As a family, we’ve been farming in the Yeo Valley for 50 years (the River Yeo runs behind the farm and through Blagdon Lake), and this year we celebrate 25 years of producing organic dairy products. It all started back in 1961 when my parents set up Holt Farm with just 30 cows and a few sheep and over the years it grew and grew until in 1994 we began to buy in organic milk from other farms and Yeo Valley was formed.
From one farm 25 years ago, we now take milk from over 100 British organic dairy farms and make milk, butter, cream, yogurt and ice cream. Over the next 25 years, we would like to see one in 10 of all British dairy farms producing milk using organic principles and methods. Currently, there are only two or three in every 100.
Organic farming maintains healthy soil, which means healthy plants, which leads to healthy wildlife and healthy farm animals. In turn, we get healthy milk, which is better for us – so, healthy us. Who wouldn’t want to strive for a healthier world for us and our families to live in?
I’m convinced that our way is the better way, especially when it comes to nature and soil. Let’s take soil first because it’s a much underrated resource, but one that will be absolutely key to our future if we’re to farm and live sustainably.
Our friends at Sustainable Soils are extremely worried about the state of Britain’s soil, with 84% of our country’s fertile topsoil lost since 1850, largely because of flooding, erosion and loss of organic content. In addition, an environmental audit on soil health a couple of years ago found that around 300,000 hectares of soil here in Britain are contaminated with toxic elements from local industries, like arsenic, lead and cadmium. You don’t want food grown in that sort of soil or milk from cows who have grazed there.
How organic farming redresses the balance
What can we do as organic farmers to help? One of the easiest ways is to use red and white clover, which takes nitrogen from the air and feeds it back into the soil to help other plants to grow. The thing about clover is that it also provides good food for our pedigree cows. Which brings us neatly on to animals.
Like all organic farmers, we care about the welfare of all our animals, but we also care about the wider ecosystem in which our animals live. We see little point in just being farmers when we also need to ensure the land and everyone who lives there, big and small, has the best opportunities.
As a result, at Yeo Valley we set aside 25 acres of land for wild species to thrive. We’ve created a haven for field mice, voles, skylarks and barn owls as well as many other wild friends. By looking after these animals, they in return help control the bugs that can harm our crops. It’s a symbiotic relationship but one that means we have no need for chemicals or pesticides to allow the farm to function. We also have six and a half acres of organic garden filled with ornamental plants for bees to feed on, as well as fruit and vegetables for everyone else.
Put nature first
Rather than taking nature on, organic farmers work with nature. We put nature first. We value the insects and bacteria in the soil. Pouring chemicals on it does nobody any good, especially our precious bees without whom we’d all be in a mess.
As organic farmers, we know that respecting nature and a balanced approach is the key to a successful business. This balanced approach should include animals grazing the grass that is so abundant in our part of northern Europe. These animals then return manure to the soil, which is essential to its health and its ability to grow crops.
Farming without grazing animals, in our opinion, is totally unsustainable because of the effect on soil health. Contrary to the propaganda of the chemical, pesticide and artificial fertilizer industries, we can feed the world by working with nature. Currently 70% of the world’s food is produced by organic and subsistence farmers and a recent detailed study shows that Europe can feed itself organically. And it’s not difficult to transition to organic if you have the will to do so.
While lots of people will tell you things are not possible, we in Somerset have always had the attitude that it is what you can do that matters. It’s up to all of us to put nature first and learn from her to help us produce real, healthy and sustainable food. So please support Organic September and help make a difference to our future.