PRODUCE: PASTURE REARED BEEF, LAMB AND PORK
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 30.93 MILES
Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time on farms; I’ve got used to the way things work, the way they operate. But occasionally, I stumble across somewhere different, somewhere a bit special. Model Farm falls firmly into that category.
I’ve been sourcing a majority of my meat from them for the past couple of months through a local food coop that I work with. They tick a lot of the boxes with their organic and pasture reared certifications, but I was itching to visit and see the farm for myself. So when life took me across the other side of the Severn, I made a little diversion to visit the farm just outside Ross on Wye.
I’m waiting outside the farm shop when Simon pulls up in a muddy, well used Land Rover. Clutching my camera and recorder, I jump in and we launch off down a track to the centre of the original Model Farm. Thus named as the farm was one of many around the country that were built and given to the council to provide for a soldier returning from the Crimean war. The original farm buildings are pretty red brick structures, with two big pigsties and a place for a horse. Parceled with around 40-60 acres of land, this would have enabled these soldiers to live self-sufficiently. Now, between two of them, they now have a pair of these farms with around 100 acres, which Simon began leasing from the council in 1988. Simon wasn’t born into farming per-se; his father was a rural vegetable grower on smallholding scale, but after originally training as a land agent, he was drawn back to land based work. “I was lucky to get a council farm,” he explains; “I couldn’t have afforded to buy it, but it’s secure for the rest of my life.”
We pull into the main farm yard so Simon can unhitch a trailer before we set off. Two small piglets shoot out the way ahead of us and Simon chuckles; clearly this is planned freedom not accidental. “There’ll be 15-20 piglets running around somewhere,” he tells me. They farrow the sows together in the barn, but the large bars at the front of the pen give the piglets complete freedom to run around the area, free-ranging in neighbouring fields and learning independence from a young age. I jump out, eager to try to photograph the skittish piglets as they frolic in the long grass. After a few minutes of hide and seek with the pair, I hear the landrover return, now without trailer, and head back into the barn where Simon introduces me to the mothers; three huge Hampshire sows who grunt loudly in hope of food. “The organic inspector came and thought this was a brilliant setup,” he tells me as he throws in a bucket of food. “We have to look after them carefully while they’re feeding, but with this setup we bring sillage, mown grass and potatoes in for them and the piglets can roam free.”
Simon originally focused on pigs and sheep on this piece of land, but 12 years ago was offered a farm business tenancy for 500 acres on a nearby estate. It’s a ten minute drive to the estate, and conversation flits as we drive, covering topics from raw milk to bone broth, sourdough bread to land access. Entering the estate, Simon opens the gate to the field and, much to my surprise, doesn’t bother to close it behind us. “People can't believe that my cows won't immediately run out when I open a gate,” he says with a smile when I comment. But it becomes apparent that there’s no reason for them to; the pasture is thick and lush, full of wildflowers and legumes. They’re free to eat from a wide array of different plants - apparently they’re now favouring the burdock, which they’ll only eat for a small window of time in the growing cycle - as Simon points out, “They know what they need to be having at the time.”
We drive towards the herd, clustered around a few shady trees, tails flicking away the flies. These cows have one of the most stunning views in the area, with the field sitting across from Symonds Yat rock, the river Wye winding its way between the two. In total he has just over 100 Hereford cows, and these are the mothers with this year’s calves, born in March or April. As we pull up, Simon stops the vehicle about 20m away and I disembark out to grab some photos. I crouch down and play with the settings on my camera, and soon find the curious creatures edging towards me. One calf in particular seems intent on being a cover star, venturing close enough that I can hear him chewing meditatively on the grass as he watches me. I lose myself in taking photos for a moment, and suddenly hear a whiffling noise behind me and realise that a cow is gently sniffing at my jumper. Behind her, other cows have gathered around the Land Rover, a familiar site to them, and one is even licking at the mud that’s hardened on the vehicle. Satisfied that I have enough photos for now, I reluctantly return to the Land Rover. “They’re happy cows, aren’t then?” Simon muses as the sound of mooing echoes off the cliffs on the other side of the river. “They get very close to nature here; they know where to drink in the river, they know where to go off and have their calves, they never come in - they stay out all the time.” We sit and watch them for a moment and I can’t help but agree, they are indeed happy cows. They’re also very calm and friendly cows, necessary because of the public footpaths that pass through the land; “Every 30 yards you’ve got another walker,” he jokes.
We return to the subject of holistic land management as we drive back onwards through the field, following the curve of the river towards the flock of sheep who graze in with the cows. “You’ve got to start with the soil,” he points out over the rumbling of the engine as we bounce over uneven ground. “Over here was a dead farm; full of weeds and you couldn't find a worm. There were 6 foot high thistles everywhere. And now it's completely the opposite; it’s just full of wildlife.” Under Natural England’s guidance, they planted a mix of wildflowers across the pastures, and introduced the cattle. The cows help enrich the soil and redistribute the seeds as they eat them and spread them through their manure. “The species are just getting richer and and richer and richer,” he continues. “On grass fields where there was nothing 12 years ago, they now have wildflowers, and the wildflowers bring the bugs and the bugs the birds.” He pauses for a second. “I like to walk through the pasture and see the bugs scatter ahead of me,” he says with a smile.
