This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture Fed Livestock Association
Bill and Bridget Biddell alongside assistant estate manager Will Godwin run Hampton Estate Farms, a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farm in the idyllic Surrey Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Angus D. Birditt interviews Will Godwin to discuss all things Hampton Estate Farms and why they became ‘Pasture For Life’ certified.
Angus D. Birditt: For those who may not know, what is Hampton Estate Farms?
Will Godwin: Hampton Estate Farms is located on the southern flanks of the Hogs Back between Farnham and Guildford within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a family run traditional agricultural estate with 2250 acres of historic parkland, grazing meadows, arable fields, woodlands and traditional farmyards. Hampton Estate itself thrives on its rural diversity yet retains its beauty and original agricultural purpose.
On light sandy soils, we rear our lovely herd of pedigree Sussex cattle that graze throughout the year on a mixture of grassland and meadows beside the River Wey. We also sell venison from the roe population here on the estate, which are culled for their meat and for tree management.
ADB: What is unique about the Sussex breed and why did you choose them?
WG: The main point was because the Sussex breed is our local, native breed – they are grazing land they know well. Here in the Surrey Hills, they were traditionally used for pulling carts, perfect animals for the job with their short legs and chunky long bodies – rather similar to those oil paintings you see from the 18th and 19th Centuries that depict exaggerated cow profiles!
They are not quick finishers – around 30 months – but we don’t rush them and they finish well. What’s nice is that our customers know that they take longer to finish and are happy to wait for great nutritious meat, reared locally. All of this I’m telling you, Angus, is what we tell our customers. They like knowing how the animal was reared, what farming systems we use here at the farm, why we farm native breeds and how we feed them. We like to say to them that ‘Pasture For Life’ beef is probably what beef tasted like before conventional farming came in – far from what you would get in the supermarkets – a true beefy flavour.
ADB: Why did you become ‘Pasture For Life’ certified?
WG: I went to the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, where I met and was inspired by farmer Jonty Brunyee. Jonty now runs FarmED, which provides ‘learning spaces and events that inspire, educate and connect people to build sustainable farming and food systems that nourish people and regenerate the planet.’ It was Jonty who pointed me in the direction of regenerative agriculture – it wasn’t called ‘regenerative agriculture’ then, but that’s what it was – and the progressive work being done by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association.
When I came to Hampton Estate Farms, they were already farming to the same principles as ‘Pasture For Life’, so it was very easy to become certified with the PFLA. I think it was literally changing one ingredient in the winter feed to become certified, so it was no problem at all. Over the years of being ‘Pasture For Life’, I have found it to be a great community. Especially now that the PFLA organisation has grown, it’s wonderful to have a group of people pushing each other to farm better.
As I see it for us here at Hampton Estate Farms, farming to the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association principles provides us with four key distinctive qualities. The first is to eat better. You know, many ask how ‘Pasture For Life’ meat is better? Well, ‘Pasture For Life’ meat is better because if you placed a piece of ‘Pasture For Life’ meat in front of someone next to a piece of meat that has been conventionally reared and fed with high-intensive grain feed, you will certainly be able to taste the difference!
The second quality is that we are farming to the highest welfare standards there is. That could be controversial in organic circles, I appreciate that, but I see the PFLA as a good challenge to an industry that was too comfortable with a polarised ‘organic’ or ‘not organic’ status quo. The PFLA certification is the best certification system we could find, trying to make sure that we were using a system that had the highest welfare provision for our cattle. It’s always been a brilliant approach to have a system that mimics nature as much as possible and has the smallest intervention so the cattle can do their own thing as much as they can. We have found from working with the PFLA that the less intervention you do early on, the less you have to manage the cattle and the less you have to do downstream.
The third quality is that we are farming to improve the health of the environment. The majority of the landscape management that we are involved in here on the estate requires large groups of herbivores as part of the system. That includes the way in which we manage the grass and pasture. In recent years, we have moved from a system where we would put a few animals on a large field and leave them there for as long as possible, to now moving larger groups on smaller paddocks, moving them as frequently as we can – reserving our whole original logic! If you put the cattle in a tight area, they will graze hard, so you need to move them quickly. This leaves a residue of grass in the grazed paddock that will grow back quickly, encouraging more growth both above the ground and below. The benefits of this above ground is that it creates a shade, a layer of organic matter that keeps things cool and damper and therefore is more conducive to encouraging microbial activity. Such as on our sandy soils, where the trouble is when it doesn’t rain, it really doesn’t rain – it doesn’t take much to look like Sub Saharan Africa here when it’s hot and dry – so keeping cover is always a positive in our microclimate! It also has a secondary benefit for wildlife and invertebrates, creating a habit for them to nest or indeed feed. Below ground this means deeper roots that will search for nutrients and regulate our surface water by drawing it down faster and further.
