The South of England and Pipers Farm Part 1

Joneve Murphy

Joneve Murphy › Farmer, Photographer, Nomad and Explorer of the global food web, sustainability and innovative agriculture

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Editor’s Note: We love the work Joneve Murphy is doing. This is a post about her visit to Pipers Farm owned by Peter and Henri Grieg.

We support her efforts. Farmer Seeking Roots is Joneve traveling the world discovering the commonalities and differences about farming.

Here she writes about traveling to Devon, England to work with two local farms. Thank you, Joneve, for your hard work and your excellent reporting.

Read Joneve’s post below.

After Manchester, I took a bus down to Devon in the south of England. Devon is beautiful, lush, verdant, green and bursting with agriculture, a far cry from the bleaker industrial north. (Though don’t get me wrong the north has its charms as well.)

I went to Devon to work with Pipers Farm. I’ll speak more about them directly in the next post but here is a brief overview. Pipers is a small family farm owned by Peter and Henri Grieg.

They have a small butcher shop in Exeter and sell meat and prepared food on line.

Pipers raises some of their own meat but the majority is purchased from local farmers that share their philosophy for naturally and humanely raised, heritage breed animals.

For this post I would like to talk about two of the farms that I visited while staying in Devon.

Peter dropped me off at South Coombe Farm right around lunch time which was lucky for me.

It was immediately evident that Glynn is a man passionately in love with his land.

I sat down with Glyn and his father, Martin, to a beautiful, albeit very simple lunch of cold lamb, wheat bread, salty butter and whole home grown vegetables and we tucked in.

Grandpa spent most of the meal telling me about his garden. He is very proud of his little vegetable plot and well he should be.

The garden is diverse and productive especially considering he is the only tender at 86. He said that his best run of eating only what he grows was two years ago when all he had to purchase to feed his family were two cabbages. “It was a very cold February.”

Martin loves to live off of the land and survive on what he grows. He is disgusted with the current culture of purchasing whatever you feel like eating. He is the ultimate example of eating locally and seasonally.

South Coombe Farm is currently owned by Glyn and Christina Comont and is located just outside Crediton in Devon.

They raise sheep and cattle and they breed saddle back pigs that are sold to Piper’s Farm and raised to weight on another property. The land was in the family though Glyn purchased an additional 20 acres once ownership came over to him. His father, Martin mostly raised sheep but since taking over Glyn has focused more on the pigs.

The total farm is about 110 acres, all of which is either in production or under environmental easement or both. Glyn has all sorts of small environmental projects going on around the property.

He planted a 12-acre forest more than 20 years ago that he is very proud of. He maintains hedgerows in such a way as to boost biodiversity as opposed to tamping it down, leaving the wild fruit to mature so that it provides forage for wildlife.

His fields go back and forth between tamed forage and untamed pastures, leaving fields unused and wild for at least one year out of every five.

He even has one field that he has intentionally let go over to thistle (a sin in this part of England) “for the insects, because really the insects are probably the most important thing you’re after when it comes to increasing biodiversity.”

He gets some money from the government for his environmental stewardship, but really not enough to cover the cost of maintaining it. He also gets what’s called a small farm payment which again, does not cover the cost of running the farm but it all helps.

After lunch, Glynn took me for a walk over the property.

He walks everywhere on his property, he thinks that using a truck or tractor is just a waste of fuel and happily trudges to whatever task needs doing no matter the distance or weather.

It was immediately evident that Glynn is a man passionately in love with his land.

He had something to tell about every nook, cranny knoll and tree.

There were exclamations over new species of plants, and insects, all he belives as a result of his many environmental efforts.

He is a farmer that evokes the Thomas Jefferson quote: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

The next morning we went out to feed the pigs early and I saw that one of the pregnant sows was pulling the long grass from the field and bringing it back to her arc. Apparently this is a nesting behavior. The mommy-to-be will start pulling the grass and building a nest about 10 hours before she gives birth.

Unfortunately, we had to pull apart all of her hard work because the grass was very wet with dew and with the chill in the air, Glyn was a little concerned for the babies.

We replaced the grass with some dry straw, finished feeding everyone and then it was time to sort out the breeding ewes for the season.

