“I want to show you something before we see the cows,” says Lloyd Mortimore, heading through the farmyard towards a huge slab of granite rock. “It’s a hobby I took up a couple of years ago after I needed a headstone making for my father and called a stonemason out, then I thought, I could have a go at that.”
He proudly shows us the name signs he is in the process of carving out for other farms, using stones that lie unused on the surrounding land. “It’s not that we don’t get appreciation for our meat, people are just really happy when they see the stone carvings. It’s customer feedback you don’t always get with meat.”
His son, Pete, chips in: “It’s not that we’re desperate, but you do find yourself doing extra things these days, like the stone masonry, as a bolt on.”
The Mortimores, with their herd of organic Aberdeen Angus cows nestled in a valley between the rolling commons of Dartmoor, face a double challenge: as small-scale family farmers on high-altitude land with often extreme weather, they do not have the economies of scale or the structure of a big agri-business.
Then there’s the fact they produce meat. The issues with meat intake, the rising prominence of veganism, and the link between greenhouse gas emissions, cows and climate change; together these factors are turning into what is at best a muddy debate about how much and what meat to eat, to at worst, a toxic divide between extreme vegans versus farmers.
But has that debate reached an organic livestock farmer up on the hills of Dartmoor? “If people knock us too much, we will go. And then there will be a food shortage and all there will be left will be the big agri-businesses,” says Lloyd.
Pete says that the number of traditional farms that surrounds theirs has fallen, even in his lifetime. “People sell up, and the land gets bolted on to something else. Farmers aren’t cash rich, but they do have assets to sell if times are hard,” he explains.
What is increasingly driving the attention on meat consumption is the origins of animal feed, for which most of the world's soya is grown and is responsible for large-scale deforestation. But not all feed systems are the same - the Mortimores have been growing all their own feed for the last two years, using a combination of organic corn and forage crops (such as grass, clover and hay), something Lloyd says has been the key to their success.
The pair raise 120 cows every year, buying in additional weaned calves to make up the numbers, and they send both the heifers and bulls for meat aged between 18 and 30 months.
A proud winner of this year’s Best Livestock Producer at Riverford’s recent supplier awards, Lloyd is a second-generation farmer after his parents took on the tenanted farm in the 50s and never left. “Two months ago, I came up here in the morning, the birds were singing and it was a blue sky morning,” he recalls. “And I looked up and saw 18 vapour trails above me from aeroplanes. I thought, there must be 10,000 people up there, surely that’s more damaging than my cows.”
The environmental impact of cows and livestock farming only goes so far – for some vegans and vegetarians, it is, of course, about the morality involved in killing an animal. Not a question you would necessarily expect a beef farmer to engage with, but the Mortimores are happy to discuss any topic that affects their industry.
“I don’t find it difficult sending them to slaughter because they’ve had a bloody good life while they’ve been here,” says Pete, standing in the very top field on the farm looking out over the valley.
“You know every cow on the farm. You don’t get an attachment, but you want the best for them all the way to the end. The abattoir is half an hour away, which is a godsend and the most humane way. Once there, there’s no massive queue, it’s one in, one out. It’s not a bad experience,” he says.
Important as the ethics and welfare debate is to both Mortimores, their reality is also running a business in a tough industry where prices rarely match the cost of labour involved.
Pete recalls a conversation with a lawyer friend who asked him to work out how much he earnt per hour (“about £4,” he says, laughing), and both father and son are honest about the commercial pressures.
“We went organic because we needed to find a premium, but there’s so many things that we wouldn’t go back to,” he says, mentioning the careful crop rotations needed in organic farming and have helped improve their soils.
In the meadows, the first really warm days are putting a spring in the step of the calves, who break into little skips or race across the fields with their tails in the air.
It’s perhaps difficult for some to envisage the cuteness of calves alongside the reality of a farm business. But that is part of the problem, according to Lloyd, who says: “There is a huge proportion of the population who have no idea where food comes from, so they are vulnerable when hearing extreme views.
“I’ve got no issue with people choosing what they want to eat. It’s when it’s based on untrue facts that I have a problem.”
Whether reports by leading climate scientists for the International Panel on Climate Change and the UK government’s own Committee on Climate Change, who have highlighted reducing meat intake as one of the top way of reducing an individual’s carbon footprint, can be classed as “untrue facts” is debatable.
But Lloyd's point, that there is a huge difference in the impact and welfare standards of farming systems at different ends of the spectrum, with organic like his own at the top, is a valid one.
“You need farmers to tell the story, and the listener to trust what they’re saying,” he says. “Sometimes that doesn’t happen because you’re working 80-hour weeks, or it’s the lack of education and not getting things across right.”
Leaning on his latest stone carving with his farm-weathered hands, it’s a story well worth listening to.