Brian Pearce Visits West Yeo Farm
By Brian Pearce
As the profits from hill farming continue to diminish, I find farmers working harder than ever, if that is possible, to earn a living. Either they take on more land, diversify, or learn new skills. One of the ways of continuing to farm traditionally is to cut out the middleman and sell direct. For stock farming this frequently means learning butchery as well as selling techniques. Not every farm can have a farm shop and it is not a solution for food production in Britain as a whole, but it is a way that is clearly helping some farmers to survive.
Kate Palmer is one such farmer. She has an organic farm: West Yeo near Witheridge. Her style of farming is more about a way of life than a way to make money. She tries to emulate traditional farming methods that are in harmony with the environment and the seasons. When you buy her meat you are not just buying a quality product but you are also paying for the upkeep of the countryside and conservation of wildlife. Yes, you do pay more for organic produce, and the organic market is suffering in the present financial climate, but Kate is not aiming her produce at people from the wealthy South East, she is supplying local people with quality food at affordable prices.
Kate moved to Witheridge from the Blackdowns in 2000. She went for organic status despite the extra work in record keeping and extra costs – £600 a year in inspection fees alone. Organic farming is not simply about using fewer chemicals: Kate feels that it is worth doing as it ensures the highest welfare for the stock and an audit of traceability for customers’ satisfaction. The farm has old pastures and Culm grassland meadows by the Little Dart river. The grassland supports orchids and the devil’s bit scabious
that is the food plant for marsh fritillary butterflies. All of the hedges have been laid and miles of stone walls repaired under theCountryside Stewardship Scheme and now it is hoped entry into HLS may provide for restoration of the farm buildings. Three orchards have been restored and replanted with old varieties of apples and other fruit and the layout of the fields has been recreated as it was on a map of 1850. Kate was once a teacher and she hosts various walks, talks, studies and open days to explain the philosophy behind the farm.
We recently looked at organic poultry farms, for which feed is in short supply and now comes from remote parts of the world, adding to ‘food miles’. West Yeo, however, is a mixed farm producing its own feed. It also has pure-bred stock, which is unusual for organic farms. Pride of place goes to the pedigree Devon cattle. Kate’s partner, Robert James, was brought up with them and has combined his father’s eye for a ‘good bullock’ with his own knowledge of butchery to produce traditional cattle with good conformation. Unusually for Devons, the cows are pure bred. These are put to their prize bull, ‘Champson Defender’. Well-known in Devon cattle circles, he cost 14,000 guineas! I went into the shed with him and found him to be very docile and what I can only describe as ‘box-shaped’, with an incredibly straight back and solid legs. Disposal of bone adds greatly to butchery costs and a good meat to bone ratio such as his is important. Kate and Robert have a stock of Devon semen going back to 1957, so some of the recent calves have fathers that have been dead for decades!
During the summer the cattle graze on nettles, willows and rushes, giving them the minerals they need to suckle their calves. In autumn they graze turnips and kale and, when I saw them at Christmas time, they were in the old yards eating peas, barley and the sweetest smelling hay. All of this, of course, adds to the flavour of the meat. Being a traditional mixed farm, West Yeo has a variety of livestock.
The pigs are Oxfords, commonly known as ‘plum pudding pigs’ because they are ginger with dark spots. They live in an orchard, supplementing their home-grown barley meal feed with apples, acorns and hazelnuts. The hens are Wellsummers for eggs and Sassos for meat. They are fed triticale (rye crossed with wheat) and cut maize and add to this a range of vegetation and invertebrates they find in the pasture. Most ‘organic’ hens in Britain do not come from organic chicks, as those at West Yeo do. The day-old chicks are bought in but weigh twice as much as those from the big non-organic chick producers.
Some of the produce from the farm goes into local shops, some beef is sold in rolls at shows and some produce goes to The Stag Inn at Rackenford, where Kate’s daughter, Sophie Bulley, is landlady.