie Pye-Smith travels the length and breadth of these isles to explore the little-understood world of British agriculture. From ultramodern indoor dairy units producing millions of litres of milk a year to small, old-fashioned farms making cheese with twenty or thirty cows, and from landowners whose families have farmed the same fields for centuries to tenants who have just joined the industry, Pye-Smith investigates the timeless connection between land and people in the twenty-first century.
Revealing the dairy industry in Somerset and Gloucestershire; beef in the Scottish Borders; sheep in North Yorkshire; pigs and poultry in East Anglia and Hampshire; vegetables in Norfolk; and fruit in Essex and the West Country, Land of Plenty is a colourful and rewarding travelogue that gets to the very heart of modern British life.
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To the Heart of England
Not long before midnight Mike Belcher knocked on the door of my motorhome and said: 'There's something you might want to see. I'll have to help one of the ewes. She's having triplets.' I followed him to the floodlit lambing sheds and we clambered over the metal sheep hurdles. Mike grabbed hold of a large Masham ewe whose back-end was showing signs of the forthcoming birth and rolled her onto her side. He inserted his right arm almost up to the elbow and felt around inside the ewe. He pulled the first lamb out – glistening and rubbery in the first few seconds of life – and gently swung it up to the mother's head. As she began to lick the lamb, the next one was retrieved from the womb and the process repeated. A few minutes later, the ewe was on her feet and the wobbly-legged lambs began to suckle. The air, fresh and invigorating, smelt of straw and manure.
I told Mike I found the sight of this assisted birth on this clear April night very moving. I expected him to accuse me of being sentimental, but he simply replied: 'Yes, it is, isn't it?' Over the past two months, some 1,900 ewes had lambed at March House Farm, a gently rolling spread of pasture near the village of Great Dalby, a few miles from Melton Mowbray. Now there were just 100 or so sheep still waiting to lamb. Most of the sheep here give birth to twins, but some produce triplets, and when they do the Belchers take pressure off the mothers by removing the weakest lambs and raising them separately. There were about sixty orphan lambs in a large pen on their own. Most were asleep now, but a few were sucking milk from the automatic feeders.
I was amazed that Mike was capable of doing a night's work after such a long day. He had left before 5 o'clock in the morning for Sunday markets in London and returned at 7 o'clock in the evening. 'I don't think of it as working long hours,' he said. 'If I wasn't lambing, what else would I do? Watch television? I'd be bored. I love the nightshifts, especially on a really cold night when the sky is full of stars and there is frost on the sheep's backs.'
There are two reasons why I began my journey here. The first was that I already knew Mike. For over ten years, my family had bought most of our meat supplies – Masham lamb, native breed beef, Gloucester Old Spot bacon, turkeys at Christmas – from his stall at a farmers' market in south-west London. I had even visited him when I was writing about the role that badgers play in transmitting bovine TB to cattle and the fraught and time-consuming business of testing for the disease. I saw Mike as an example of a modern farmer who is making the most of his entrepreneurial skills. Instead of saying goodbye to his animals when they leave the farm gate, like so many farmers do, he adds value by butchering them and selling direct to people like me. Indeed, had he not adopted this strategy, he probably wouldn't have survived as a farmer.
There was another reason for coming to Leicestershire: the county has always been one of the most progressive in terms of its agricultural development. Together with Norfolk, it was the epicentre of the agricultural revolution which took place in the second half of the eighteenth century. Improved methods of cultivation, the adoption of new crops and advances in livestock breeding played a vitally important role in feeding the rapidly expanding urban population. One of the leading figures was Robert Bakewell, born in the Leicestershire village of Dishley. 'By providing meat for the millions, he contributed as much to the wealth of the country as Arkwright or Watt', wrote the agricultural historian Lord Ernle, referring to two of the great inventors during the Industrial Revolution.
Before Bakewell conducted his experiments in stock breeding, most farmers chose animals on the basis of fanciful points of interest, such as the shape of a sheep's horns or the markings on its muzzle. Bakewell, in contrast, focused on the traits which really mattered, such as speed of growth, the weight of the best joints and ability to thrive in difficult conditions. Largely as a result of the scientific approach to breeding pioneered by Bakewell, the weight of calves and lambs sold in London's Smithfield Market rose threefold in less than 100 years.
There has been an ever-increasing trend towards specialisation on British farms. If you travelled around Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire thirty or forty years ago, you would have seen livestock on virtually every farm. Now, you can travel great distances without seeing a cow or a sheep – on one day during my travels in east England I went over 30 miles without seeing any livestock – and mixed farming has become the exception, rather than the rule in some parts of the country. On many arable farms, there is little sense of the past, of the history of land-use and the changing methods of cultivation: huge machines, little labour and copious doses of chemicals are the key ingredients of production today.
