This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture for Life (PfL)
Read the following article, where Angus D. Birditt talks to Sam Parsons, the estate manager at Balcaskie Farms in the East Neuk of Fife, about how Balcaskie Farms transformed their whole operation from conventional farming to a more regenerative way of farming for a more sustainable future, and how Pasture for Life (PfL) fits in.
Balcaskie Farms has thirteen farms in total on the estate, farming cattle, sheep, arable, and “a few pigs here and there”. Back in 2015, after a significant in-house review of the estate, Balcaskie Farms made the decision to transform their farming system from conventional livestock and arable farming to a more regenerative, organic agriculture in order to be more sustainable moving forward.
“We looked at our entire farming system, from the grain producing business to the meat producing business, which was coming under increased pressures with changes of subsides and increased imports. Yes, it was high risk to change, but it was also high risk to keep on the same track.”
“Our ethos is now about measuring quality rather than quantity, moving away from commodity markets. For example, we used to sell our grain to the local distillery to make household name vodka and other spirits, but in 2015, it all changed when we were able to forecast the impact of our conventional farming for the next 50 years. What we found was that if we stayed on course with our current plan, things would get much worse. So therefore, we knew that we needed to implement a complete change in our farming system in order for those next 50 years to become more sustainable. It was clear that we were not heading in the right direction and a change needed to happen.”
"...what was the point of sustaining something already degraded? That was a light bulb moment for us, it was time to regenerate.”
After the overall review, Sam tells me that a long list of objectives was drawn up to improve all aspects of their business, economically, environmentally, and to involve the local community as much as possible.
One of the long-term objectives was to focus on agroecology, farming with the environment and nature in mind. This meant using such regenerative methods as companion crops, crop rotation and mob grazing, to improve the degradation of the land by increasing soil health and improving grass fertility. Sam tells me how they initiated this regenerative transformation at Balcaskie Farms; “The first thing we did was to work with a regenerative expert, who came in for an intensive course on sustainability and extensive farming methods. He underlined to us the fact that many in the agricultural world talk about being ‘sustainable’, but as he rightly questioned, what was the point of sustaining something already degraded? That was a light bulb moment for us, it was time to regenerate.”
“After his visit, we went from trying to sustain our income each year to focusing on improving soil health each year. We learnt that the majority of regenerative farming methods were all about harnessing the sun’s power through photosynthesis to refuel the land; working it less and allowing it to take its course more naturally. It was all about learning new ways of working and seeing that our old systems didn’t work.” Sam came to realise that many of those who were leading the regenerative farming movement had gone through a crisis of some sort, forced down that route as a ‘last throw of the dice’, due to either high borrowing or serious degradation of their soil.
The first port of call for Balcaskie Farms was to become organic. Yet, they also wanted to go that bit further and start the process of regeneration. “There is so much to learn about regenerative farming, and we saw that lots of people were talking about it, which eventually led us onto finding the Pasture for Life.”
Sam tells me that they initially became a Pasture for Life member, “We started off as a member to see what it was all about, gaining regenerative knowledge and contacts in the movement. It gave us access to pier-to-pier exchanges of experiences, both good and bad. Pasture for Life is a central hub, where you can talk to people in the same situation or to those who have already turned to regeneration, with no competition to the discussions.”
“Part of the change towards becoming more regenerative was to produce our meat in the most natural way possible; anything that didn’t happen in nature we wanted to question. Before, we had a typical herd of mixed native and continental breeds that were not suited to be finished on grass outside. So, for our cattle to be fed on grass outside all year round, the solution was to farm only native breeds like our Lincoln Reds that were smaller animals, would fatten slower, and would be more suited to grazing outside for the whole year. Once we were able to be completely 100% grass-fed, and develop our regenerative systems learnt through being a PfL member, we then wanted to have more control of our product, and that’s when we became ‘Pasture For Life’ Certified.”
“Being Pasture for Life Certified sets us apart from much of the other products. For those who understand what PfL is all about – environmentally and economically –, it enables the endorsement of our meat, and goes towards representing the regenerative work we are doing at Balcaskie Farms. As we are already organic, the certification protects the premium we already have. For example, if you were to buy two meats (one that had PfL, the other didn’t) having that ‘Pasture for Life’ stamp on it would help us stand out from the other.”
Sam believes that customers have had a growing mistrust in consumption over the last couple of decades, whether it is through mislabelling or labelling with little information. “The ‘Pasture For Life’ hallmark really helps us convey that trust to the customer.” He continues, “Both PfL and Soil Association process robust and thorough annual audits, which is great, because by having the stamp of approval it goes to show that we are achieving those high levels of food standards set by both.”
