Pipers Farm – farming in harmony with nature

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Peter and Henri Greig founded Pipers Farm as a reaction to the way in which industrialised farming was beginning to destroy local food systems. As farmers, they had become increasingly uncomfortable with how food was being produced.

After farming healthy pastures in New Zealand, and a high hill farm in Wensleydale where nature ruled, they returned to the small mixed farm in Kent where Peter had been brought up.

Locavore spoke to them about the farm, their growing partnerships with other family-run farms, and producing food in harmony with nature.

 

Pipers Farm as it is now was founded in 1989, but its history goes back much further. What changed, and why?

On the farm in the 1950’s, Peter’s father had pioneered the first stages of industrial chicken production in this country. He had two sheds on the farm with 7,000 chickens in each, to supply the family business of food shops based in London, and started by Peter’s Great Grandfather in 1870.

By 1987 there were five sheds of chickens, the largest  of which held 38,000 chickens. Peter joined his father to help with the enterprise, which was by now producing half a million chickens a year for sale through a well-known High Street chain. Peter and I had just started a family, and felt strongly that we would not be prepared to feed the food we were producing to our young children, and also that any customer would be appalled by the conditions these birds were being kept in. It was at that moment that Pipers Farm was founded, with one mission – to turn back time and produce wholesome healthy food in harmony with nature.  

 

You now work with 25 small-scale family farms across Devon and Somerset. How did this expansion come about?

When we were looking for the best place to set up, we always knew that we would need a strong community of neighbouring farming families to help us produce food in harmony with nature. Over the years we have expanded our network as we have grown our online business, to take on more small-scale farming families doing what they do best; working with native breeds, and understanding the land on which they are growing food. There is nothing quite like a small-scale family farm, they are vital to ensuring a sustainable community and a real local food system.

 

You’re not certified organic, but you say that your methods often go further than those called for by certification bodies, for instance in the slaughter of your animals.  Can you tell us more?

We strongly believe in the organic principles set out by the original pioneers of the organic movement, and the majority of our principles and methods are in complete alignment with organic standards. There are, however, some areas of the organic standards where we take a slightly different approach.

The vast majority of organic meat sold in the UK is processed through huge industrial abattoirs. These are a significantly weak link in the modern food chain. You will have read multiple times about how the standards can often slip in these highly-geared factories. Whether meat is organic or non-organic, it is mostly killed in these same large-scale abattoirs.

Near us, for example, we have a poultry plant that kills a million chickens a week, both organic and non-organic. These industrial operations are in many ways responsible for the perception and reality that modern meat is ‘harmful’, because of food poisoning bacteria, until rendered safe by the consumer.

At Pipers Farm we work with a small family-run abattoir based 10 miles away. We have worked with  them for many years and trust them implicitly. As a highly-skilled job, and such an important part of the process, we will never compromise on working with small-scale businesses where we have total control and transparency over slaughter. Our poultry are killed by hand on the farm  where they are grown.

Organic certification does not guarantee the welfare of the livestock at slaughter, it also does nothing to ensure safety from food poisoning bacteria associated with factory slaughterhouses.

The second variation of organic standards is the way we rear our pigs. All of our pigs are native breeds, which grow much more slowly than modern hybrids. This means that they are grown well beyond sexual maturity. Castrating our pigs at one week old means that brothers can live with their sisters in family groups for the entirety of their lives. This reduces stress and is a fundamental part of the Pipers Farm ethos. Something that could not happen with organic pigs as castration is not allowed.

We also believe that certain food labels, like ‘organic’, have been hijacked by the mainstream in order to cut corners but attract a certain type of shopper. Real food does not need a label, what we really need is a relationship based on trust. We’re in the business of producing food that you can completely rely on, and we are happy to tell you about every part of the process. It’s just not as simple as sticking a label on our packaging.

 

How does your thinking around sustainability affect other aspects of your business? 

Food waste is a huge issue in the industry and we have spent many years working out ways to minimise our impact. It’s actually a fabulous source of fuel. It creates energy as it rots and, once the process is complete, compost to go back onto the land.

Every week we separate our waste into items that can be recycled and items that are food waste that will head off to the biodigester to create power for the region. Pipers Farm is a zero-to-landfill business.

We embrace nose-to-tail eating. From turning offal into pet food, bones into stock, or fat into dripping, nothing is wasted. We even provide local schools with weird and wonderful bits such as eyes and lungs for their biology classes.

We blast-freeze our products. By freezing our products at the right moment to preserve them, we use nature’s best preservative. As Michael Pollan says, get to know your freezer and use it to store nature’s bounty. We also package our items individually, this means you only take out what you need and leave the rest for another day. We use minimal, recyclable, recycled, and sustainable food packaging. We encourage you to reuse, recycle, and re-love your packaging.

We encourage you to be hands on with your food. It’s a wonder the human race managed to survive before the advent of the date sticker! Mostly we sniffed our food and decided whether to eat it or not. These days often food that is perfectly safe is thrown out because of a date label. Touch it, smell it, look at it, do not throw out good food. You can always call us if you are unsure.

 

A lot of your animals are raised as part of a wider polyculture food system, with pigs feeding on leftover vegetables after harvest for example. Do you think there is a growing movement towards this more circular method of food production? 