Conversation turns to mob grazing and some of the new practices coming out in land management from Australia and New Zealand. “We don’t mob graze because we’ve got too many footpaths and rivers, but we put quite a lot of cattle into a field and then move them before the worms become a problem.” Some people recently came to test the cows, and were shocked to find that they had no worms. Even Simon admits that while he was expecting a lower worm count than conventionally farmed cows, he wasn’t expecting zero. He’s been raising his cattle as pasture reared from the start, before it became a recognized standard. “With the advent of the internet, we suddenly found there's lots of us!” he explains, acknowledging that the technology has been really useful for sharing information and helping new farmers get up to speed.
We approach the sheep, definitely more skittish than their cow companions. They’re a funny looking bunch, with tufts of wool seemingly falling off them. This turns out to be the case, as Simon introduces me to the concept of Easy Care sheep. “The wool falls off naturally so you don’t have to shear them,” he points out as we circle the slowly moving flock. A cross between a Wiltshire Horn and a Nelson type of Welsh Mountain sheep, they hark back to a more primitive animal, before we bred sheep to have more and more wool. The sale price of wool for most sheep is so low these days that it doesn’t even pay for the shearing, and the reduced workload is a plus for Simon. “And we must have the best birds nests around with all the wool they pick up,” he jokes. “They’re good mothers and don’t get much lameness,” he continues, which definitely seems to suit his style of farming where the sheep lamb in the field and live out on pasture all year round. “And they're pretty hardy. Sometimes if it snows it doesn't melt on their back because they're so well insulated with the fat,” he tells me with a smile.
Simon manages over 100 cows and 350 ewes on his own, assisted by his sheepdogs and Jack Russells, and a little help here and there from one of his sons. Days tend to involve doing just what we are right now; driving around and checking everything’s ok - both the health of the animals but also the quality of the pasture. It seems like such a light touch and easy to manage system, and I’m drawn to the way it’s run. “We’re managing it as a year-round, sustainable system,” he explains as we head back towards the entrance to the field. “We keep grass cover into winter, and that helps stop the damage from the hooves.” The choice of the breed of cow is also intentional, and he admits that this wouldn’t work so well with a continental breed such as a Charolais due to the way they graze. It may seem to an uninformed eye that the land could have more animals grazing on it, but Simon points out; “We know this is all the land can cope with. If we had more cows, we'd be bringing in food and it wouldn't be that sustainable closed loop.” But as he points out, it’s not just about the sustainability of the way the animals are raised, we need to address the wider issues in the food we eat; “We wouldn’t feed many people if they want to eat meat twice a day”.
We head up the road to the main part of the estate, a stunning wide open section split into different fields. A few cows lounge lazily under an old shady tree, and Simon points out the new trees they’ve planted in the original locations where they stood on the parkland in the 19th century; “We put them in by GPS!” he explains proudly. He’s also dragged in a huge old branch to give the cows something to scratch on and avoid them damaging the tree guards. He stops the Land Rover and we step out to look at the pasture. “These tumps that the cows make, they’re great for nature,” he starts. “They become homes for voles and things in winter.” We look more closely at the grass itself, and the sea of green breaks up into countless different varieties as we start to look more closely. Simon points out yarrow, self-heal with its pretty blue flowers, and sorrel. Then trefoil and red and white clovers, which all make nitrogen. And this is just within a few feet of where I stand. Back in the vehicle, we follow the hill upward, through field after field of beautiful thick pasture, empty at this point in the six week long grazing rotation. We stop at the crest of the hill and admire the stunning scenery; we’re now almost 300 feet above the river and the landscape and habitat has changed completely. He points out an area of bracken that he’s under-sowing with violets, a collaboration with Natural England to provide a breeding habitat for a rare butterfly. “What we’re looking for is lots of different habitats,” he explains.
As we descend, Simon tells me about the troublesome sheep who always crosses the cattlegrid, and I spot rabbits and deer as we drive back through the numerous fields. One final stop on the tour to see a field of red clover that he turns into silage. “That’s all the sheep need to get them through January and February; it gives them the protein they need for their unborn lambs.” As he points out, why buy in soya when you can grow your own high protein crop. Before I leave, he takes me in to see the allotment plots that he helps manage next to the farm shop. Each year they plough a fresh stretch and spread manure on it for local plot holders to come and grow produce on. “We do the organic fertility, plough it and they just come and plant their crops,” Simon explains as we walk down the edge of the rows. The gardens seem to be flourishing though, “They have huge crops; massive cauliflowers!” he points out, “And because we rotate the land, they don’t get sick plants and problems with bugs. It’s worked really well,” he admits.
My time is up and my onward journey beckons. I bid the Land Rover a sad adieu, but it's with a cheerful heart I leave though, knowing that Model Farm is full of happy animals and a happy farmer.
More info: http://modelfarm.org