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Follow us for updates of life, food & wildlife on the farm here in the Lower Derwent Valley, Yorkshire.

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 28 2017 10:50PM

This week it was revealed that scientists have teamed up with supermarket bosses to ‘encourage’ us all to replace red meat with more vegetables and fruit. That’s right, supermarkets have only taken about 70 years to start caring about our health and that of our environment - but do they really?

Now, some farmers rely entirely on supermarkets to sell their produce for them and they have to be rather careful about what they say for fear of losing their contracts. Here at Rosewood our only contract is with you, the consumer, so we don’t need to skirt around the issues. The only thing we have to fear is a court case but to be honest, the publicity of the supermarkets stamping on a small ethical producer would be a gift!

Firstly, let’s look at some stats. By 1961 there were already 572 supermarkets established in the UK, and they continued to grow, with the biggest four, Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons & ASDA accounting for 76.4% of the UK grocery market by 2011. At the same time the amount consumers spend on food has declined from just under £1 in every 3 in 1961 [pdf] to just over £1 in every 10 by 2011 [pdf].

It’s not only the way we buy food and how much we pay for it that has changed; over the same 50 year timespan what we eat has also been transformed. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) keeps track of global food consumption levels and the figures make for some interesting reading.

Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century
Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century

As we can see, fruit & veg has seen huge increases in consumption of 52%, almost five times that of meat. And they want us to eat even more despite the UK already importing some 65% of our fruit & veg. There is nothing in the announcement about stocking more British or sustainably grown food so we can only assume that the plan is to ship in even more produce from water-stressed regions of the world, despite the obvious issues.

Meanwhile, levels of red meat consumption, most commonly blamed for both declines in health and climate change, have in fact already dropped by 1657 tonnes or 25% of daily consumption. Bearing in mind that over the same period the UK population has risen by almost 20%, individually we are eating 37% less beef & lamb. Hardly a compelling argument for skyrocketing demand.

Here in the Lower Derwent Valley, we are experiencing the direct consequences of this shift in food patterns. The floodplain meadows have been annually grazed the same way for at least 1,000 years but this traditional practise is coming to an end quicker than you might think as people move away from eating grazed meat. In line with the common trend of falling cattle numbers, our area has seen its own decline, leaving us as the last cattle farmers left standing on the floodplains.

UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's
UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's

Reproduced from; Agriculture; historical statistics [pdf]

It’s not just the decline in red meat consumption driving the change of land use, we have also severed our links with animals as workmates - once upon a time we relied upon animals, cattle and horses, to provide the power to grow all our food and they required large areas of pasture in order to harvest the sun's energy and turn it into work. Since the 1930’s, when fossil fuels started to replace draught animals in earnest, the UK has lost more than 97% of these grasslands to either intensification, drainage and/or the plough.

Some of the measly 3% which remains does have significant protected status but the one thing that legislation can’t protect against is now their biggest threat - neglect.

Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food
Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food

Farmland birds and small mammals thrived in the patchwork we used to have of short grasslands, wet woodlands, marshes and waterways and so too did migratory winter visitors which rely on cattle grazing these pastures for food and habitat. Grasslands provide resilient crops that can withstand and protect the soil from being washed away in the seasonal floods. The one thing that underpins this diversity of life is the annual removal of the grass crop by mowing and/or grazing, without that the fragile ecosystem becomes much more homogenous, with the more delicate plant species, and the animals that rely upon them for food, outcompeted by coarser, rank vegetation.

Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed
Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed

It’s not that environmentalists and farmers don’t recognise the need for grazing animals to maintain biodiversity, but it’s just that they can no longer [financially] afford to do it because demand has dropped and what demand there is does not want a beef supply that ebbs and flows with the seasons.

We can see this if we revisit our consumption graph - although it shows an almost 40% reduction in red meat consumption, the figures DO show that individual total meat consumption has risen by 11%, largely driven by the almost 5-fold increase in poultry (not red meat) alongside a 6% increase in pork. The scientists & supermarkets didn’t mention that, perhaps because it runs counter to their conclusions or maybe it was because the supermarkets are responsible for the massive increase in chicken consumption in the first place.

Chicken is a wonderful meat for supermarkets. They have grown their market entirely on the back of convenience, and what that means in practise is predictability - you want to walk into a supermarket and know that your 300g packet of chicken breast will be there every week, year round. Throw a load of cheap fossil fuels at chickens and you get quick, predictable results. Because mother chickens don’t need to rear their own young like mammals, we can ramp up egg production, bang those eggs in a machine, move the hatchlings into a climate controlled shed and have them oven ready in just 40 days, when you just scoop them up off the barn floor and pack them in to crates on a lorry.

Imagine trying to sell a supermarket a bunch of wether lambs which had to live out on a mountain for a couple of years before being ready, each reared by mothers of differing abilities and shaped by good or bad weather - lol!

Veg is even easier to manipulate. There are no pesky welfare concerns to bother yourself with and soil erosion is an unedifying thing for consumers to learn and protest about compared to animal cruelty. The production of them rides on the coat tails of the idea that vegetable growing is a wholesome activity and not actually completely reliant on fossil fuels to provide its machinery and chemicals, especially moreso as they involvement of animals in their production recedes. Entire trailerloads that don’t meet the spec can be rejected without a second thought.