What we do is nothing new. We work in harmony with Mother Nature, looking after our patch of land. We rear animals that are native to our landscape. We don’t rear Red Rubies because it is fashionable, but because they thrive on the terrain here in Devon. They are born on the hills over Exmoor and naturally help to maintain the land. Our Saddlebacks live harmoniously in family groups, many of them on a family farm where fodder beet is a significant crop in their rotation. The pigs follow the harvester and munch their way through the leftovers, at the same time helping to enrich and cultivate the soil.

 

There are health and environmental benefits associated with vegetarianism and veganism. Can meat be part of a healthy, sustainable food chain?  With an ever-growing population, can small-scale, slow-grown meat meet the increasing demand for protein?

Firstly, we should all be eating much less meat. Depending on our metabolism, in most cases three meals of good quality nutritious meat per week is sufficient. Where food becomes unsustainable is where the farming system is out of balance. Cutting down the Amazon for soybeans to feed to cattle who should be grazing on pasture is crazy. We truly believe there is enough resource to feed our planet if we realign our thinking, and ensure every decision we make in producing food starts with the soil and water – our two finite resources. If these are truly respected and valued then there is also a vital importance paid to biodiversity and the hugely significant role played by microorganisms. These have been largely ignored and destroyed by modern industrial systems.

 

You say true sustainability also includes building sustainable communities.  What do you mean by this, and how does the work you do support these ideas?

Rural communities have traditionally had farming families at their heart. It is those families who are the lifeblood of local resources such as the village hall, school, church, shop, and so on. Their knowledge of, and commitment to, nurturing their land as part of the surrounding landscape is handed down through generations. These are values which are truly sustainable because they have stood the test of time.

Within our business model it is especially important and rewarding to attract the younger generation back to these family farms, because they feel inspired and optimistic about their links to the market through Pipers Farm.

 

You agree prices with your farmers that do not fluctuate with the market.  How much of a challenge is this in these times of economic unpredictability?

The way we farm means that we are not impacted as much by market fluctuations, in the same way as many of the more modern, higher-input systems. Because our ruminants are purely grass-fed we do not get hit by market changes to feed cost. Likewise our farms are relatively self sufficient, growing a lot of their own crops for feed and bedding. By agreeing a price we take out one of the most important variables, which means our farmers are able to plan and adapt, always knowing they are guaranteed a fair price. This gives them a secure route to market which they can plan the farm around, year round.

 

How do you think the volatile UK political landscape might affect business, both for Pipers Farm and for the wider food chain?

To be honest there is so much up in the air it is almost impossible to really know how the next few years will unfold, and what that will mean to farming. All we can say is we feel if you are producing a really good product, that creates a positive reaction from those who buy it and those who farm it – no matter the political scene – customers will come. Our belief is public health is a public good, so minimal input farming needs to stay top of the political agenda.

Brexit is offering a golden opportunity to transform the landscape of food and farming in this country for generations to come. Instead of agriculture being driven relentlessly towards a goal of cheap global commodity production, the farming industry should be encouraged and rewarded for the delivery of healthy food in conjunction with recognisable public goods such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration, water retention, and contributions to societal values such as education and social health and wellbeing.

 

You champion nose-to-tail eating and cooking. Has the popularity of lesser known cuts, and offal, risen in recent times?

Definitely. We have seen customers utilising much more of the carcass, with using bones for bone broth, eating more offal and benefiting from its vast array of vitamins and minerals, and trotters for gelatine all making a come back.

However, sometimes the popularity of lesser-known cuts can cause us a bit of a headache, for example ox cheeks are such a fantastic cut, however a bullock only has two cheeks! If a ‘celebrity chef’ sings their virtues, because we grow every piece of meat ourselves and only have a finite amount of beef, we cannot keep up with the demand.

For us, nose-to-tail eating is about not being put off by any part of the carcass, enjoying a balanced diet where we eat the fat, the lean meat, and the offal, to ensure none of this goodness ends up in the bin.

 

You run an event, ‘Beyond the Hedgerow’, once a month on a Tuesday evening.  What can people expect if they come along for one of these evenings?

Our Beyond the Hedgerow event consists of a tour of our farm, with a firepit supper included. It’s a wonderful evening where we take our guests up through the fields, along the hedgerows, and talk about the history of our farm, why we farm in the way we do and why it is in stark contrast to the industrialised way of farming. We have a relaxed informal dinner in the stable and there is animated discussion about the many issues which are raised, looked at from the many differing perspectives of those who have come.

 

What are your hopes and fears for the future, for Pipers Farm, your partner farms, and the wider world of sustainable food?

The way that industrialised farming is going and the use of antibiotics is shocking. Thirty years ago we predicted there would be serious consequences. Today we are becoming immune to one of the most wonderful inventions that mankind has ever been given, partly because of the widespread abuse of, and dependence on, these drugs within industrial farming.  Animals are kept alive because of them and customers have been consuming these through what they eat without knowing it.

Increasing consumer awareness provides enormous opportunity to grow the market for our products. In turn this offers opportunities to improve the outlook for many smaller-scale farming businesses, and particularly the younger generation of farmers and rural entrepreneurs.

All of this will be part of a wider revolution in the perception and delivery of sustainable food.

At the same time, it is vital that a business such as ours continues to grow without compromise to its integrity. To achieve that will be a test of the strength of the foundation that we have built over the last thirty years.

 

Finally, why do you do what you do?

We care about what we do. We care about the land. We care about our livestock and we passionately believe that farming in harmony with nature is the only sustainable way for future generations. It is a privilege to work surrounded by, and so closely with, Mother Nature.

For Pipers Farm’s website, click here.

Find them on Twitter here.

Photography: Matt Austin.

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