Farming cows in harmony with nature

Features Posted 27/05/20
This month Nigel Akehurst visits Court Lodge Farm in Wartling, East Sussex, to find out more about their conservation-led approach to dairy farming and producing healthy drinking yoghurt.

Court Lodge is owned and run by David and Marian Harding, who purchased the 424-acre farm on the edge of the Pevensey Levels in 1989. Starting out with 80 cows brought from David’s family farm in Bodle Street Green, they initially farmed the land conventionally but grew concerned about the environmental impact of the sprays required to grow arable crops.

“We went into Countryside Stewardship in 1991, which was an opportunity to re-think how we did it,” said Marian.

Gradually they returned the arable land to pasture as they increased the herd from 80 to 160 cows, while also searching for a conservation farming grade that reflected their own philosophy of farming in harmony with nature.

In 1998 they decided to go organic and started selling their milk to the organic milk co-operative OMSCO in 2000. Inspired by some Dutch farming friends, Marian started a drinking yoghurt business.

Farming background

Both David and Marian come from farming stock. David grew up at Hole farm, the family farm in Bodle Street Green, where he farmed in partnership with his mother and brother Charles.

Marian studied land economy at university and while her parents weren’t farmers, her grandmother was.

When the opportunity arose to buy Court Lodge from the Monnington family, the partnership was dissolved, with Charles retaining the land and David taking the 80 cows and quota to Court Lodge. “It was lovely to be able to stay in the same part of Sussex,” he said.

Transition from conventional to organic

When they took over the farm it was being run as a mixed enterprise of dairy and arable.

David and Marian were horrified by the amount of sprays, particularly for black grass – which were also very expensive – required to grow arable crops on their marshland.

“The Monningtons employed two full time tractor drivers, but as we didn’t have tractors or drivers we decided to move to working with contractors instead,” said David.

As they gradually increased the size of the herd, they put in herbal leys to replace the arable crops.

With a keen interest in improving the wildlife of the farm, they entered into countryside stewardship in 1991 and went organic in 1998. They started out with Organic Farmer and Growers – who were “very down to earth and farmer friendly” – and stayed with them for a few years.

Then in 2001, after starting an organic yoghurt enterprise on the farm, they reluctantly switched certification to the Soil Association as “retailers like Waitrose wanted to see that logo on our packaging”.

They’ve been with the Soil Association ever since, though at times have felt “uncomfortable” with their campaign messaging, which they feel has alienated their conventional farming friends in the past.

Both David and Marian are keen naturalists and wildlife lovers and have seen a marked increase in bug and birdlife on the farm since converting their land to organic and farming more extensively. Most of the marshland on the farm is designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because it is home to rare species of flora and fauna. It is also a Ramsar Site – which recognises the “international importance of their freshwater ditches”.

They also rent another 125 acres of adjoining SSSI nature reserve owned by the Sussex Wildlife Trust, where their young stock and dry cows are used for conservation grazing.

“We see ourselves as farmers of wildlife as well as of cows,” said David. Though the cows earn their keep by producing around one million litres of organic milk. This is sold directly to Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative (OMSCO), the UK’s largest organic co-operative, with 250 members producing more than 250 million litres of organic milk. They are one of only two OMSCO members in Sussex and really like being part of the co-operative, which has been quite successful in exporting cheddar cheese to America.

Another 50,000 litres of their milk is turned into organic yoghurt, made on the farm and representing around a third of their annual turnover.

Yoghurt enterprise

The idea came about when they went organic, explained Marian. It turns out a lot of other dairy farmers also went organic at the same time, causing an oversupply in the market – which meant the price went down.

“At the time we’d done a Eurolink exchange with some Dutch farmers. In Holland drinking yoghurt was everywhere. We wanted something with a quick return, we didn’t want to store cheese for a year, so drinking yoghurt fitted the bill,” said Marian.

They also didn’t want to set up in competition with other local dairy farms, one of which did potted yoghurt. Marian went on a three-day yoghurt-making course at Reaseheath College which “was more suited to yoghurt manufacture rather than filling jugs by hand” she said. It did, however, give her some useful contacts and before long they’d bought a second hand pasteurising vat and a chiller from a maker of ewe’s milk cheese in Devon.

With a small processing facility set up next to the dairy, they initially targeted farmers’ markets, which were thriving in London, though they did encounter some issues around the time of foot and mouth disease, which made it a bit ‘stop start’. Over time the emphasis has shifted from farmers’ markets to selling wholesale.

“We probably did the markets at Borough and Pimlico in London for six to eight years, with help from the younger generation, but we ran out of students needing Saturday jobs as they got proper jobs.

“We now sell wholesale to the Hooks and they are brilliant at selling it alongside their raw milk at farmers’ markets across London and more locally too,” said Marian.

In addition, Court Lodge also sells their yoghurts to Abel & Cole, Farmdrop, Rowcliffe (which distributes to Waitrose) and High Weald Dairy. Marian tells me they are best known for their natural pouring yoghurt. “You can pour it on cereals and desserts, drink it from the bottle or use it in cooking or like regular yoghurt in a bowl with a spoon,” she said. Interestingly, unlike many supermarket yoghurts, Court Lodge organic yoghurt is live with probiotics and is completely natural. It’s not homogenised or standardised and it doesn’t contain any additives to thicken or emulsify it.

