Daylesford’s organic farmer reveals his secrets

Daylesford’s organic farmer reveals his secrets

Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Robert Wyatt

As senior farms manager at Daylesford, Richard Smith has arguably the best farming job in England. His vision of sustainable food is refreshingly simple: ‘If you get the basics right, you can expect Mother Nature to look after you,’ he says. ‘But you have to put that effort in…’

There are some people who think Daylesford Organic Farm is too good to be true. It does such a great marketing job, they reason – both in terms of selling its vision of sustainable farming and also in the presentation and packaging for its own-brand stores – that it all appears a little too perfect. How can the business be sustainable, the thinking goes, even if the food is?

These are the sort of questions Daylesford’s senior farms manager, Richard Smith, thrives on. ‘One of the great satisfactions for me is that I can do farm tour after farm tour for people in the industry, and you can see them almost rolling their eyes as I’m doing my welcome, nudging each other, muttering, “Who’s this orgasmic wally?” But then you load them up onto trailers, show them great crops, great livestock, a farm that isn’t covered in thistles and nettles… you know, class farming. And all of a sudden they’ve shut up and they’re listening to you pretty intently. And by the time we’ve got back to Point A they’re mobbing you for information.’

While they have over 100 awards to back their claim of being one of the most sustainable farms in the UK, Smith is arguably the company’s best badge of authenticity. ‘If I had to sum up the ethos of this business,’ he says, ‘it’s the honest and transparent production of food.’ Smith’s tours are part of that completely transparent approach
– an opportunity to fully explain the ‘farm to fork’ approach and to show visitors how their animals and crops are treated before they reach the fork end of the equation.

‘Whether we like it or not, most food today is produced behind closed doors until it magically appears on a shelf,’ says Smith. ‘Whereas here, I’m more than happy to show every stage of what Daylesford is and stands for in its food production. It’s unique – I don’t think you could go anywhere else and see the whole story as we do it here. The trick is to make people’s mouths water before the meat hits the shelves. And then back it up with fantastic quality. It’s having that story that brings the whole thing to life.’

What is the story that Daylesford is trying to tell exactly? A sustainability model that means ‘using no pesticides or fertilisers, managing field rotations, creating wildlife habitats, harvesting rainwater, installing solar panels and by practising animal husbandry of the highest welfare standards’. But what’s perhaps most impressive is their ability to scale their model upwards: to prove that you can build a viable brand – encompassing a series of cafés and farmshops, a cookery school, even their newly launched research hub, Agricology – without compromising on the commitment to a better way of farming.

When Lady Carole Bamford set up Daylesford 35 years ago, it was with one simple aim: ‘I have always wanted to produce good, nutritious food from our farm,’ she says. ‘Factory farming systems have lost sight of good food, at a cost of taste and nutrition.’ She is encouraged to see how much the world has come round to her way of thinking in the intervening years. ‘It took time for people to embrace the full meaning of organic,’ she says, noting there is now ‘a greater demand for knowing where your food has come from and how it has been produced’.

It was just over a decade ago – in July 2005 – that Smith met Lady Bamford. ‘Instantly, I picked up on this energy and drive,’ says Smith. ‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone with the same work ethic – to make things happen, to make a change. Carole said, “Look, we’ve got this land, will you help me create something special that we can all be really proud of?” I was like a kid in a sweet shop really.’

‘When Richard joined us at Daylesford, I instantly knew his passion and interest in organic farming was as strong as mine, as well as sharing the same determination to raise awareness for this way of farming,’ says Lady Bamford. ‘Richard has been a very influential spokesperson for us with regards to organic farming, speaking to other farmers, agricultural groups and foodies about  why it is important and how you can make the change.’

Smith agrees that his role is partly educational, encouraging a change attitudes through the use of simple, clear logic. ‘We’re only two or three generations on from when the world was farmed organically,’ he points out. ‘It’s a blip in time. The world was not covered in weeds previously, and it was not riddled with disease. Farmers didn’t lose all their animals overnight because we weren’t inoculating everything or using the antibiotic levels that we are now. What I’m trying to allude to here is that farming has become very monocultured.’

This is a recurrent theme for Smith: how the drive for intensification has led us to some ridiculous situations. ‘Farmers think they’ll keep their head above water by creating a greater amount of a particular product,’ he says. ‘I meet farmers for instance who tell me they have massive problems with black grass. It’s having a huge affect on their yield. And yet if they were to break that rotation – and grow a green crop and graze animals, or harvest silage from it twice in a year – they’d knock that black grass back by 90 per cent in a season. You break rotation. Man has understood that for 10,000 years.’ Needless to say, at Daylesford, they don’t suffer from black grass. But Smith’s passion is tempered by a refreshing realism and a reluctance to criticise others.

