Andrew and Joanne Knowles had dreams of having their own farm. Both had been involved in farming in their youths, before heading off to the bright lights of the city to pursue other careers.
Nearly fifty years later, with their children leaving home, they had a chance to fulfil those dreams: Trenchmore Farm. Acres of fields needed fencing, miles of water pipe had to be laid, and the latest conservation soil science learnt to improve the permanent Sussex pastures.
In 2015 their youngest son, Oscar, moved into the farm manager’s cabin, and in 2017 their daughter Rachel joined them.
They farm beef cattle, grow apples for cider, and grow landrace wheat varieties. Locavore caught up with them to talk of Wagyu beef, apple-swapping, and the clash of free-market economics with animal welfare.
What was the genesis of Trenchmore Farm?
Andrew: For me, returning to farming – a complex, challenging, frequently frustrating and yet curiously rewarding activity. And wanting to have a go at making things, after 30 years of office-based service work in London.
Joanne: Naively, I thought our initial idea of cider-apple growing and making would be a great project to work on together. Then some adjoining land came up for sale and we were off. The idea of building a sustainable farm that grows good food well and offered rural employment opportunities for local young people really appealed – I didn’t dream two of our children, who have been brought up mainly in London, would join us… but here we are!
You farm your beef as sustainably as possible, using waste products as feed and keeping soil health at the forefront. Can you tell us more?
Andrew: Sustainability in this area starts and finishes with our clay soil and the grass we grow upon it. Arable crops are increasingly uneconomic on this heavy, wet land. With a warmer, wetter climate, the season for cultivation and agronomy is becoming too short, and good grassland management allows us to farm in harmony with nature, not fight it.
Our animal husbandry is guided by our aim. We rear healthy, happy cattle using a rotational grazing system in summer. We house them in winter when we feed them a grass based diet – hay or silage – enhanced by various appropriate bi-products including pomace from our cider apples, brewer’s grain from our local brewery, and linseed meal from our local linseed oil miller.
Grass is the natural fodder of cattle in traditional British beef herds. This is in profound contrast to the grain-fed ‘feedlot’ meat produced as cheaply as possible by huge agri-businesses in the major beef exporting regions of America, Australia, and Latin America.
As in many industries, free-market economics and profit maximisation have led to industrialisation to drive down costs. But unlike most industries, livestock farming is, firstly, dealing with sentient animals who deserve respect and, secondly, there are unrecognised external costs associated with this type of approach.
Cheap beef is only cheap if you don’t have to pay for the soil degradation, the water and air pollution or the associated loss of biodiversity, and animal welfare issues that go with intensive production. As well as the health costs associated with poor diets.
Thankfully there’s growing recognition that sacrificing wildlife and burning natural capital in the name of progress isn’t progress at all. But until the producer pays principle is adopted, world prices will undercut naturally produced beef and threaten the survival of family farms.
“So what?”, you may say. ‘”Why not let farmers go the same way as coal miners, greengrocers, and butchers?”. But an inability to attract talented young people into agriculture does not bode well for the nation’s diet, its food security, its balance of payments, or the stewardship of our countryside.
How are you restoring the Wealdon clay soils that your farm sits on?
Andrew: On our arable fields, by using minimum tillage rather than ploughing and cultivations (which kill worms, burn large amounts of diesel, and progressively oxidise the carbon out of the soil). We also apply bulk composted garden waste and farm yard manures, by switching from continuous arable into a rotation with grass which allows the soils to naturally regenerate. Slowly the carbon content is recovering and, as structure improves, yields and biodiversity follow.
On our grass fields we are restoring fertility, not by the use of artificial fertiliser but by growing grass with mixed species. Herbal mixes of grass and clover with deeper rooting plants like chicory helps transport minerals from deeper in the profile and improves the physical structure of the soil. High clover contents fix atmospheric nitrogen, and rotational grazing promotes deeper and greater amounts of root growth boosting the root exudates, feeding the biology in the soil.
It is the mycorrhizal fungi, tiny nitrogen-fixing bacteria, worms, and other creatures, which capture carbon and fix nitrogen. They open up passageways between the layers of clay, and secrete the organic compounds which bind soil particles into the crumb structure necessary for water and air movement essential to healthy plant growth.
