It was a grey and rather wintery afternoon in March when two of the Real Food Store’s managers, Natalie and Lois, donned their wellies and stomped up the track to West Town Farm in Ide. West Town Farm is set in 250 acres of beautiful pastureland and specialises in rearing beef, pork and lamb. The farm is run by Andy Bragg who, together with his brother Martyn Bragg of Shillingford Organics, is the fifteenth generation to farm the land in the area. The farm is certified organic with the Soil Association and the land is also registered under the Higher Level Stewardship scheme.  Andy ran the farm as a conventional dairy farm from 1982-1990, when he converted to being organic. As the market became tougher for dairy farmers, Andy took the decision in 2002 to switch to beef production, retaining as many of his dairy cows as he could for breeding.

As we entered the courtyard in the centre of a cluster of outbuildings, we were greeted by Andy and Sian, one of the farm’s full time employees, taking a quick break after having just finished a farm tour with a group of primary school children. The farm is one of the biggest on-farm educational centres in the country, and together with OrganicArts (an educational arts charity located at the farm) they host a whopping 150 visits each year! Across the yard we were very excited to glimpse the Real Food Store’s mascot, Blush the life-size pink cow, in her new and very fitting home.  She’s been re-incarnated as a beautiful rainbow coloured, green wig wearing cow (designed by school competition winner Amber) standing in the centre of a ring of straw bales! She looks amazing and Sian explained that she’s also proving to be a really useful educational tool for teaching the anatomy of a cow to school kids!

Despite the winter weather, the school children (and us!) could not have been treated to anything more spring-like than the arrival of a new calf, born just an hour before we arrived. As soon as Sian told us this, we were obviously very eager to see the new arrival- the 133rd member of their herd of Hereford X’s. She led us through a small group of curious steers (I made the mistake of calling them cows and was quickly put right by the expert!) into a stall where mother and baby were resting. This was just the second calf of the year, heralding the start of an inevitably exhausting time for Andy and the team as they help to safely deliver calves from all 45 mother cows.  As we quietly watched from the edge of the stall, the calf looked very cute indeed, still with its’ wet curls tenderly being licked by its mother.

As we left mother and baby to rest, and took a wander around the farm, it became immediately clear that the cattle here are a far cry from the intensive stall-reared cattle of mega-farms. They have seemingly endless amounts of clover-rich pasture to graze and are kept in small herd sizes, about as natural as modern farming can get. One of the common environmental arguments against rearing cattle is that as a result of being ruminants they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), into the atmosphere. We raised this point with Andy and Sian and asked them whether pasture fed cattle released less GHG emissions than stall-reared cattle. Their response was interesting: pasture fed cattle apparently release more methane into the atmosphere but the result of them trampling manure into the ground is that more clover and grass grows (due to increased soil fertility), resulting in greater sequestration of carbon dioxide, another GHG. So I think the jury’s out on that one! In any case, the fact West Town Farm is completely self sufficient for animal feed is impressive. They grow potatoes, squash and barley to feed to the animals and also feed them (what would have been) wasted vegetables from Andy’s brother’s farm, Shillingford Organics.

One of the things the team at West Town are keen not to shy away from is that all of the animals on the farm are there because they will eventually be food (the steers are usually slaughtered at 30 months old). They want all visitors to the farm to be aware that eating meat is a conscious choice and if you do make that choice, it’s important that the beef, pork or lamb that you eat has been raised to the highest standards of animal welfare. Although the farm is registered with the Soil Association, and the abbatoir they use at Ashburton is also SA registered, the meat sold under the West Town Farm label can not carry the organic certification mark. This is because the cost of butchering it to organic standards is inhibitive (approximately an extra £180 per carcass). As a result, a lot of the cattle reared by West Town are sold on to Eversfield Organics (near Okehampton) which helps Andy plan due to the guaranteed sales this affords them and the fact they can get the organic premium for their meat.

Our last stop (and by far the noisiest!) on the farm tour was the piglets. As soon as we entered the corner of the paddock they were in, they hurried over with a deafening squealing (apparently excited about the prospect of food- to which we only disappointed them!). Not usually one to recognise the beauty of pigs, I had to admit these were particularly attractive ones. They are Oxford Sandy and blacks, a traditional breed, hairy with lovely dark spots. Sian explained their breed is suited to living outside (as they do at West Town) as their hair and dark patches act like sunscreen and protect them from the Sun’s harmful rays. They have just four sows and one boar and breed from these twice a year.

Despite both being vegetarians (we kept that quiet!), we loved our visit to the farm and were extremely impressed with the level of care and attention devoted to the welfare of all the animals there. It’s clear that stewardship of both animals and land is at the heart of life at West Town, and the education of local children into the importance of this is a massive asset to the area. Keep up the good work Andy, Sian and team!

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