It’s great that consumers are now concerned enough about preserving our environment to let it influence their buying habits - this is proven by the fact that supermarkets are using this as the excuse to try making us more reliant on crops. It’s great that consumers want to support small farmers, evidenced by the popularity of supermarkets faking this on their labelling. What is crushingly disappointing for us is that the message designed to encourage us to eat a more sustainable diet is now having the exact opposite effect.

Gone is our varied mosaic of farmland, gone are the cattle grazing the pastures, chicken is king and vegetables can get away with murder.

The Alternative?

If Sainsburys really does want ideas to encourage us to eat less meat, rather than just maximise it’s own profits, I have a suggestion - they should stop selling it! Before the rise of supermarkets our meat came either directly from farmers and/or butchers, we valued it more and we ate slightly less chicken, pork and seafood and more grazed meats which maintained higher levels of wildlife and more variety in the countryside, simultaneously offsetting the damage caused by crop production. Farmers were able to make a living and our traditional meadows were grazed properly. Today the consumer has been separated from the land where their food has been produced and the people who produce it, and both have suffered as a result. Without supermarkets exerting their desperate need for predictability and uniformity we could make better use of our natural resources again.

So c’mon Sainsburys, go the whole hog, ditch the meat altogether and let consumers, the environment, animals and farmers get a better deal.

By Rosewood Farm, Nov 4 2015 12:52PM

Food waste hit the headlines recently, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighting the issue by standing beside a pile of 20 tonnes of perfectly edible parsnips that were rejected by the supermarkets. Knowing that a significant proportion of those crops will never make it to the plate is gut-wrenching for us, as growing annual crops involves so many resources such as fuel and pesticides along with the inevitable exposure of the soil to the destructive elements. We shouldn’t be wasting good food and we shouldn’t produce food that is not to be eaten, as the land could be put to much better uses.

Vegetable crops are among those grown on neighbouring farms
Vegetable crops are among those grown on neighbouring farms

Life looks a little different on the other side of the hedge
Life looks a little different on the other side of the hedge

I care deeply about the landscapes & environment around us and I’m excited to be building biodiversity, feeding more people and putting life back into our soils here at Rosewood.

World population may be rising but we are still manage to grow so many vegetables that we eat only the best looking ones. This abundance is only possible because the UK imports the balance, 40%, of its food requirements from other countries. At the same time society is becoming increasingly aware of the impact we have upon the earth it seems crazy to be producing and importing food to throw so much away.

Meat has received some bad press in recent years with many organisations, such as the UN, urging us to eat less meat in order to cut down on the amount of wasted food. And here in the UK we are indeed taking this advice and eating less meat but the unintended consequences are having a devastating effect on the nation’s meadows and wildlife.

As a direct consequence of land use change, biodiversity (the number and variety of plants and animals in our environment) is in decline. The total area of UK wildflower meadows has reduced by 97% since the second world war, yet we have retained a large expanse of the remaining 3% here in the Lower Derwent Valley. The problem is that despite many of these meadows being protected by law as SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and SPAs (Special Protection Areas), they remain under threat from a lack of appropriate management.

At Rosewood Farm we first started breeding pedigree cattle 20 years ago, with the addition of sheep six years later. Our intention was to develop a low input system utilising semi-natural grasslands to produce tasty, sustainable meat. The method requires none of the artificial inputs that are used to produce the majority of annual crops today and actually puts carbon back into the soil. What makes the present situation worse is that these rejected parsnips would make the perfect culinary accompaniment for our Dexter beef & Kerry Hill lamb.

Bred as grazing animals our cattle and sheep are in high demand from other farmers and Natural England to manage the wide variety of local biodiverse grasslands, from damp, peaty water meadows to dry heathy pastures.

Ungrazed meadows represent a significant proportion of 'unseen' food waste
Ungrazed meadows represent a significant proportion of 'unseen' food waste

The beauty of the Rosewood Farm way is that increasing the numbers of livestock and carefully managing their grazing is both ecologically beneficial and feeds more people. More livestock = more carbon in the soil = more food produced.

The one natural input that has the biggest effect and is impossible to replace is time. Growing plants transfer carbon from the atmosphere to our soils: the regular natural cycle of grass growth and root die-back after grazing keeps pumping the carbon underground and building organic soil mass, which in turn encourages healthy plants.

A plant that reaches full size stops growing and stops the process of carbon transfer. Without the essential grazing, plants do still follow the carbon cycle but at a much slower rate due to the less regular growth associated with mature plants and less carbon is transferred to the soil.

Rosewood Farm’s traditional breeds of cattle and sheep are of a size & nature that makes them perfectly suited to grazing the old Ings pastures and meadows alongside the River Derwent and Pocklington Canal. However, like Hugh’s wonky parsnips, supermarkets have specific specifications for meat which concentrate purely upon size & shape of the carcass so you won’t find our tasty, sustainable produce on their shelves.

Producing and retailing our own produce via our website gives us full control over exactly what happens to our animals and the food they produce. It is much easier to maintain complete traceability and good high welfare with animals slaughtered at the opposite side of the road to the fields they graze.

I have to go and tend our cattle now, but I'll leave you with this thought; in Hugh's War on Waste he mentions that the average UK household discards almost £15 of edible food every week - that's more than the cost of one whole monthly meat box from Rosewood.

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