What breed of cattle do you use?
Andrew: We cross the native Sussex with our Red Wagyu Bulls. The Sussex is one of the oldest English breeds, superb suckling mothers that thrive on grass. (The Queen keeps the largest Sussex herd and she knows what beefeaters like!) The Japanese Wagyu is naturally marbled with soft, unsaturated fats providing exceptional tenderness and flavour. Together they make a sweet and beautiful union.
You ferment cider from your own apples. How is the terroir of the area expressed through the cider?
Andrew: That’s an interesting question – not sure we know yet. The trees are slowly maturing in our cold clay soil but they seem to be thriving with minimal intervention as they become established.
Our 19 traditional cider varieties all have good tannins to provide structure or body in the mouth. This is especially important to us as we blend with an approximately equal quantity of low-tannin dessert and culinary apples from our annual swap scheme with the gardeners of Sussex.
Can you tell us more about the apple swap scheme?
Joanne: We almost sold out in our first year of bottling, and realised that our young orchard wouldn’t keep pace with demand. So, inspired by the old system of taking your apples (or olives or grapes) to be pressed, we decided to open our gates to the gardeners of Sussex. We take ripe, unsprayed, clean Sussex grown surplus apples each autumn, which are weighed and our swappers go home with cider. It works brilliantly – last year we received 13 tonnes of apples and the enthusiasm of the swappers is inspiring.
You grow heritage wheat for flour, as well as the wheat berries for cooking. Can you tell us more?
Joanne: We need straw to bed the cattle over winter (our clay soil means they have to be housed) and heard about heritage wheat a few years ago. It took us a while to track down enough seed and we planted a trial last autumn.
We wanted a low input crop that tasted good. Modern wheat has been bred with high protein for our fast bake ‘Chorley Wood’ factory bread. Many believe that the combination of higher protein and quick production has led to the rise in gluten intolerance, and certainly the slower sourdough method of making bread where the lactic acids, produced as the bacteria break down the sugars, gives sourdough its tang. And the vitamins and minerals in the flour are more bio-available to the body by helping neutralise the phytates in flour that interfere with their absorption. The acids also slow down the rate at which glucose is released into the bloodstream, reducing the carbohydrate available and lowering the bread’s glycemic index.
The first year’s yield wasn’t great but the root length was good! Longer roots help break up our clay soils, access more nutrients and hopefully store more carbon. Working with two watermills to stonemill our flour has been fantastic – and we are delighted with the flavour of the flour.
Landrace crops are increasingly being utilised by small producers. Why do you think this is? What are the advantages, and difficulties, of growing a landrace variety?
Joanne: Landraces are a mix of different varieties of, in our case, wheat. We are food producers and I feel we have a responsibility to grow food effectively. Very low yielding varieties don’t fit that. We are still learning and will be adding to our landrace as we come across varieties that we think will improve our Trenchmore Wheat.
This year we have added a landrace called Wakelyns, or YQ, which was developed by Prof. Martin Wolfe at the Organic Research Centre. He understands the importance of inherent resilience in crops that modern monocultures (are designed to?) deal with through inputs. Landraces are able to react to annual challenges. Some species do well, others less well, and so adapt to the local terroir. Over time, our wheat will be uniquely ours.
Did you have to experiment with cooking the wheat berries? And do you have a favourite recipe?
Joanne: A crossover slow/fast food! The berries take about an hour to cook, simmered in water. So we cook up batches and have them in the fridge, and add them to stir-fries, soups, and salads. They have a great nutty flavour and hold their bite really well. And they are fantastically versatile, used instead of rice, pasta, couscous, and other grains.
Wheat berries are completely unprocessed and retain all the nutrients and fibre so they are a perfect accompaniment. They work well for breakfast with yogurt and fruit. Or you can make a porridge which is delicious with a bit of tahini and chopped dates. There are a couple of delicious recipes online one from Sam Bilton who cooks and writes about food with a historical twist, and the other from Thomasina Miers who did a cookery demonstration at one of our local farm shops. My favourite way to use them so far has been in minestrone soup instead of pasta.