‘I totally understand that people live on budgets, it’s the way of the world,’ he adds. ‘What’s really important to me is that I don’t run down any other style of agriculture. I know how hard it is to keep your head above water. A lot of my great friends farm in a much more intensive way, but there is a swing towards trying to understand a bit more about what we do. Cropping rotations, leguminous plants, fixing atmospheric nitrogen; the science is now there to prove it does improve soil structure, add organic matter and increase yield to an acre of land.’

Smith takes pains to explain that the Daylesford model of organic farming isn’t merely some throwback to pre-industrial methods. ‘Because we’re farming organically doesn’t mean I walk around here wearing a smock, sucking on a piece of straw, being ignorant to the ways of the modern world,’ he says. ‘It’s the same with animal welfare. A lot of people seem to think that we’re not allowed to treat the animals in any way using drugs – absolutely not. Animal welfare is at the top of the tree. So if I had a dairy cow in our herd with a nasty infection like an adder bite, well of course I’m going to use antibiotics to treat that animal. In an organic system she’s isolated, her milk is thrown away, but she gets antibiotics: that’s a welfare issue.’

The problem for him comes when a lengthy course of antibiotics is required, because he doesn’t want to allow a resilience to modern antibiotics to take hold, as we’re seeing globally thanks to intensive farming. ‘Somebody gave me a terrible statistic that a chick will have eaten his body weight in antibiotics before he’s a month old,’ says Smith. ‘Which is just madness. We know there’s about to be an explosion in antibiotic resistance.’

Far from being a stuck-in-the-mud, dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, Smith has had a complete and rounded education in agriculture. Farming has always been in his blood: ‘I grew up on a large mixed farm, and I worked as a shepherd for an uncle on a hill farm in Northumberland.’ He talks animatedly about his grandfather (‘just an ordinary run-of-the-mill shepherd’) who was clearly a role model to the young, impressionable boy. ‘He was one of those people who was just content with their lives; he didn’t really want anything material. It was a way of life, that’s just what you did.’ That influence can still
be seen today, with Smith jumping at the chance to get his sheepdogs out in the field and show off their skills midway through our tour.

A stint running a farm in Cornwall – where spring came earlier, temperatures were higher and farming was more intensive – helped to broaden his agricultural experience, before love intervened. Having met and fallen for a woman from New Zealand, he decided to get married and settle there. At first he returned to what he knew best, working as a shepherd on a large station in Hawke’s Bay (‘I wanted to ride a horse, work dogs and muster sheep – that sort of thing.’) When his wife was offered a job in Wellington, he took the opportunity to set up a share farming and horticultural business.

‘So without having realised it, I had spent an unofficial apprenticeship in the world of food production and farming. And I’d seen lots of different enterprises: from very sustainable hill sheep in the North to very productive high inputs in the South West; to going to New Zealand where if you weren’t any good at farming, you couldn’t stay in the business – subsidies were wiped out overnight; people had to get pretty bloody good at producing food efficiently.’ The biggest lesson he learned from his time on the other side of the world was how animals were bred correctly to perform for the environment they were standing in. (Although, he admits, ‘That penny didn’t really drop until a little while later.’)

‘I would still be there now,’ he says, ‘except that one morning my wife woke up and said she didn’t feel very well, and two hours later she was dead.’

And so, in 1999, he took the heavy decision to sell up and move back home. ‘I remember arriving back at Heathrow airport feeling like a broken man. I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go.’

At first he went back to Northamptonshire, taking a job as an estate manager, before a visit to Oxford University Farms led to an opportunity he couldn’t resist. ‘I remember not being terribly impressed with what I saw and getting into a heavy conversation with people I didn’t know about how agriculture is all about the basics,’ he recalls. ‘If you get the basics right, you can expect Mother Nature to look after you. But you have to put that effort in – whether that’s the right animal or getting a decent seed bed – you can’t just throw corn at a field.’ His forthrightness impressed the right people and he ended up becoming the manager of Oxford University Farms. ‘That was a fantastic move, I threw my heart and soul at it.’ He might still have been there, had he not come to the attention of Lady Bamford and discovered their shared desire to create a ‘chain of goodness’ that puts farming methods in harmony with the environment. ‘It was the right time at the right place,’ he says. ‘Ten years ago I hit the ground running, and we’re still sprinting. It has been a tremendous growth for Daylesford and what it stands for.’

