Saturday, November 28, 2020

Proud to be small

June 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles

As agriculture moves increasingly towards larger and larger farms, the owners of Peakhill Farm in Suffolk believe that staying small has real benefits. Judith Tooth reports

Knowing when something is not working is a valuable skill on any farm. On a small farm it is, arguably, essential and the one business strength Suffolk organic farmer Robert White believes he has. His aim is simple: “It’s all about trying to make money without working yourself into an early grave,” he says

Robert was just one year old in 1970 when his family moved to Peakhill Farm, Theberton, a small mixed farm near the Suffolk coast. It was quite a change from the dairy farm his family had left in Cornwall – Robert’s father, Richard, and his father, a London architect, had decided to sell up and Richard headed east to start again.

“In 1970 they were all small farms and one by one they have been incorporated into larger ones. In our time we have tried absolutely everything and the proud thing is we’re still here, a small farm in a sea of agribusiness. I’m enormously proud of that fact.

“And we’re making a profit, a small profit.

“We used to do a lot of contracting – but more contracting meant more staff, which meant a huge wage bill, and there we were on a treadmill running to stand still. Or that’s how it felt.

“Then Dad was ill, and we had to cut down on everything that was losing money. We had opened an organic farm shop in Saxmundham – just to really rack up the pressure – and it was very successful for the community. We were growing a lot of vegetables then, and supplying to local farm shops – but we had to sell an awful lot of onions to pay for a shift. Then, when the supermarket opened, we lost a quarter of our customer base overnight. I closed the shop in three weeks – you can’t compete in a small town.”

Today the 175 acre farm on chalky boulder clay, which turned organic in 1999, is all down to grass: “We were promised the earth for grain – £500 a tonne – and although we’d get half the yield, it would be worth it. We gradually realised the high prices were not materialising… but we kept on doing it.

“After 10 years the land was getting so dirty. The one thing you can’t combat on an organic system is perennial weeds – the couch, creeping thistle, blackgrass – and the traditional fallow and cultivate was ok when the price of diesel, manpower and steel was low… so it’s all grass now. We grassed down the remaining acres in 2010.”

The one constant on the farm is the beef herd. From four South Devon heifers there is now a closed pedigree herd of 35 cows. They are docile, good mothers, easy to handle and, most importantly, get fat from grass alone, with a little bit of cereal just to encourage the grading classification, says Robert. At 750kg or more at slaughter, they are too big for local butchers, so most go to Dawn Meats at Cardington, and on to Marks and Spencer. Organic beef prices are at a record high at the moment – £4.90 a kg wholesale – which is good for cashflow. Four animals a year go for farm gate sales and to local farm shops.

“Every farmer will say their beef is the best! But the breed, the growing conditions, being grass-fed and hung for a minimum of four weeks, handling the animals in a very nice way with minimum stress throughout their life – that shows in the end product.”

The cows calve in winter and early spring, and traditionally go out to grass on 15 April. This year it will be later: “It’s stopped raining at last and the nights are warmer, so that’s helping. Until a week ago the grass was purple, it was so wet and cold. I’d never seen that before. We’re aiming to turn the cows out at the beginning of May.”

The calves are weaned in the autumn, slowly and gently, separated from their mothers during the day at first, and then weaned permanently in December. Replacement heifers join the herd, while the rest go for their “summer holidays”, as Robert tells them, at 24 months.

Robert continues to grow organic salad in two poly tunnels for sale in local farm shops. He wishes he had time to grow more: the mix of salad varieties, their heads picked when they are just coming into flower, are very popular and are a great value-added product, he says.

Another enterprise, set up just three years ago, is a one acre touring caravan site. Sheep’s Meadow, the five-caravan ‘certified location’ site with the Caravan Club provides vital cashflow in summer and, says Robert, is a fantastic venture on a small farm.

“It’s ideal: nothing can grow that will net the amount of five caravans. We’re two miles from the coast, so Aldeburgh and Snape are nearby, and Minsmere – a lot of our campers are bird watchers and they really appreciate being on a small, traditional farm.”

Meanwhile Robert’s wife, Karen, inspired by their young daughter, has produced Suffolk Pramblings, a series of pram-friendly walks within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths area. Walkers can explore Dunwich, Walberswick and beyond, safe in the knowledge that the routes are accessible and have refreshment stops and baby-changing facilities.

A carbon audit by Groundwork East of England last year resulted in a Suffolk Carbon Charter Gold accreditation for the farm. While the whole business produced 70 tonnes of carbon a year, it took up 120 tonnes in the grassland, making it carbon negative.

“We’re very proud of this achievement,” says Robert, “but maybe a lot of people don’t understand what it means to reduce their carbon footprint, and that’s frustrating.

“I wonder if the green message is quite getting through – I think farming hasn’t quite opened its eyes to the potential. We didn’t have the money to invest in PV panels, but we are looking at a community energy bid with the local village of Kelsale – I think it’s very important for a small farm to be part of the community.”