We needed to get a hold of each one and determine who was the fittest for breeding new breeders, which would breed for lamb and which were too old to go another season.

We gathered all 200 into a pen and got out some different colored ink to code them. Grandpa Martin was the record keeper while Glyn and I caught, assessed and marked.

Martin and Glyn have the records of all of the sheep going back for a long time. Martin sat with his ancient record book telling us which numbers should be “super dupers” and which would only be fit to breed lamb.

Glyn would like to upgrade the technology and scrap the book, but grandpa guffaws at the idea.

At the beginning Glyn was the chief determiner, but after several hours I was able to count teeth, check feet and teats for mastitis and began to make decisions on my own.

I happily marked super dupers and meat breeders for a while and without thinking about it, found one with too few teeth and marked her for slaughter.

As soon as that yellow mark was on, I felt immediately guilty and had Glyn double check. I was right and she was shuttled off with the others.

I was sad but such is farming life, better to be sad and have some respect for the animal than cold hearted, I guess.

After a long day, all of the sheep were finished and turned back out onto the pasture. We went back up to check on the pigs and feed them dinner and Momma was having her babies. I was covered in sheep shit, sweaty and exhausted and watching her give birth to those 12 healthy piglets was beautiful.

I stayed and watched until Glyn dragged me off for dinner. Grandpa had prepared a roasted marrow (a giant zucchini) stuffed with lamb of course.

I asked if he ever picked the squash smaller and he said “NO! that’s infanticide in my book.” I think he would be horrified to see the tiny summer squash with the blossom attached I was harvesting for The Manchester House only a week before.

The next morning, Glyn and Christine drove me over to Yardley Farm in Exmoor.

The scenery of this farm was drop dead gorgeous, rolling hills blooming with purple heather and sheer cliffs dropping down to the ocean below.

There are small sheep raised for wool running all over the moor. They are almost feral and go where they please.

They are herded up a few times a year for de-worming and shearing.

We also saw a few of the Exmore wild horses which were pretty magical.

I was sad to say goodbye to the Comonts, staying with them was a really lovely experience, but that blue ocean made it a little bit easier.

Yardley Farm is currently owned by the Richards family and chiefly run by Jon.

Jon’s grandfather was a tenant farmer on the land when the landowner lost all of his money. The landowner put it up for sale and gave the tenants first dibs.

Jon’s Grandfather reluctantly purchased the land. He didn’t want to be tied down, though Jon is glad that he made the decision that he did.

Grandfather continued to work on the more than 100 miles of stone wall that he began as a tenant and Jon keeps up with the work till this day.

He is constantly repairing the walls but says that it is a task he enjoys.

“They make the best fences around here, the land is sloped and the animals just break through hedgerow”

There are now 3 generations of Richards’ men that have built these walls by hand. He feels the work ties him to his family and they will certainly continue as a family legacy.

Jon’s grandfather was still working on a portion of the wall when he passed away, when Jon finished it he put up a plaque commemorating all of his grandfather’s hard work.

Jon breeds Exmoor cross sheep and has about 1000 breeding ewes that are sold in Saibers supermarkets (considered to be one of the higher end chains) around the UK.

He also breeds red ruby Dorset beef for Piper’s Farm. The male calves are given over soon after weaning while the females are kept for future breeding.

The Devons are then raised for an additional two and a half to 3 years before they reach weight. Their natural diet and heritage breed means that the animals are slow to put on weight but Piper’s is happy to wait for such an exceptional product.

Heritage breeds, raised on the land to which they were bred is one of the most important factors to Piper’s Farm.

We spent the rest of the morning touring the farm and in the afternoon we herded up one group of the sheep, gave them a dewormer and let them loose on a new pasture.

I got to see Jon’s two dogs in action and they were definitely impressive.

Tiny, who lives up to the title was pretty amazing, steering a few hundred sheep over the terrain and into the pen.

After work we had dinner, which was of course, lamb. In the morning we got up early and moved more sheep until I was picked up by Peter and Henri to go back to Pipers Farm.

This post originally appeared on Joneve’s site–she graciously shared it with us–check out farmerseekingroots.com to see more of her writing about her worldly farm visits. Thanks, Joneve!

Photo credit: Joneve Murphy