Robert ruminates on a green accolade
- Credit: Lucy taylor
Finding time to ruminate over why Peakhill Farm was named Suffolk’s greenest micro business isn’t easy for organic beef farmer Robert White in the month of March.
It’s the Theberton farm’s busiest month, and that’s not taking into account the vagaries of downed cows, ill calves and an extra early cut off point for hedge-cutting this year. But during a slightly slacker moment on the cattle front, Robert sat down and worked out why the White family (comprising father Richard, mother Margaret and wife Karen) were recognised. Karen had entered him for Green Suffolk’s Creating the Greenest County Award, 2014, and the win came as a “complete surprise.”
Robert added: “I think Peakhill Farm was recognised because we’re Why White will mean green at PeakhillRobert White on Peakhill Farm, Therberton The greenest micro business in Suffolk, Peakhill Farm in Theberton, also manages to be carbon negative with a ‘methane belching suckler beef herd’.
It’s so engrained in us to farm in an environmentally sensitive manner that it’s become second nature.
“We farm on a very low input system: apart from straw and fuel, everything that we consume as a business is produced in-house.”
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Robert’s green credentials also extend to the outside work he undertakes, such as working as a sub-contractor for the Woodland Trust and spore trapping for Food and Environment Research Agency, Fera, “to help them gain a better understanding into the spread of Ash Die Back disease.”
The White family moved from Cornwall to Suffolk in 1971 when Robert was one, and Peakhill Farm has been organic since 1999. It had always espoused a ‘wildlife-friendly’ approach, but what was the incentive?
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“In the early days of organic it was a financial incentive that made us change.”And he recalled: “Given the two-year conversion period, we went organic in segments, so we’ve probably been organic for 18/19 years. We’re certified with Organic Farmers and Growers and, at the time, were their 10th customer! In the beginning we were a mixed organic farm: beef, arable and small scale vegetables and salad,” said Robert.
By 2005, father and son were already winning a clutch of prizes at the Suffolk Show for their closed herd of Pedigree South Devons, nicknamed “orange elephants” because of their large size (plus the 175-acre farm was also named the Best Livestock Enterprise in the Suffolk Agricultural Society small farms competition - the third time they’d won).
Nowadays Robert runs the farm, but paid this compliment to his father: “He’s forgotten more about farming than I will ever know.”
After 10 years of being organic, Robert became convinced that there was no quicker way to lose money than organic cereals, “as there is no way of controlling perennial weeds in an organic system apart from fallowing and that means taking it out of production for a season which in itself is expensive. So we took the decision to grass down the farm into a clover-rich, fertility-building grass ley. Vegetable production ceased a few years after. But beef? Well, there’s a global shortage of beef so the price is always good, and free, as a rule, from the massive fluctuations
of other commodities.”
The 40 cows calf in a five-month period, between January and May. Robert added: “On spring turn out, the calves go out to grass with their mothers and remain out until the start of November, when our clay soil is too wet and they come in to the cattle sheds. The calves are weaned slowly in December to avoid undue stress and then fed on silage and a small amount of home grown rolled oats. They stay with us until they’re 24 to 30 months old.” They sell the beef from the farm freezers (but don’t charge organic prices), although most of the beef is sold through the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative, which supplies M&S. Robert explained that the breed was chosen because they are a docile, hardy breed; good mothers, and capable of getting fat from grass alone. Robert is about to sign up to the Premium Cattle Health Scheme, which means his herd will be regularly tested for Bovine virus diarrhoea, Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis, Leptospirosis and Johne’s Desease. In 2010 Peakhill opened a CL (Certified Location) campsite, Robert made the point: “Our CL is a very nice diversification project that greatly relieves pressure on the cash flow during the summer months.” A year later, hard work paid off with the presentation of a prestigious Gold Standard 2011 award for achieving carbon negative status, by the Suffolk Carbon Charter. Robert agrees that the accreditation was “unusual for a methane-belching suckler beef herd,” but he explained: “The Carbon Charter, with the assistance of American data, helped calculate that Peakhill Farm’s grass land acts as a huge carbon bank. Two inches of top soil draws in and locks up a ton of carbon per acre per year - my topsoil is more like six inches deep so, offset against my cattle’s emissions, I’m carbon negative.” The win recognised their ongoing efforts to continue bringing down the carbon footprint of their operation. There lies the trouble. “To be reaccredited,” said Robert, “you need to prove you are lowering your emissions even further but when you’re running such a low input system in the first place is rather difficult!” Peakhill has, in more recent years, become the home of the Maui Waui Festival, which takes place on the first weekend of September (plus he takes part in the Aldeburgh Food Festival fringe later that month) but Robert said he has no plans for Peakhill to diversify further. “Business has taught me one important lesson: It’s better to do one thing well, than a dozen things badly. Happy cows equal happy customers, equal happy campers.”
Robert has embraced the social networking phenomenon Twitter. He describes Peakhill Farm on his profile as Suffolk’s best kept secret and said: “Twitter helps combat the isolation and loneliness that comes from running a farm with no staff and only two elderly parents for company. “I tend to have an inner monologue going on most of the time, so I send whatever is on my mind out into the Twitter-sphere and it’s gone and my mind can move on!
“The only time I cringe is when I stop and think people may actually be reading them and then I get chronic Tweeter’s block.’ So is he still “struggling against nature and bureaucracy” (as he says on his profile)?
“Farming would be a far less stressful job if you could predict what nature was going to do. But no two seasons are ever the same and you roll with the punches.” He added: “Bureaucracy is a different matter. I’ve come to realise that you can’t beat it, so there’s no point trying. I now try to be as nice as possible to bureaucrats because at the end of the day they’re just nice people doing their jobs.”
•“I had a dream last night that my downed cow had stood up........ dreams do come true, don’t they?” •“And so ends the hedge cutting season. It’s now safe for the birds to start nesting!”
•“You’ve heard of the saying ‘a watched pot never boils’. The same goes for a ‘watched cow never calves’. JUST HAVE YOUR BABY.”
•“What’s the cut off date for ditching & coppicing for farmers in the OELS scheme please? Does anyone know?”
•“Well that’s the first mile stone of 2015 out the way. My organic inspection is over & guess what? I’m still organic!”
Follow Robert @peakhillfarm