Monday, July 15, 2019

Deersbrook Farm: Thriving on pasture

July 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth meets Anna Blumfield, whose biggest challenge is keeping up with demand for her Pasture for Life beef.

Training in sports therapy with nutrition and injury rehabilitation may not be a conventional route into farming – but knowing the importance of what we eat has proved extremely beneficial for Essex beef farmer Anna Blumfield.

“I was deciding on my options at school around the time of the BSE crisis, and then foot-and-Mouth,” she says. “After I graduated I ran a successful sports injury clinic in Ipswich – but farming was what I always wanted to do.”

Anna and husband Phil moved back to the family farm at Shalford Green, near Braintree, just as her parents – Mary and Peter – were retiring. Fast-forward seven years, and they have just opened a new butchery, complete with full-time butcher. Keeping up with demand is the biggest challenge.

So what’s so special about meat from Deersbrook Farm?

“Ruminants are designed to process grass, and native breeds thrive on pasture alone. My parents built up a good herd of continentals, but I wanted to switch to a native breed as they are more suited to a grazing system. We chose Sussex because they produce really fine grained meat, they’re a good shape and they’re really docile.”

Sussex breed

Anna now has 120 Sussex cows and their followers, and three bulls. They graze at the home farm, but 40ha is nowhere near enough, so hundreds more are rented across East Anglia, from marshy banks on the Shotley Peninsula to heritage sites such as the Marks Hall estate. As well as silage and hay, the herd feeds on fodder beet and stubble turnips in the winter months.

A herdsman in each area checks the cattle twice a day – although they tend to look after themselves: “They’re such easy calvers and great mothers, they don’t tend to need much handling.”

Half of the cows calve in the spring, the other half during the autumn, to ensure continuity of beef and be able to bring them back closer to home if needed. The herd is still growing to meet demand, but size is dependent on finding enough grazing.

The farm is a member of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, and meat from the herd is marketed under the Pasture for Life mark. Pasture for Life certifies that meat and dairy products come from animals raised only on grass and pasture, with no grain or manufactured feeds in their diet.

“My parents didn’t farm intensively, but the cattle were finished on grain – and feeding grain, even for a short time, can reverse the nutritional benefits of grass fed beef. You can say an animal has been grass fed, but it only has to be so for 40 per cent of its life. Pasture for Life means an animal has been 100 per cent pasture fed, either grazing, or eating hay and silage over the winter.

Great tasting beef

“We send our meat off for nutritional analysis, and it is so rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, it’s comparable to wild salmon. We know it tastes great, but it’s good to know it’s so good for us, too.”

Compared with an intensive indoor system, a pasture fed herd is also better for the environment, says Anna. Careful management of species-rich grassland helps to encourage a wider range of wildlife, including ground nesting birds.

Carbon is locked into the soil, the cattle manure the land as they graze, ensuring it remains healthy and fertile, and the clover-rich swards, along with muck from winter housing, avoid the need for artificial fertilisers.

“We could have gone for organic certification, but we chose Pasture for Life to get the health and nutrition of the cattle right. Under an organic system we could have still fed soya and grain. For us, grazing management and nutrition were the priorities. It wasn’t that organic was limiting, rather that it didn’t cover what we needed it to cover.”

The farm was the first in East Anglia to be awarded Pasture for Life certification; there are now around 150 farms nationally.

The cattle are slaughtered at 24 to 28 months of age at local abattoir Humphreys, a “fantastic, family run business”.

Since the new on-farm butchery opened last December, the carcasses can be hung for 28 days: the addition of Himalayan rock salt in the drying chamber keeps humidity levels low, minimising wastage, while texture and depth of flavour are improved.

“We’re now in full control, we can age the carcasses ourselves and butcher them exactly as we want. Our customers eat from nose to tail. With a very skilful butcher, we can offer so many different cuts: brisket, short ribs, picanha, Denver steaks, oxtail, shin on the bone … some customers know them, but others don’t, so we help them by talking about recipes and how to make the best of each cut.

“Nearly all of our sales are fresh meat, but we have also started making our own Bresaola and Biltong, which are proving very popular.”

Anna found her butcher through Facebook: the only woman student on the first intake of an advanced butchery degree with Crosby Management Training in Wolverhampton. Tara Davies trained first in the butchery at the Gog Farm Shop near Cambridge, and has just graduated from her studies.

Shopping ethically

“We have a lot of vegetarian customers, and even vegans, who come to shop for their families, to shop ethically, or sometimes to eat some meat for their own health. The vegan movement has been helpful in getting people to think about what they eat, and maybe to eat less but better quality.”

Anna also keeps rare breed pigs: seven Oxford Sandy and Black and Gloucester Old Spot sows, three boars and their progeny, in total 100 animals. Fed on root vegetables – including some of the stubble turnips and fodder beet grown on the farm – and the ends of vegetables such as broccoli from various greengrocers, their diet helps to give the resulting pork a rich colour.

BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen visited earlier in the year, throwing a welcome spotlight on the butchery and farm shop. Open Farm Sunday – Anna’s favourite day of the year – drew in the crowds to see a real working farm and enjoy cow safaris, vintage and modern tractor displays, digger driving, crafts, a barbecue and more.

Then Anna took part in the recent Food and Farming Day at Writtle College, involving 3000 children. And next up is the British Food Fortnight in September, when the farm is holding a celebration with live music and street food.

“I think the butchery and farm shop have taken off so well because, although we’re stuck out of the way, people like to come for the whole farm to fork experience: they see the cattle and appreciate the local provenance, and we can answer any questions they may have.

“The new building is more accessible, and we have a map on the wall showing where in the region all the other produce we sell comes from. We know the story behind everything we sell.”

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