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A Profile of Cotswold Seeds featured in Law & Land Magazine

Securing the long term future of British farming

“The UK is one of best countries in the world for mixed, sustainable farming”, so declared Ian Wilkinson, MD of Cotswold Seeds, who in 2013 had the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is by buying Honeydale Farm at auction. The 107 acre farm had 60 acres of conventionally-farmed spring barley with the reminder put down to permanent pasture. For the first year, Ian continued to farm in the same way as the previous owners with the help of contractors. The proof that a different approach was needed was provided by the results of the first year’s harvest which, although of exceptional quality and quantity, turned in a small loss. In 2014, the first stage of an eight-year rotation was implemented, signalling the start of a campaign to promote sustainable farming in the Evenlode valley.

 Helping farmers to find the right solution 

Cotswold Seeds has been mixing and selling grass seeds directly to farmers for 43 years. Over that time, the business has built up an invaluable knowledge bank on low-input farming gained not only from its 15,000 customers in the UK but also from experts and practitioners both here and on the continent. Indeed it was a meeting with Breton farmer, André Pochon, who had persuaded 2000 Breton farmers to stop using nitrogen, which convinced Robin Hill, the original founder of Cotswold Seeds, that legume-rich leys were the future. There was nothing generic about the company’s approach: the experience of dealing with thousands of farmers face to face has meant that it can advise on the best plants to sow, helping customers arrive at the right solution for their particular farm. As Ian noted, “we essentially work with farmers to think about their options by considering a range of factors affecting their farm: the micro and macro climate, soil types, farm size, funding models, and their own attitudes to low-input farming. We can advise on the seeds and how forage plant species fit into individual farming systems”.

 Honeydale shows the way in sustainable farming

Cotswold Seeds took the view that the post-WW2 drive to industrialise farming was not viable in the long-term for most of UK agriculture. Rising input costs and global competition from countries better equipped for large-scale grain production, plus greater awareness of environmental damage, gave the company the necessary impetus to advocate a more viable alternative: sustainable farming through self-sufficiency. This system, which is already used widely throughout the UK, aims to reduce expenditure on inputs by relying on a natural system of nitrogen-fixing through legumes, and using complex leys and mob-grazing for weed suppression. In the last 15 years, the company has noticed a distinct change in opinion as more farmers embrace the idea of a more sympathetic and sustainable system and that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option. Honeydale Farm provides the perfect platform to show both farmers and consumers how the change to low-input farming can be achieved. 

 Education and innovation

But Honeydale is about more than showcasing a natural system of farming, it also about achieving a deeper connection between farmer and consumer by encouraging educated debate on the food sup-ply chain and emphasising the importance of food quality. Honeydale is the perfect size to engage people: although a little smaller than the average 157 acres of cropped land in the UK, its 107 acres means it is big enough to be commercially viable but small enough to get to know every corner. An important part of the project is the proposed development of the dilapidated farm buildings into a food and farming hub for customers and the rural community. The core objective is education and innovation, enabling people to see at first-hand what a sustainable system looks like and what it can achieve. One example is a plan to create a micro-dairy, with five or six cows, to allow people to see close up, and safely, the rudiments of milk production, presenting consumers with a different vision to that of mega-dairies and their associated welfare concerns. 

 Good farming and good food

Both Ian and Fiona Mountain, one of the team closely involved with the Honeydale project, are fervent about reconnecting the consumer with the origin of their food. Persuading consumers that food quality is important and worth paying for is part of Honeydale’s mission to educate: as Fiona pointed out, people now willingly pay premium prices for quality coffee and would no more revert to cheap instant than fly to the moon. She believes that buying quality food will go the same way – consumers will place much more value on the provenance of the food they eat, helped by better communication of the benefits of healthy eating. However, neither of them underestimates the scale of the challenge ahead, weaning people off cheap food will not be accomplished overnight. As Ian ruefully admitted, “we will need to approach this in the same way as if we were to eat an elephant – small piece, by small piece”. And Honeydale aims to boost the conversation between the rural community and the urban majority by promoting the link between good farming and good food, encouraging consumers to use their buying power to persuade supermarkets to rethink their buying strategies.  

 A return to the roots of real farming

Honeydale is not just about the consumer either; it’s also about the farmer. Increasing numbers of Cotswold Seeds’ customers are coming to look at the way Honeydale is now being farmed. After the disappointing lack of income after the first spring barley harvest, Ian embarked on an eight-year rota-tion plan in 2014, starting with the restoration of soil quality and fertility by planting herbal leys (which include the deep-rooting, soil-conditioning sainfoin), mob-grazed by a flock of 65 sheep owned by a neighbouring farmer’s son. The plant diversity has encouraged an explosion in the bee population and the farm now supports 14 hives which will be further sustained by the 10 acre orchard planted with heritage fruit trees. At the moment, Ian and his team are experimenting with no till methods of terminating cover crops using a crimper roller, obviating the need to use glyphosate, and shallow ploughing herbal leys in preparation for sowing oat and wheat crops (years 4 and 5 of the rotation). This is part and parcel of the fundamental ethos underpinning the Honeydale approach: a return to the roots of real farming both literally and metaphorically.

 Securing long term profitability

Ian points out, not only is the rotation system a satisfying way of farming, it will secure the farm’s long term profitability as the soil regains its fertility.  At the same time, the community hub will help to bridge the gap between producer and consumer by giving the latter the opportunity to get up close and personal with the source of their food. Ian’s enthusiasm for Honeydale’s place in the ‘real food’ campaign is palpable: “It will be so exciting to have a vibrant community with people actively engaged with growing food and in synch with the environment. I strongly believe that Honeydale Farm is in the vanguard of a movement towards a more viable future for British agriculture”.

This article is included in Law and Land magazine; spring/summer 2017 edition. 

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