The appeal of working within – and helping to shape – a farming set-up with the backing and commitment of someone like Lady Bamford was too good a chance to pass up. ‘I have this inbuilt passion – almost desperation – to put these breeding programmes into place, that produce not only a sustainable source of food but also this high- welfare, very well thought-out system that provides less stress for the guy that’s working with the animals, less stress for the animals – but that also provides a return and is economically sound,’ enthuses Smith.

There are countless initiatives that Smith has introduced here with the help and support of Lady Bamford that are typical of the Daylesford ethos: take the reintroduction of sainfoin, for example. A protein-rich forage plant, sainfoin once covered 25 per cent of the Cotswolds. It helps to fix atmospheric nitrogen levels in the soil, reduces problems associated with livestock worms in animals that feed off it – and protects them against bloating (a potentially lethal condition). Farmers stopped planting it between the world wars, with the onset of artificial nitrogens – but Smith has reintroduced it. As a result, they use very little extra minerals in their livestock, and it provides yields of double the tonnage per acre, with a higher protein percentage and a higher ME or Metabolisable Energy (‘which is the thing you’re after’). Furthermore, as he so prosaically explains, ‘The fact that 25 per cent of the land here used to be covered in it means that I don’t need to rewrite any bloody books about how good it is to grow here!’

And then there’s the Gloucester cattle, a rare minority breed that they’ve had at Daylesford since 2006, when Smith first spotted them at Cirencester market. ‘It was a particularly wet day in August,’ he remembers. ‘I had no intention of purchasing anything, but there were these four beautiful Gloucester cattle: three cows with heifer calves afoot and a bull called George. I leaned on the gate and talked to a few flat-capped old boys and asked, “What makes a good one of these then?” There was one particular cow there that had won the rare breeds section of the Royal Show. So I bought these three cows – and the bull called George. They arrived home early evening and were let out in the park; they wandered over to Lady Bamford’s house and rubbed their heads on her gate – and I got a phone call to say she loved them.’

The following year there was a sale advertised for an entire herd of Gloucester cattle at Beeston Market in Cheshire – 57 animals in all, including some direct descendants of a cow called Strawberry Heart, a great milk-producer of the Gloucester line from years ago. ‘Carole instructed me to purchase the lot. I think there were 300 people at this sale who’d travelled from as far as Cornwall and Scotland to buy just one example of the breed. So I had a word with a couple of mates and we sat at strategic points around the ring and bought every animal that came through the sale.’

They are certainly beautiful beasts; healthy looking and full-bodied in comparison to the distended, rib-bearing appearance of Holstein cows, which have become the favoured choice of intensive dairy farming.

‘Quite rightly, people will come here and say, “Well what do you want to keep those bloody old things for? That’s going back in time”,’ says Smith. But sometimes you have to go back to move forwards. A typical Holstein will have an average of 2.5 lactations (that is to say, the number of successful calvings in its lifetime, and thus the number of years of milk production). So it will give birth at two years old and be dead by the time it’s five. In contrast, says Smith, ‘We’ve got [Gloucester] cows in the park that are approaching their 18th and 19th birthdays and still going strong, producing a calf every year. And you could trace those back to the 13th century. So that shows what we as modern farmers have done to agriculture.’ Not only that, but Gloucesters provide high quality beef as well as a Single Gloucester cheese – a destination of origin product. ‘So we’ve also built a food brand. You tell a story about that Gloucester. And it’s a fantastic story to tell.’

Smith’s own story is just as fantastic a one to tell. It’s hard to fathom exactly what he’s achieved here. Over 5,500 acres of organically farmed land (split between their sites in Staffordshire and the Cotswolds), he has seen yields increase exponentially. Less than 10 years ago, they were slaughtering six lambs a week and one fat cattle a fortnight. Today those figures are 150 lambs and 16 cattle a week. And that’s on top of 50 pigs, 2,500 chickens – not to mention producing 20,000 eggs and 20,000 litres of milk. It’s a fine example of how sustainable agriculture can indeed be a sustainable business on a relatively large scale.

But Smith’s message – and Daylesford’s – is simpler than that. ‘It’s so easy for us now to eat crap as a human being,’ says Smith. ‘So I think attitudes need to change. We couldn’t carry on as we were, but can the world be fed organically? Of course it can.’

Enjoying Hole & Corner?

For further reading, sign up to our newsletter.

We have updated our privacy and data policy to reflect current requirements and in accordance with our existing registration as a data controller. This includes clear information on how we use cookies on this website. By using this site you agree to our use of data and cookies.

View our privacy and data policy