A mixed farming enterprise is key to success at broadward Hall farm. Gaina Morgan meets Ben Andrews to talk about the challenges they face and moving forwards as a family.
Juggling the challenges of urban sprawl, ever more extensive flooding and TB breakdown should be daunting.
But Ben Andrews is contented and happy in his work, farming 500 acres on an organic ‘proper old-fashioned mixed farm’.
The farm comprises Grade 1 and Grade 2 arable land as well as some Grade 3 pasture land on the outskirts of Leominster, Hereford. Ben is in partnership with his father, Colin, and the farm is rented from Brasenose College, Oxford University.
They fatten beef for Marks & Spencer (M&S), produce organic porridge oats and grow a variety of vegetables for Abel & Cole. The different elements of the farm all key in together, with the cattle grazing the river meadows until the inevitable flooding starts in the Autumn.
His chilled attitude owes much to his happy home life with his husband of three and a half years. Ben, 38, studied Agricultural Science at Edinburgh University and spent 18 months in London, where the couple met 14 years ago.
His working relationship with his father, Colin, clearly benefits them both, despite wry comments about decision making. And Ben is relaxed about having found a comfortable place as a gay man amid the somewhat judgmental constraints of a deeply rural society.
He is concerned, though, about those who are not as at ease with their sexuality. Ben is involved with Agrespect, a network for the LGBT community in rural communities, tackling homophobia and promoting diversity through collaboration with agricultural businesses.
With almost thirty thousand followers on Instagram, he recognises that social media can have drawbacks as well as advantages. The image of farming is also a concern, especially with the current blame game over climate change.
But it is a busy life, even though they have let the 300-acre dairy farm go with its 150 cows. The remaining 200 cattle formed the basis of the new beef enterprise, which comprises a mix of suckler cows and stores.
The Continental cross Hereford sucklers retained after the dairy herd was dispersed were put to Belgian Blues and Limousins and they buy in stores at 10 to 12 months old, but the organic specification governs choice and numbers.
Ben says: “It can be quite tricky to try and find a decent supply of store animals, so we have a bit of a mix now.
We’ve got some Angus, Charollais and all sorts.
“They’re outside as much as possible and the farm works very well for organic, but we do have about 170 acres that floods. We also have a lot of good arable land, so they’re out grazing the river meadows during the Spring and Summer months and into the Autumn.
“They came in a bit earlier than we would have liked this year, and when they’re in the sheds they get grass silage, whole crop and some rolled grains, oats and barley. It all depends. We’ve had them out until December in the past, but we had to rush them in off the fields last October, because the floods came in.
“It’s the same in the Spring. If it’s been a kind winter, they might be out at the end of February, but it’s been the end of April some years, when we’ve had water on the fields and they’ve not been able to.”
The cattle are all finished and currently sent to ScotBeef in Yorkshire on an M&S contract at between two years and 30 months. Ben says they are constantly reviewing and looking at options with different processors.
The numbers forward are variable and can be complicated by TB breakdowns ‘with one reactor every three years or so’. Last year numbers only reached 35, because a TB breakdown meant they could not buy in any stores.
They now have 150 head of cattle and are working towards 200. Numbers are supply driven and they look for organic stores with some native breeding for their ability to do well on forage, and a continental cross.
They are sourced privately through McCartneys organic sales and from the Organic Livestock Marketing Company (OLMC). They also deal directly with producers.
Ben would prefer a Hereford suckler herd, but his father is resistant. Ben concedes that the economics do not work as well and argues that a closed herd would ease TB breakdown problems. His experience with ‘lovely’ Herefords animals also saw easy calving, no fertility problems and good temperament.
The father and son have been in a partnership for the past year, but ‘not much has changed’. Ben feels there is little communication or devolved decision making.
He says: “We’re starting to have more conversations. Being junior in the farm when a lot of stuff goes on that you’re not aware of and getting on with the day to day work means it’s quite difficult to pick up on some of the management aspects.
“But I do all the paperwork, all the accounts, the payroll and the compliance and cattle movements. That’s the quickest way to learn. We have different strengths.”
The 200 acres of arable comprises oats, wheat and barley with a four-year clover ley to recover. The oats are usually sold for organic porridge through Cope Seeds & Grain, although low bushel weights attributed to weather conditions mean last year’s oats have only made feed grade.
The wheat is sold to a local merchant for organic stock feed and the barley is fed to their own cattle, with a small amount sold to local smallholders. The grain also rotates with the lettuce, kale, cauliflower, kohl rabi and cabbage crops.
They are sold to an organic box company, Able & Cole. The 30 acres of vegetables and salads begins with planting the lettuce towards the end of March/ beginning of April and the first pick in late May/ June, with the kale planted April/May and picked from early summer through till the following March.
The farm is in the Mid Tier Stewardship Scheme. Ben is proud that the farm operates on a closed loop, each enterprise benefiting another. It is a job he has come to love, and he relishes the environmental aspect, such as watching snipe of a morning and growing sunflowers for wild birds.
But it is tenanted, so diversification is not always easy. A photo voltaic installation had to be confined to the shed they had built – a 12 per cent return on the investment reduces the electricity used in the cold store by about £3,000 a year.
But looking ahead, there are some concerns, with a 50-acre slice of the farm lost to an industrial estate and it is likely to be split with another 100 acres of some of the best vegetable growing land going for a bypass and housing. It will fundamentally change the business, especially as they are tenants.
He says: “It’s sad, but it’s difficult to say that we wouldn’t bite someone’s hand off if we owned it. It’s such good agricultural land.
“We’re taking good agricultural land out of production. We’re tarmacking over it and building over it when people are saying we should be planting more fruit and vegetables and eating less meat.
“But the majority of the farm we’ll then be left with is land that is useful for nothing except growing forage for animals.”
Brexit is another challenge, but he’s not expecting major changes although tariff levels are a concern. They are not export driven and the main workforce has switched from largely EU labour to a more local emphasis anyway.
He says: “At the moment we’ve got five people on the payroll and it goes up to about ten in the summer. Last year we had two Czech guys, one Polish guy and a Ukrainian girl came to work here.
“Hopefully we’ll be OK for this season, but once they get this Brexit transition period out of the way I hope the Withdrawal Bill will set up the ongoing relationship going forward. Although I think it will probably be more paperwork.”