In contrast, mixed farming systems, combining crops with livestock, are more complicated affairs and more sustainable in terms of their future, with grass and cereals providing a significant portion of livestock feed and the livestock providing organic manure to fertilise the land. 'We combine the best of the past with the best of the present,' said Mike one day. He probably wasn't thinking of his debt to Robert Bakewell or the great livestock breeders of the past; rather, he was referring to the fact that he still relies heavily on traditional methods of retaining fertility, while at the same time taking advantage of modern technology. Time spent with farmers like Mike is a journey through both the past and the present.
I spent the afternoon before my arrival at March House Farm striding around the Leicestershire countryside. With its gentle undulations, it looked like a rumpled sheet embroidered with brilliant patches of yellow oilseed rape. The hedges were splashed with the white blossom of blackthorn and yellow celandines grew in the soggy runnels beside the roads. The first green buds were just appearing on the oak and hazel but the ash were still in winter apparel, their upturned branches like black fingers against the sombre sky. Although I heard robins and chaffinches, as well as jackdaws and the occasional cock pheasant, there was none of the exuberant birdsong you get on a fine spring day. The ground was still so sodden that few cattle had been turned out to graze from the buildings where they had spent the winter. But at least the countryside was alive with the sound of young lambs – a harbinger, one hoped, of warmer times to come.
When I arrived, Mike's wife Heather suggested I park my motorhome behind the butchery. Once I had plugged myself into the mains I found her in the kitchen, where her granddaughter Florence, one of the cheeriest infants you could ever hope to meet, was playing on the floor with the sort of toys you expect on a proper farm: tractors and trailers and JCBs. We drank strong tea and chatted about the farm.
When Heather was young – she was born here – her father had a small herd of dairy cows, but he eventually gave up milking and concentrated on fattening cattle for the meat market. He had a particular liking for Masham sheep. They are now less popular than they used to be, partly because they are on the feisty side and have a heavy fleece, but Heather and Mike remain devoted to the breed. They also rear pigs in a small way and beef cattle on a larger scale. She couldn't remember how many bulls there were; it was either four or five. Recently, they had to get rid of a Shorthorn. 'One of its testicles was small and the vet said he couldn't back it to perform well,' explained Heather. This is the sort of chatter you get over a cup of tea on an English farm.
I had always assumed that Mike came from a long line of yeoman farmers; he certainly looks the type: tall, broad-chested, ruddy-faced with forearms like hams and a convivial nature. But no, explained Heather, he was brought up in a suburb of West London. His mother used to take him back to the family farm in Ireland during school holidays, and it was his experience there that encouraged him to go to agricultural college, where he met Heather.
As soon as Mike got back from London, he had a quick wander around the lambing sheds, using a metal crook to grab two ewes that he wanted to inspect more closely, then set about emptying the van. While we were taking unsold joints of pork and lamb out of their wrappings and packing them away in the capacious fridges in the butchery, he told me about the farm's recent history. Two years after he married Heather, her father died and they moved into the farmhouse, bought the stock and began paying rent to other family members with a stake in the farm. In those days, they had 180 Masham ewes and a small herd of suckler cows – beef animals whose calves were born in the spring and weaned at the end of summer.
'We managed to scrape a living in the 1980s, but once the 1990s farming depression took hold and prices for agricultural goods fell, we weren't making enough money to service our borrowings, pay the rent and stay afloat,' said Mike. The bank manager was getting tetchy – he was known by local farmers as Mr Sellafield, for obvious reasons – and Mike decided to get a salaried job. For the next ten years or so he was a salesman for a fertiliser company. In the evenings and at weekends he worked on the farm. 'Then in 1999 we heard about a farmers' market in Nottingham and we thought we might as well give it a try,' he recalled. 'We came back after our first day with some cash in our pockets. We suddenly realised that if we could sell direct to the public we might make a proper go of the farm.'
In 2004, the Belchers built a butchery at March House Farm and this now employs two full-time butchers. Two ladies help part-time with the packing. Mike spends much of his time in the butchery and during my week on the farm I often found him making sausages and hamburgers, mostly using recipes devised by Heather. Depending on the time of year, approximately seven or eight cattle, twenty-four pigs and eighty-odd lambs are butchered each month and prepared for sale at six weekly farmers' markets in London and the Midlands. The Belchers also sell livestock direct to Morrisons, which gives a premium for native breed beef, and they sell some of their stock at local auction markets.
Selling at farmers' markets has made a big difference. If Mike sells one of his cattle in an auction market, he gets around £1,000. By doing all the processing on the farm and selling direct to the public, the same animal is worth around £2,000. Take off all the costs – of killing the beast, hanging it in cold storage, butchering it and so forth – and he still makes £500 more by selling direct to the public than he does when selling at an auction. The same goes for fat lambs. These fetch around £70 at auction. Sold in a farmers' market, the legs and shoulders alone are worth well over £100.
Mike and Heather were finally able to buy March House Farm a couple of years ago and they got a bank loan to buy a neighbouring farm of roughly similar size on the edge of Great Dalby. This is where Tom, the younger of their two sons, now lives. The Belchers also have the tenancy of a farm, owned by the Ernest Cook Trust, which covers some 260 acres at Little Dalby. Their other son, Dan, lives there. At the time of my visit this was where most of the 400 or so beef cattle were to be found, still in their winter accommodation.
