Andy Bradford has Dartmoor moors in his blood and thrives off collaborating with others to solve his farming problems. Rachel Lovell visits the area to meet him.
Every farm has its challenges, but those on Dartmoor need a particularly resolute sort of farmer.
Determination, collaboration and diversification are a big part of the farming picture here, and Andy Bradford of Brimpts Farm achieves the right balance.
Brimpts Farm is an ancient Duchy of Cornwall tenement, which Andy took on from his father in 1992.
“I am one of six, but no one else was interested - I drew the short straw,” she jokes.
Located on a sheltered valley plateau in the east Dart Valley, the farm comprises 283 hectares (700 acres), of which 61ha (150 acres) is in-bye land and 223ha (550 acres) is Newtake.
His mother Margaret had stayed on a farm near Tavistock during the war with the Mudge family, who then moved to Brimpts in 1947, introducing her to high Dartmoor life.
Such was her love of Dartmoor farming, she took on the tenancy of Brimpts with Andy’s father when it came available in 1969.
In the early years, Brimpts was typical for the area - a mixed farm producing beef, a little milk and clotted cream for the tourist trade - all on a small scale.
They produced potatoes and ran a riding school from the holding as the years progressed, and in 1975 they opened a tea room, which Margaret ran.
After leaving school, Andy worked for neighbouring farmer John Coaker at Sherberton Farm, a job which had a huge influence on the future of Brimpts when it came into his hands.
He says: “It was great to work for them; livestock haulage took me all over the UK, visiting small and large farms and seeing different farming methods. I learned what I wanted to do and what I wanted to avoid.”
At 22, Andy returned to Brimpts after his older brother emigrated to farm on the Canadian Prairies, where he felt there was more opportunity in agriculture at that time.
Andy says: “My folks had never made much money from farming, but the tearoom had brought cash in. I needed to do more.”
With this in mind, he went into milk in 1984, just as many were leaving following the introduction of the milk quota system.
“Milking cows just seemed a good idea,” says Andy. “I remember going to the tribunal with my parents. I had to sell my story and why I wanted to do it. Dad said I could do whatever I wanted, that it was my show, and that just stuck with me.”
Andy had done his homework and, armed with figures and representing himself, he walked away with a quota of 200,000 litres.
Thanks to supportive neighbouring farmers on the moor, he had a herd of 40 Ayrshires within couple of years.
“I had no cash, but I had help,” he says. “George Medland lent me cows out for nothing, and I let him have some keep, while Russell Ashford at Bowden Farm was so good to me, and advised me on milking Ayrshires.”
Sadly, despite all his hard work in building up the milking herd, within three years Andy had to sell his quota.
“It was an incredibly cold winter and the lorry just could not get the milk out. It was just awful watching it go to waste, and I knew it would not be the last of that sort of weather.”
Never one to be beaten, Andy started introducing Herefords into the herd, as his research had shown Hereford crosses made good sucklers. By moving into beef production he found a good fit for his farm, especially by the 1990s when he switched to the regional native breed, the South Devon, and built the herd up to 90 head.
Andy says: “They are a really good beef animal and look pretty too. I think a certain type of South Devon does well on the moor though - I have a smaller, more robust cow.
“Nearer Totnes and Kingsbridge in the milder lowlands you get what I call orange elephants - they are no good to me.”
He has continued to refine the cattle in recent years, introducing their own Red Aberdeen-Angus bull and allowing them to create a closed herd.
“Red water is our biggest challenge up here. The local saying is that you should never take a bullock upstream and it is true - they just do not have the immunity. I can spot it fast now - they get as weak as a kitten, so you have got to catch them.”
Calves are spring-born and from May they range the farm’s 223ha (550 acres) of Newtake, grazing heather and nutritional grassland until September, when HLS requirements mean they must take them off.
This has recently been extended by a month due to milder autumn conditions.
“We take just one cut of silage a year from our in-bye land, and hold the cows at the rest until around mid-December, when they come inside,” says Andy.
The herd self-feeds at a silage clamp at a rate of about 15cm (6in) a day and is kept on deep wheat straw litter, which Andy relies on heavily for the wider fertility of the farm.
“That muck is more important to me than bought-in fertiliser,” he says. “I would rather spend money on good straw which the cattle can eat and lie on and then use it as a fertiliser once mature.”
Andy’s input spend is low, with 50kg/ha (20kg/acre) going on his in-bye silage and grazing land.
Cattle go to slaughter at 30 months, but finishing on the moor is not straightforward either.
The harsh conditions mean that for the past 25 years, Andy has sent everything to Jim Stephens of Swannaton Farm in Crediton, mid-Devon.
Meanwhile, seeing a need to promote the special qualities of Dartmoor-reared meat, and inspired by a trip to meet Swiss Simmental farmers in 2005, Andy was one of the founder members of the Dartmoor Farmers’ Association - a beef and lamb marketing initiative inspired and strongly supported by The Prince of Wales.
As a co-operative of more than 50 farmer members, it now sells meat reared on the moor to local pubs, restaurants, shops and individuals via a website -www.dartmoorfarmers.co.uk.
Andy has also set up an online outlet for his beef at www.beefbox.co.uk, which was among the earliest meatbox schemes to be established in the UK.
Andy’s tireless improvements to Brimpts do not stop there. Hospitality is as much at its heart as farming, with catering and tearooms in the main farmhouse all managed by Andy’s partner Gabrielle, who has a wealth of knowledge in marketing and hospitality, and daughter Josephine keen to follow suit.
The traditional granite buildings have been transformed into unusual meeting facilities for business bookings, while the cottage and barns have been converted into high end B&B, self-catering and corporate guest accommodation.
It seems Andy’s innovative spirit is genetic too - Josephine has come up with a new concept in on-farm glamping called ‘expoditioning’.
The idea is that wooden camping ‘pods’ made from sustainably-sourced local wood offer an affordable way for other farms to try diversifying into hospitality, especially those around Dartmoor and Exmoor’s Two Moors Way.
Andy’s own focus is moving towards renewables. He installed a biomass boiler on-farm four years ago with funding from Dartmoor National Park, Defra, The Duchy of Cornwall and Devon County Council.
He says: “We were getting through £10,000 of oil a year. It was just unsustainable, but the boiler paid for itself within four years.
“I believe in collaboration to solve problems, so I started looking into more sustainable ways to provide the fuel we need.”
The result was the Dartmoor Woodfuel Co-operative. It was set up as an Industrial Provident Society in 2009 by Andy and a group of like-minded Dartmoor residents, each keen on reducing the carbon footprint of their lifestyles on Dartmoor.
The Duchy of Cornwall once again provided funding and management assistance with this project.
“Our intention is to unlock the potential of the small woodland resource available locally, reducing the transportation of bio-energy within the region and improving the bio-diversity of these woods,” says Andy.
As ever, Brimpts Farm is at the heart of the enterprise, with a new barn built in 2014 to help store the £100,000 worth of woodchips the co-op will get through in this winter alone.
It is clear the next idea always seems to be on the boil. “The grants and opportunities are there, you just need to become a grant beastie. Do the work.
“We must remember farming is so marginal up here and financially it is not justifiable in many ways - but its importance lies in what it delivers for the environment and the scenery.
“We make a very good niche product here on Dartmoor - sheep and beef that is high in omega-3s. We just need to make sure we sell it.
“Ultimately, though, I have done all this to farm here on Dartmoor to make it work. That is all I want to do.”