Having become part of the PfL scheme, talking to other members and attending PfL events, Sam tells me that they found many of the methods of regenerative farming were simply reviving methods that had been used 50-60 years ago, with new and better technologies now applied.
The regenerative farming systems they now use at Balcaskie Farms are focused towards growing plenty more and diverse grasses, changing conventional arable fields to organic herbal leys. They now have around 17 new species in their herbal leys, including herbs and grasses, which in the past would have been seen as weeds and removed. This process of allowing the grass to grow, and in more variety, helps in so many ways.
Sam tells me, “As we mob graze much of our land, we are able to rest large parts of it, depending on season and weather, which means we can extend our grazing season much longer and have our cattle out all year round as there is enough grass to eat.” He notes that by leaving the plants to grow in these rest periods, allowing them to grow long roots and work their own unique root system into the ground, soil structure improves. It also improves soil health, making it more resilient to any issues like extreme weather conditions, “Resting the land gives time for the plants to grow deep roots, which are then able to reach the water table more effectively. For example, in droughts, the roots are now able to reach water reserves, and in wet seasons, they are better equipped to filtrate any heavy rainfall.”
It was all about taking time to learn these new regenerative methods, of which we are always learning.”
Another benefit of growing herbal lays is that their cattle’s nutrition is greatly improved, eating feed that is completely natural and has not been induced with additives. Sam says, “With our herbal leys, each plant species takes up different nutrients from the soil, which is then happily grazed by our cattle.” This in turn introduces more invertebrates and microorganisms to the soil’s biosphere as the nutrient-rich plants are then passed through the cattle and out in their faeces.
One particular regenerative farming method, which Sam took from one of his PfL meetings to then implement at Balcaskie Farms, was ‘winter bale grazing’. As simple as it sounds, leaving several bales of nutrient-rich hay out in the fields over winter for the cattle to graze on. Sam tells me that this farming method was inspired by a PfL online discussion, speaking to other certified farmers who had already implemented the system. One farmer encouraged Sam to go and see his bale grazing in Herefordshire, “I saw first-hand the benefits of the system. I wouldn’t have done it if I had read about it, but having met him through the PfL meeting, and seeing it first-hand on his farm in Herefordshire, it was the real turning point in doing it at Balcaskie Farms.”
Sam notes that one of the reasons for the change in their farming system was to not buy in any external supplies; minerals to balance diets, machine costs, feeding wagons, forklifts, fuel costs, all of which have increased in price over a period of ten years. It was clear that their outputs weren’t increasing, so it was nonsensical to be farming in the same way as before. He tells me that they would save money by simply managing the grass leys to be more productive, “Now we have more grass, we don’t buy in expensive feed. It was all about taking time to learn these new regenerative methods, of which we are always learning.”
Involving the community was another prime objective in their regenerative programme at Balcaskie Farms, “It was, and still is, so important to get more people – younger people especially – involved in both what we are doing here at Balcaskie but in agriculture as a whole.”
Sam mentions how they have got people interested in their regenerative project at Balcaskie Farms, “All in all it has been really encouraging how people have embraced this new regenerative system. Change always takes time, and it was no different for us when changing our farming system, our husbandry, and learning new ways of working that had been set in stone for generations.” He tells me that at Balcaskie Farms, they offer agricultural apprenticeships for young people who are interested in being outdoors and learning about their new farming methods.
The increase in biodiversity is also “hugely important” at Balcaskie Estate. Sam tells me, “It all connects up; improving our farming methods, improves our biodiversity. For example, by applying our winter hay bale system, the bales attract voles and other small mammals to burrow underneath, which then attract sparrowhawks, kestrels and owls that hunt them. It’s brilliant to see that our progressive farming methods encourage such wildlife on the land.”
The meat produced from Balcaskie Farms is sold from their own butchery at the Bowhouse. Sam says, “We sell around 15-20% of our meat through Sophie, our butcher at Bowhouse Butchery on the Balcaskie Estate, which allows us to connect directly to chefs and consumers that share our regenerative mindset, quality and provenance values.” They also grow wheat, barley and rye at Balcaskie Farms, a portion of which is heritage grains that are sent to Scotland the Bread, where it is milled and sold at Bowhouse.
As I leave Balcaskie Farms, and for Sam to go and check the cleaning process of their heritage grains that are being sent to Scotland the Bread at Bowhouse, he says, “If only more farmers were to change to a more regenerative way of farming, the UK would become far less reliant on imports and reduce huge amounts of chemicals being induced into our land and food system.”