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Meet the British dairy farmer who is adopting a more sustainable approach

Originally as a member of a commune, then tenant and now owner of Bwlchwernen Fawr, Patrick Holden is determined to follow the sustainable farming principles he so strongly believes in.

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Meet the British dairy farmer who is adopting a more sustainable approach

A group of self-styled ‘hippies’ left London 47 years ago in an old Land Rover in search of somewhere to set up a self-sufficient commune.

 

The group ended up in West Wales and, although they had no money of their own, the parents of one of the group agreed to provide the funding to buy a 54-hectare (135-acre) farm in return for rent.

 

Little did any of them realise that among them was a young man destined to become one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement and, latterly, a champion of sustainable farming in touch with Agricultural Ministers in Cardiff and Westminster, with an input into farming’s possible post-Brexit support arrangements.

 

That apart, Patrick Holden can justifiably be proud of what he and his wife Becky have achieved in establishing what is a well-run dairy farming and cheesemaking operation.

 

In 1973, Ceredigion’s Bwlchwernen Fawr, at Llangybi, near Lampeter, was pretty run down, many of the fields waterlogged, fences were in a poor state and the farmhouse and buildings badly in need of renovation.

 

Tenancy

 

Undaunted, the six-strong group set about putting things in order until, one by one, they started to drift away, including the one whose family had provided the start-up funding.

 

They were keen to put the farm on the market but quite by chance one of Mr Holden’s friends offered to buy the holding and give him the tenancy.

 

As the sole remaining occupant, he jumped at the opportunity which gave him the chance to fully explore his environmental thinking, first kindled as a youngster living in the suburbs around London.


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Mr Holden says: “As a seven-year-old in the 1950s I would spend all of my free time on an estate farm which was alive with bio-diversity and those impressions of nature are what took me into farming.

 

“That farm was run on pre-intensification lines with crop rotations, mixed stocking and hardly any use of fertilisers or sprays.

 

“With so much wildlife, it was an experience that really moved me and has never left.

 

“After a year with my parents in San Francisco, even though I had no experience whatsoever of farming, my continuing love of nature convinced me I wanted to be a farmer.

 

“That was in 1971 and, in order to at least learn the basics, I spent a year working on a Hampshire dairy farm. It had a 90-cow Friesian herd, was very heavily stocked and used lots of nitrogen fertiliser. I learned a great deal there.”

 

In order to pursue his desire to learn more about organic farming, Mr Holden enrolled on a course in bio-dynamic farming at the Emerson College in Sussex.

 

He says: “That gave me an insight into what we now call sustainable farming.

 

“It was shortly after that when the search for a community farm began, even though none of us had any real experience of day-to-day farming.”

 

While it was run-down, Bwlchwernen had been a dairy farm with facilities for about 30 cows, so Mr Holden explains the logical move was to produce milk.

 

“So off we went, making use of the dilapidated abreast parlour and selling to the Milk Marketing Board by way of roadside churn collections.

 

“At that time some 3,000 producers, many with only one or two cows, were supplying the local Felinfach Creamery. Now there are only a few large-scale herds left.”

 

Instead of Friesians, Mr Holden and his friends opted for Ayrshires because of their reputation as
being ‘a thrifty native breed’ with good feet, well-attached udders and excellent converters of grass and clover into milk.

 

Mr Holden says the first 30 cows were bought from Scotland and the group set about getting the farm into a workable state.

 

“However, when the bombshell of the farm being put on the market hit, it shattered my dreams and I will always be grateful for being offered the tenancy and, subsequently, the chance of ownership,” says Mr Holden.

Pursuing his ‘back to nature’ beliefs, the 1980s saw him becoming the founding chairman of British Organic Farmers, followed by involvement with the Soil Association, eventually as its director between 1995 and 2010. There was also a CBE for services to organic farming.

 

Spurred on by running one of the longest standing certified organic dairy farms in Wales, his off-farm activities have since progressed to being chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, a charitable organisation based in Bristol and working to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable production systems.

 

Diversification

 

Diversification of activities at Bwlchwernen led to wheat being grown for flour production, along with crops of beetroot, potatoes, cabbage and carrots, although today the concentration is on the output of 85 all-year-round calving Ayrshires, with up to 80 per cent of the milk going into Cheddar cheese carrying the Hafod name.

