A view from the farm

Trialling soya-free feed, adapting to Covid and protecting livelihoods have been top of the list for three organic meat producers this year.

In such a turbulent year with so many challenges, one note has chimed with all farmers; on a daily level, not much has changed at all. However, there is a general feeling that the tide is turning when it comes to the public’s attitude to food, farming and provenance. 

As Lloyd Mortimore, an organic beef farmer and long-term supplier to the Riverford organic veg boxes, puts it: “The pandemic has overshadowed everything, but from a day to day working, the routine hasn’t really changed.” 

Mortimore farms 500 cattle over 600 acres on Dartmoor National Park, and he says he’s felt a renewed sense of gratitude during the last year. “It’s reassured us how lucky we are, living where we do and living the lives that we do. Farming can be rough a lot of the time, but you’re working in open air, with nature. During times like this, it makes you realise that it’s not so bad.” 

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Lloyd Mortimore says this year has made him feel lucky to be a farmer. 

Helen Browning, a farmer known for her high welfare organic pork in Wiltshire, and her role as chief executive of the Soil Association, echoes this sentiment. “On the farm side, in many ways, things have continued like usual. You can’t stop feeding the cows or planting the crops,” she says. 

It has been a particularly uncertain year for John Malseed from Frenchbeer Farm in Devon, whose slow-grown organic turkeys will also reach Riverford customers this year. Malseed explains that the uncertain rules and regulations over household mixing at Christmas has made it impossible to know what size of turkeys to rear. “We were hatching our birds during the first lockdown, so anyone’s guess was completely uneducated, but we just carried on,” he says. 

However, like many in the pandemic, farmers have had to be agile and innovative to cope with the consequences. “With the demand for small turkeys, we’ve had to adapt with our medium range birds, we’re going to make into half turkeys, cut right down the middle,” says Malseed. “And the larger ones, the classic big family Christmas turkey of 10kg, we’re going to take off the legs and thighs and make into a turkey roll for a small gathering.”

Likewise, Browning, who also runs a pub and a hotel on the farm, says that these unfortunate circumstances have fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in the community. “You can either think this is all doom and gloom, and we all shut up shop or you can ask; what can we do? Most organic businesses are about what we can achieve if we put our minds to it.” 

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‘The cows don’t feed themselves’: in lots of ways it has been business as usual for farmer Helen Browning.

When her pub had to close its doors, a flurry of endeavours took its place. “We started doing local home deliveries and we fed the NHS night staff in our local Swindon hospital,” she says. “We refurbished our old pig catering vehicles and started doing takeaways from that, so actually in some ways it was a very productive time.”

Due to more community engagement, and a shift in consumer priorities, another longstanding project finally became possible. “We opened a farm shop on site, which we’ve tried to do before, but it never worked, but suddenly people wanted to buy more local and that seemed to get some traction at last,” she says.

Meanwhile on a human level, Browning says: “It was quite a big teambuilding period because everyone was thrown into this complicated and difficult world, and we all had to pull together and do things fast.”

Sustainable food has been very much on the public’s agenda of late, stemming from a wave of new-found appreciation of food and a desire to connect with its provenance. Malseed has found customers to be more and more inquisitive about how his turkeys are raised. “Our own customers now ask us two main questions; do you use plastic packaging, and do you use soya in your feed?” 

The sustainability of soya production, a crop high in protein used in animal feed, has been widely called into question following investigations that have found production linked to deforestation in Brazil.  

In light of this consumer desire for an even more environmentally-sound product, next year Malseed is trialling his first year of soya-free turkeys. “But there’s no guarantee that it will work because if it was easy then we would have done it already. It’s just an experiment for now,” he says.

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John Malseed is trialling a soya-free diet for his organic turkeys next year. 

Malseed plans to use oilseed rape as an alternative feed, which has increased sustainability credentials since it can be produced organically here in the UK. But he’s not totally convinced of its potential to nourish his birds, saying: “Soya is such a nutrient rich plant, so the alternative won’t be as protein-rich to help develop their bones and skeleton.”

Back on Dartmoor, Mortimore, who farms alongside his son Pete, stresses the importance of his animal welfare, and says: “Those of us who produce animal products, sympathetically, we do it because we care about the animals, we respect the animals and what they do for us.”

With Brexit finally happening, and coronavirus disrupting business as usual, the farming landscape still holds uncertainty for 2021. But behind the turbulence of the outside world, environmental consideration, animal welfare and human fulfilment will remain steady forces for organic meat producers.


Leave a Reply

  1. I applaud your attempt to avoid rainforest soya for animal feed but would like to raise a few questions. Animal agriculture – organic or not – is still one of the most carbon intensive and wasteful ways of producing food. Just about every green agency worth its salt, not to mention the UN’s Food & Agriculture agency has been saying this for decades. (Most vegan soya is grown in Europe and often organic so is much more sustainable). However, there is one UK company – Soya UK – that I know of producing animal grade soya – and it recently produced its first human grade crops. I’m not sure if it’s organic or not but surely this is the way forward? Sustainable protein and other plant crops are already being grown in the UK by companies like Hodmedod – e.g. pulses and quinoa – but unlike meat and dairy, they don’t get subsidies. Surely it would be better to promote organic plant crops, grow trees, including indigenous nut trees for upland areas and the like rather than keep on breeding methane belching animals to be killed? I’d suggest that farmers need to lobby the government to get help with producing more arable crops, including teaching and grants, rather than continuing with the old ‘traditions’. ‘Doing what we’ve always done’ is not helpful in times of acute change. In WW2, we grew lots of green manures to replace the need for animal manure and actually cleared animals from the land in order to grow more food. Yes the population was smaller but today, most of our arable crops are used for animal fodder meaning that we now import most of our human plant foods instead of using the land to grow arable crops. Given the challenges we face post Brexit and more importantly, climate change and the need for a greener agriculture, it feels like the dots aren’t really being joined in this article, if I’m honest.


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