Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Interview: David Finlay on the benefits and challenges of changing to organic farming.

Can you say a bit about Cream o’ Galloway and what it produces?

We are a farming partnership – myself and my parents – tenanting 850 acres of fairly remote, rugged, coastal upland with dairy, beef and sheep. Our family have farmed pretty well continuously in this area for the past couple of hundred years.
I have managed the farm for the past 25 years, after 10 years working in agri-consultancy. We diversified into ice-cream manufacture and tourism 20 years ago (which my wife manages), and also moved back into cheese making last year - we had in fact been making farmhouse cheddar up until 1971. Our ice cream has been sold in outlets from Shetland to London and Estonia to South Korea. Up to 75,000 people a year visit our visitor centre.

 What, in your view, are the key issues?

After returning to the farm after my career in consultancy, I began by intensifying our farming operations.  But I grew disillusioned with the spiralling costs and morbidity/mortality of the stock, and uncomfortable with the amount of ‘stuff’ we were applying to land and stock. Under pressure from (female) family members, I began the conversion to organic 15 years ago.

Why did you feel that a change to an organic system of production was worth exploring, what are you doing and what are you finding as a result?

As a previous advocate of the techno-fix approach, I found the conversion to organic quite alarming. There was constant pressure from our licensor – the Soil Association – to cut our use of antibiotics, drugs and drenches. We had already had the use of soluble fertilisers and pesticides removed from our armoury and it felt a bit like being taught how to walk again by having your crutches kicked away! It was several years before I could confidently say we had really got the hang of it. I now realise that this will always be a learning journey.

I find it slightly ironic when I hear ill-informed commentators lambasting organics as being ‘anti-science’ when I now farm in a fashion that requires a far deeper understanding of the parasites and diseases and the effects of management systems on animal behaviour and in turn on production performance, than I ever did when I blindly followed the prescriptive protocols of intensive farming. Looking back and comparing our system now with how we farmed in our more intensive period (and even that wasn’t particularly intensive by many standards) it confirms my belief that the certainty of our industry’s  intensification mantra has been thoroughly undermined. It has got to the point where I wonder, ‘how far can we take this ecological concept, and still be able to deliver accessible, affordable food?’  

It is widely held in the dairy industry that we need 150 cows to pay for a full time herdsman. We’ve always employed a herdsman for our 85 dairy cows and always managed to make an, albeit modest, profit. So why 150 cows? Are those extra 65 cows needed to pay for all the extra stuff that we no longer buy? And to pay for fixing average lameness, mastitis, nutritional disorders and infertility that are at all-time record levels? A lot of people make a lot of money out of that and, it now seems to me, there is little incentive for anyone to fundamentally change it.   Our cows have very low levels of lameness, mastitis, nutritional disorders and infertility. We’ve cut our soluble fertiliser, herbicide, fungicide and vaccine use by 100% and our anti-biotic and anthelmintic use by 90%.

In the last 15 years, we have created new ponds and broadleaved woodlands on 10% of the farm while intensifying production ( red clovers, reseeding and use of digestate) on the remaining 90%, thereby improving our farm biodiversity by around 400% overall  (SNH data), and our total farm agricultural output by over 10%. It is estimated by SRUC that our experimental, micro, 25kW anaerobic-digester will help us reach an overall cut in energy use and GHG emissions, per unit of production, of 50% from the industry average – and potentially more if permanent grassland C-sequestration is ever agreed. 

How far can we take this ecological model? What about permaculture? What about leaving the dairy calf with its own mother and still milking her?

Well we trialled this latter idea for six months a year ago, and the results have been little short of extraordinary. The higher calf growth rates give the beef enterprise a faster turn-around, enabling us to increase cow numbers, which offsets the fall in saleable milk output per cow while simultaneously generating more cattle for the beef and breeding-livestock enterprises. The whole system works in an holistic way despite the calf drinking £750 worth of milk!             

Over and above all that, the managed suckling allows us to operate a once-a-day milking system, with benefits to the herdsman, the cows and the equipment. In an industry where the contract norm is now a 12-hour shift in a 12-day stint with 2 days off then it all starts over again, and again, with a very narrow window of responsibility in the overall process, it is little wonder only rather desperate itinerant workers are prepared to put up with these conditions. And at what cost to the rural economy and wider society? Our model would operate on under 40 hours per week for the herdsman, and in a single time block each day of around 5/6 hours, rather than the 3/4 hours twice a day at present, which allows much greater freedom for social activity.

The modern intensive dairy model is highly reliant on cheap energy, multiple inputs and long supply chains. These are increasingly becoming volatile and unreliable, leading to greater fragility and to greater potential food insecurity. Our model produces much of its own feed, fuel and fertiliser and is thus a much more robust business and food supply model than the norm. I think it is also significant that whereas only a few decades ago EU subsidies were paid to farmers to stimulate increased food production, they are now a vital part of the income-stream without which many farms would be financially unviable.

What are your thoughts about the overall role of livestock in a sustainable food system?

With regard to the meat and dairy debate, I tend to go with the argument that ruminants should be confined to marginal land unfit for arable cropping, or as a fertility break in arable cropping rotations on mixed farms, and be fed forage based diets. Pigs and poultry should be tidying up arable by-products and human food waste, with minimal grain supplementation. All systems should be subject to 'true cost accounting', with positive and negative ecosystem services charged or credited to each system of production. Then the market could decide which system flourishes and which declines. There would almost certainly be less meat and dairy around and it would be more expensive.

You are involved in a Horizon 2020 project – why did you become involved and what do you want to get out of it?  What other sorts of collaboration would you welcome?

The cost of converting the farm wholesale to the new model is prohibitive for us alone and while we have done some monitoring of the trial in partnership with various research organisations, the work has been piece-meal, piggy-backing on existing projects with disparate objectives.

We have been looking at fundraising through crowd-funding schemes, asset backed share issues in a new company owning the dairy herd, a not-for-profit co-operative structure or community supported agriculture model. All are complex and take a huge amount of scarce time to set up and run effectively. The big advantage, however, is that it brings motivated people into the active debate.

The independent monitoring of the system is the other objective.

We are very aware that unless we can get independent verification of our claims for our sustainable food system, it will remain merely an item of curiosity in the “future of our food” debate. Having run the trial and seen for ourselves the possibility of achieving the near-impossible simultaneous goals of environmental, ethical, social and economic sustainability of a red-meat and dairy food system, it would be a huge disappointment were we not to see it through to some sort of conclusion.

We've been round the houses up here in Scotland with the help of Professor David Logue of the Glasgow Vet School, but even he couldn't raise the funding required for a comparative study. No one in the scientific establishment takes what we're doing seriously - a common enough complaint, I suspect?

So when the SME Instrument of the Horizon 2020 programme crossed our paths, it offered the possibility that we could lead the research project and part-fund the farm conversion with substantial EU help. We will still need to raise a lot of money, but the offer is much more robust with a major research project involved.

Clearly we are new to the game of research which will bring with it a whole set of complications. The challenge is to set up an effective research project to monitor the conversion of the farm to the new model ('market ready' - in the parlance) over the next 3 1/2 years. We wish to be able to determine the social, ethical, environmental and economic outcomes, and be able to compare these to industry standards, should such exist. We are looking for partners in the business of agri-research who could help us at every stage of the project.  If you have ideas about potential collaborations and potential funding options, do please get in touch.

For more information contact David Finlay or visit the Cream o Galloway website here.