You say you are working to reduce the supply chain and sell our products direct through independent food retailers. How so? And why?
Joanne: For now, local food is a choice. An option for people who care about what they eat and the impact it has. The complicated, long supply chain that allows us to buy fresh tomatoes all year round means we are outsourcing our consciences to countries who may have lower environmental and welfare (animals and humans) standards. We are a small farm and interested in working with local retailers to support the local economy. Research has shown that money spent with local businesses has a much bigger impact locally and goes around the economy faster – it is spent more quickly than money spent at, say, Tesco. Finally, food grown locally tastes better!
Like a lot of people Locavore have spoken to, you came to farming later in life. What do you think is driving people to seek changes in lifestyle, to produce food and work with the land in a positive fashion?
Andrew: I don’t know. Maybe if we were young again we’d look at how hard we all work and how quickly we are burning ourselves and the planet and ask, “is this really progress?”.
We have clever technologies to make us appear ever more ‘connected’, but don’t we live an ethereal, artificial kind of existence, distanced from the beauty of nature and the pleasure of making tangible things and eating good food? The times they are a-changin – The Oxford Real Farming Conference is full of committed young people looking to do things right. We have been joined on the farm by our daughter Rachel (27) and son Oscar (24) who are working incredibly hard to help make the farm sustainable.
How does your thinking on sustainability impact other aspects of your business?
Andrew: We are certainly more conscious and considered about the energy involved in doing things. Artificial fertilisers are energy intensive and easily leached, so we predominantly use natural fertilisers like farmyard manure and green compost. Cultivation uses lots of fuel, so we direct drill with minimal cultivation techniques. We harvest rainwater for the cows and use very little electricity – it’s lights out soon after dusk, except during the calving period. Not complacent, but packaging is actually a fairly minor element in our total energy footprint; we use reusable formats and waste as little as we can.
You speak of circular farming. What do you mean by this? And is this becoming common practice in farming?
Joanne: Mixed farming is a circular system that has fallen out of fashion and isn’t as ‘profitable’ as specialist farming. With a small farm and our rather depleted soil it all adds up at Trenchmore.
We use grass to rest and restore fields, with the cattle fertilising as they eat, and selected mixed seed herbal leys to help break up the soil and add nitrogen. Then we spread muck and grow wheat – the straw is then used to bed the cattle who spend summers on the next fields as we rotate around. The apple pomace left over after pressing the apples is fed to the cattle or used as compost back on the orchard and round and round we go – circular farming.
Experienced and thoughtful farmers like Patrick Holden are mixed farmers, and hopefully more are getting back into it. We appreciate scientific advances and want to also use the best of modern and traditional techniques to farm well. I wouldn’t say we are actually back in fashion but it makes sense to us.
What are your hopes and fears for the future, both for the farm and the wider food world?
Rachel: It’s an exciting time for food. There seems to be a growing culture of interest and enthusiasm for food that has been produced in an ethical, sustainable, and local way. We hope this will continue to develop and will start conversations about how we can change our eating habits and what price we should be willing to pay for the food we want to eat.
Our upcoming withdrawal from the EU will have an impact on the way we buy food in the UK. We hope the prospect of importing foods from countries with different standards of welfare, sustainability, and inputs, will drive the demand for local produce that has total traceability and transparency.
We also hope there will be a shift in the attitude towards meat and animal products. The science is clear – to improve the health of society and environment, we need to cut down on the amount of animal products we consume. We hope this will lead to people wanting less but better quality meat. And an understanding that extensively reared, grass-fed meat is a sustainable use of permanent pasture, and that more and more people care how their steak has been produced.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
Rachel: Who wouldn’t want to produce something they’re proud of with the people they love? It’s hard work – being a mixed farm means we’re spinning plates and it’s a challenge to keep everything moving in the right direction. But producing food that chefs enjoy cooking and people enjoy eating is very rewarding, and sparking conversation about what we are eating is extremely motivating.
Find Trenchmore Farm’s website here.
Find them on Twitter here.