 

As well as the owned ground, a further 68ha (170 acres) is now being rented locally, with half of the overall acreage being down to grass and the rest subject to a seven-year reseeding rotation based around ploughing, a combinable crop of an oats, barley and peas mixture followed by a take of arable silage under-sown with a suitable grass mixture.

 

Milking facilities have been upgraded to a 10-unit abreast with an average of one-tonne per cow per year of a mixture of the home-grown grains and organically certified concentrates being fed in the parlour during twice-aday milking.

 

Straw from the cereal crop provides bedding for the cubicle- housed cows and youngstock, with male calves being reared on and sold as rose veal to regular outlets at between nine and 12 months old.

 

Recently erected is a covered manure store which prevents any dilution of valuable nutrients, with any run-off being channelled into a circular slurry storage tank fitted with a rubberised, air tight roof.

 

As well as keeping rainfall out, this is enabling the monitoring of methane production, which in time could become an on-farm heating source.

Silage

 

A new covered silo means that for the first time clamped silage will be fed to the cows, removing the need for plastic-wrapped big bales. The building also provides rain-proof cover for the straw.

 

“All of the developments have been made as a step towards achieving a fully sustainable farming system which could be adopted by other food producers,” says Mr Holden.

 

“Sadly I fear farmers have become commodity slaves – producing food at either cost or below cost, selling it to very large packers and processors with its identity lost.

 

“As an industry we have been price-takers not price-makers and have lost the connection we once had with the people who buy our food and value us as farmers.

 

“There are emerging shoots of alternative systems with people realising that enough is enough and a need to re localise things. But there is still a long way to go.

 

“Farmers have had to get bigger and bigger simply to survive. The traditional small mixed dairy farms that were right for the landscape, the environment and their families have become unviable as a result of prices being relentlessly driven down.

 

“In reality, farmers cannot be blamed for simply following what makes economic sense, but British agriculture needs to become more sustainable with better respect for the environment and producing food that is better for human health.”

 

To achieve this, Mr Holden says there perhaps needs to be a ‘polluter pays principle’.

 

“This will mean farmers using practices and inputs causing damage to the environment and public health are held financially accountable.

 

“On the other hand, farmers who are farming sustainably need to be rewarded, something we have been talking to the Welsh Government about during the preparation of its post-Brexit farming support arrangements.”

 

Mr Holden says in his opinion, the bare bones of those proposals are ‘brilliant’ and, for the first time, could create conditions whereby farmers who adopt sustainable practices can be rewarded financially.

 

Sustainability

 

“In our case, sustainability means that we have minimised the use of non-renewable inputs, have never used a single kilogram of nitrogen in 46 years and never used any pesticides.

 

“We only ever use antibiotics on the cows to save life and have never used any in the udder for more than 30 years.”

 

Rather than strip-grazing, holistic or paddock-type systems are used on-farm, which are based around a mile of cow tracks.

 

Mr Holden explains: “The aim being to defoliate once and immediately rest the grass in order to preserve the root mass and build soil fertility.

 

“Using nitrogen fertiliser, on the other hand, puts that into reverse, so looking to the future farmers will need to better manage their soil, bio-diversity and hedgerows, rather than carrying out what I consider to be a mining operation of taking out but not putting back.

 

“We have become self-sufficient in our forage and straw needs and 50 per cent of our organic cake needs. The ultimate goal is 100 per cent.

 

“In reality, we are only at the beginning of what could be achieved in terms of sustainable farming.

 

“Farming’s worst enemy is producing too much food, of which 30 per cent is being wasted. If we want to get pricing in balance we need to be producing less not more.”

 

Mr Holden says he sees his role as trying to create the conditions where it is possible for farmers to adopt a more sustainable approach and for them to be as profitable, or ideally more profitable, than the way most farmers are having to farm at the moment.

 

He says: “I believe that in their hearts all farmers would like to address climate change and step up their approach to bio-diversity, but the economics of farming are so challenging that most farmers are barely making a living.

 

“They cannot be expected to do the right thing if it is going to cost them their economic viability. That is just not going to happen.

 

“Doing the right thing needs to pay better. It is as simple as that and I believe it can happen.”

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