The fourth and final quality is the nutritional benefit that the ‘Pasture For Life’ gives you, meat that doesn’t only eat better, it’s also better for you. I suppose the headline here is that I don’t disagree with lots of the conversations that are driving lots of the moves to reduce the amount of meat that we are consuming, in fact, lots of motivations are indeed shared. Take the Amazonian rainforest, for example. People there are felling trees to install grain-fed feedlot systems that kill animals in 15 months or less. This is clearly bad in every way relating to the four qualities I've just mentioned, all of which are inverted. Bad beef is bad, and there's no two ways about it. Well, bad anything is bad. That's not science. You know, if some beef is bad for you, it doesn’t mean that all beef is bad for you. And in fact, good beef especially the right British beef because of the peculiarities of our climate and the fact that most of our agricultural land is grass means that there's a particular opportunity and a particular responsibility to really explore those sweet spots where edible productivity can be matched with environmental productivity. We’re here to show that it’s not either/or but it can be both.
But I think the lasting headline needs to be ‘better beef’. And if that means eat less, then eat less because there are environmental benefits – a herd well managed can be an answer and not the problem. It goes back to the old saying, ‘It’s not the cow it’s the how.’ How are we managing our livestock? Are we using them as a vehicle for habitat restoration?
ADB: What’s your take on regenerative agriculture, and how does Hampton Estate Farms and the PFLA fit into it?
WG: Regenerative agriculture is something that fascinates me, and the PFLA are one of those organisations that are spearheading the movement. For example, in the PFLA community, you will always find someone is faster than you, doing something better than you, which I see as motivational to keep pace with those at the head of the game. The PFLA community is a great mix of experiences, from novices who have just got into farming, to experts who have farmed for half a decade or so. That brings with it a fantastic cocktail of new ideas and great sources of knowledge.
Like the PFLA community, regenerative agriculture is rather like a family, where there is criticism as well as praise. And that’s the beauty of regenerative agriculture, it’s about having the appetite for being the best you can be and encouraging others to do the same.
In terms of implementing regeneration here at Hampton Estate Farms, as I’ve said before, we changed our mindset, turning cattle out onto big fields and leaving them there for a while, to splitting the fields into smaller areas for the herd to graze harder. Rotational or mob grazing you would have already heard about, I’m sure. And when it’s time to move them, it’s all about seeing what they get up to, learning each day their behaviour and habits.
Another farming method we have introduced here is extending our grazing land, specifically on where we make hay. The land here at Hampton is usually split between grazing and hay making, but we want to improve the health of the soil in general so we need the cattle to graze both.
We are also planting more complex herbal leys in the fields – supported by a stewardship scheme – to give us more hay production and give us the opportunity to fence and graze them afterwards. We see the cows as an input of improving the soil fertility and productivity and to do that we are sowing more plants in the ground for them to graze.
ADB: Where do you see regenerative agriculture going? Can there be a finite solution to it all or is it indefinite?
WG: How I see it, Angus, is that regenerative agriculture is a journey. Those involved in the movement are on a journey, a trajectory, or a direction of travel to a point at which we will never arrive. We will never say, ‘We have finally done it!’ At least that’s as far as I understand it. But you have to be satisfied with the fact that you'll never get there. If you're going to be a regenerative farmer, you're motivated more by the progress throughout the journey than you are by the arrival of an end state because your horizons are always receding; you're always setting new targets.
Regenerative agriculture is not reducible to a sort of predictable system; there is the application of principles plus experience, which is informed by observation. There is also the argument that each farm is different – owing to its unique soil type, topography and/or microclimate – and so one system doesn’t fit all. One regenerative-minded farmer may be farming differently to the next because their land is forcing them to, but that doesn’t mean one is more regenerative than the other. Regenerative agriculture is all about observing and adapting to a system that is right for your farm.
We use the ‘Soilmentor’ app (https://soils.vidacycle.com) to measure our soil health twice a year. We have got sample fields that we do worm counts, infiltration rates and slate tests. And it'll be year-three of doing that this year. But it's far too early to be able to say anything, really. We were keen to start measuring as much as we could as soon as we could. We are also really lucky to be supported by a community of all sorts of ‘ists’; groups of botanists and ecologists of all different sizes and shapes. We have local survey groups who have for a long time done survey work at Hampton, looking at various aspects of the wildlife, fungi, wildflowers, wildfowl, birds and bats, you name it!
Increasingly, farmland management is going to rely on that kind of data, having a really detailed, sophisticated understanding of what's going on ecologically on your farm. We wouldn't have that data without that support, so building a local community of like-minded people is increasingly important.
One of the problems with conventional farming is that it is all about the ‘confirmation of the body’ where the system determines the price solely on the shape of the animal. How it’s reared doesn’t even get included, it’s not measured. What the PFLA are looking at is how to classify the animal differently, looking at how it’s reared and the type of feed as well. This is so important, say, if you have a smaller animal to the norm but it is pasture-fed and ethically raised, it doesn’t take anything away from the size. We need to remember that nature is different; animals are different. It’s like wonky vegetables, we need to celebrate and embrace different naturally produced foods. We need to have a ‘biodiverse palette’!
ADB: Where do you sell your ‘Pasture For Life’ meat?
WG: We are very lucky to have an abattoir less than 5 miles from the estate in Farnborough so the cattle are taken there after their 30 months or so grazing. Then, the carcasses are taken to Tim Metson, a local farmer and founder of ‘Provenance Cuts’, which is an online delivery service. Tim is also a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified producer. Once the carcasses have been hung for four weeks with Tim, we then sell the meat on our monthly beef days. We also work with Surrey Hills Butchers, which is headed by Simon Taylor, who does all of our butchery.