Looking back at my notes now, I realise that many of the conversations I had with Mike and his family, and with their young shepherdess and the butchers, touched on issues which would recur time and again during my travels around the country, from animal welfare to the quality of their produce, from the sustainability of the soils to the importance of finding and keeping a committed labour force, from the problems caused by a surfeit of bureaucracy to the challenges of surviving in a world where the free-market god of cheapness means that the weak, the incompetent and the unlucky are unlikely to survive.
It didn't take long for some of these issues to crop up during my stay with the Belchers. On my first morning, Heather lent me the keys to an old car and I drove over to the farm at Little Dalby. Eventually I found Tom, an immensely tall, cheery, russet-haired figure – these seem to be family traits – mucking out the pigs. 'This looks to me like a nice set-up for the pigs,' I suggested. Tom was forking muck onto a wheelbarrow; the piglets, temporarily released from their pen, were scuttling and grunting excitedly around the passageway in an old stone-walled shed. There were about three dozen piglets a few weeks old and three sows, each with a recently born litter, in separate pens. A battered radio was tuned to a music station.
Tom stopped forking briefly. 'Well, that's your opinion,' he said. 'But others might say it's a horrible life, being fattened up in concrete pens. It all depends how you look at it.'
'Is that what you think?'
'No, I think it's fine,' he said after some reflection. 'They're well looked after, and after a few weeks the weaners are moved into larger sheds on straw. I'll show you when I've finished this.' As he was spreading fresh straw in the pens he said he thought that large-scale modern pig units were sometimes unfairly maligned. Although some 40 per cent of breeding sows in Britain live outdoors, the vast majority of pigs are fattened for the table in intensive production systems. Many consumers, including most of my friends, I imagine, buy sausages and joints with an 'outdoor reared' or 'outdoor bred' label because they think these systems are kinder. That may not always be the case, suggested Tom. 'There might be times of year, such as winter, when pigs are better off indoors than they are in open-fronted sheds, like the ones we've got here, or outside.'
Most people believe that animals reared outside are better treated than animals reared indoors; and that animals reared under intensive systems of production, for example in indoor piggeries, are worse off than animals reared extensively. When I was writing about British farming some thirty years ago, I was firmly of this belief. However, I now realise this is too simplistic. The mantra of 'outdoors good, indoors bad' may be true some of the time, but not always, depending on a whole range of factors, including species and breed, the nature of the terrain, quality of buildings, the quality of stockmanship and the time of year.
If you go to the website of Viva!, an animal-rights organisation committed to promoting veganism, you will see some distressing videos taken undercover in factory-farming operations. In one of them, a woman asks: 'How would you like it if you were treated like this?' In other words, she is asking you to imagine you were a pig. This sort of anthropomorphism does nothing to advance the cause of animal welfare, although that's not to deny that Viva! has identified examples of poor welfare and even cruelty. A less emotive way of assessing whether an animal is being decently treated has been promoted by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council, which came up with the idea of Five Freedoms some twenty-five years ago. These are freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behaviour. It is worth bearing these in mind as we make our way round the countryside.
As we inspected the rest of the pigs – the Belchers have thirty-odd sows, most being crosses between Gloucester Old Spots and faster-maturing breeds like the Large White – Tom asked if I had been following news about Tesco's labels. Several newspapers had recently revealed that Britain's largest supermarket was using fictitious names evocative of the British countryside, such as Nightingale Farms and Rosedene Farms, on products which included ingredients from countries as far afield as Argentina and Senegal, where welfare and labour standards are inferior to those in this country. The general public, he suggested, were easily duped and their priorities were often curious. For example, customers at farmers' markets were much taken by the idea of Gloucester Old Spot pigs; they liked the sound of this traditional pig and its association with old-fashioned farms. But they seldom asked about welfare, which Tom considered more important than the breed; more important, that is, if you're looking at life from the pig's point of view and not your own.
'What really matters is how the animal is reared, how it's killed, and avoiding stress on the way to be slaughtered,' said Tom. At the Belchers' farm, the pigs are loaded onto a trailer with straw bedding the night before the journey to the abattoir, so they have time to get used to the mode of transport. As it happened, it was three cows – two heifers and a seven-month-old calf – which Mike drove to Grantham abattoir just before dawn the following morning. When we arrived at the abattoir, which was tucked away on an industrial estate at the edge of the town, he ushered the three cattle – or beasts, as he called them – into a pen, where they were inspected by a Spanish vet. She had been at the abattoir since 4 o'clock, checking the welfare of the livestock. I asked why she was here, rather than Spain. For the work, she replied, even though she couldn't bear the weather.
Excerpted from "Land of Plenty"
Copyright © 2017 Charlie Pye-Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 To the Heart of England,
2 All Churned Up,
3 Dyed in the Wool?,
4 The Fruits of Success,
5 The Art of Growing Vegetables,
6 Outdoors Good, Indoors Bad?,
7 Return of the Natives,
8 Ploughing a New Furrow,