They have received recognition for their products, winning a Great Taste award for their natural yoghurt in 2014. They also make a range of organic fruit yoghurt drinks which includes strawberry (which also won a great taste award in 2014), blackcurrant and Seville orange. In addition they launched a Labneh cheese in 2017 which won a Great Taste award the same year.

Last year the couple embarked on a branding refresh that is now being rolled out across all their packaging. They’ve also been trialling a glass bottle for their natural yoghurt with Abel & Cole this year, which they believe will help drive sales, though Marian suggests that the research shows there is still some debate around whether or not using glass is more environmentally friendly than recyclable plastic, when weight and the heat requirements for recycling are taken into consideration.

The company website is the main destination to find out more about the farm and the product range: www.courtlodgeorganics.co.uk. They are also active on Facebook with recipes and images of the landscape, wildlife and animals.

Reed bed project

Further enhancing habitat for bugs and birdlife, in 2011 David and Marian turned one of their fields into a 10-acre reed bed. This project involved digging out four interconnected ponds and moving thousands of tonnes of soil with a large dumper truck. The project took around two months and was carried out by Robins of Herstmonceux together with John Hayward (Clarity Ecoworks), who drew up the plans with David, and was part funded by higher level stewardship funding.

To get the reeds to grow they took existing reed rhizomes and spread them on the newly created site, a more cost effective method than putting in 10 acres of plug plants. The ponds refilled with natural rainwater in the winter and there were 20 pairs of lapwings nesting on the site before the reeds established themselves.

They have had marsh harriers nesting in the main reed bed over the past nine years. To preserve the habitat the conservation volunteers organisation (TCV) comes every year to remove unwanted willows.

Challenges and some unusual plants and invertebrates

“The soil really missed the fertiliser the first few years after going organic, but farmyard manure puts a lot back in, and yields of grass and rotational arable silage on the ‘top ground’ above the marsh have improved as the soil biology has adjusted,” commented Marian.

“We also sprinkle on dirty water; normally we do it after first cut silage and that does help too,” said David.

They also test the soil pH regularly and have been happy with the results, finding that they only need to lime the fields every 10 to 15 years. In future they plan to do more soil analysis to better understand their soil health and organic matter. One recurring issue is combating the weeds.

“We’ve done everything from individually using a lazy dog to pull out docks and thistles, which is very hard work, to hosting a Young Farmers barbecue a few years ago. To earn their food we had them pulling out docks in a field that had been ploughed,” David said.

“The cows will eat docks and nettles in silage but it can be an issue as they out compete the grass. We try to minimise it with cultivations, but we can’t spray.”

They’ve also seen plant species, usually more at home beside the ditches, such as hart’s tongue fern and colourful things like ragged robin, knapweed and goatsbeard (Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon) spreading into their pastures. A more recent find was a green-winged orchid, growing near a hedgerow in one of their cow pastures, which appears in the same spot every year.

“The plants on the marsh are quite unusual. You tend to focus on birds – as it is what most people are interested in – but it’s the small things like bug life that are really important. It’s the same with soils; earthworms and all the small stuff tends to get ignored.”

Graeme Lyons, the county Ecologist (at the time) visited and did a survey in 2013/14. He found some rare invertebrates in the reed bed and got very excited. These included the nationally scarce 13 spot ladybirds, pondweed leafhopper and the tortoise beetle, Cassia Nobilis.

David also has a lifelong interest in moths, with the lime hawk moth being a particular favourite of his.

New venture

In the past couple of years David and Marian have been supplying milk to the Pevensey Cheese Company, a start-up venture by Martin and Hazel Tkalez who received LEADER funding to build a small cheese dairy at nearby Hockham Farm in Boreham Street. They have spent the past 12 months refining their cheese-making process and gaining all the various food and hygiene certificates they need to start selling their soft blue cheese to the public, which they hope to start doing in the next couple of months.

On Brexit

“We were remainers really,” said David. “There’s more benefit to staying within Europe than leaving.

“We didn’t have a strong nationalist feeling that we’d be better off on our own – without that strong inter-connectedness of the EU. In a sense I’m not sure whether the final outcome will be a similar continuation of trade which we would have had had we stayed in.”

Marian continued: “I’ve never been that comfortable with a closer alliance with America – you can almost see France from here.”

“There’s got to be strong ties with the EU – we just felt it was a huge amount of time, effort and expense getting out – obviously with this virus it’s changed again,” suggested David.

On Covid-19

“We feel so lucky that we have a milk contract and the tanker just takes it away. If you’re doing vegetables or flowers you’ve got to find pickers,” said David.

“I also feel sorry for all the garden centres and nurseries – all those plants going to waste,” added Marian.

They both feel that dairy farmers are better off than most, but it’s still a really difficult and worrying time.

“In farming life goes on – we keep producing, people normally want to eat food; we’ve got a product that’s in demand, so we’ve got to carry on producing it.

“I think it will change people’s priorities in life. If you can produce it and sell it locally it has to be better and more sustainable than bringing food in from miles abroad. Maybe it will make people think twice about vegan products. People might start growing food themselves and realise it’s not a piece of cake. If there’s any good to come out of it – maybe people will appreciate farmers and local food supply more,” suggested David.

Local cluster groups

Marian and David are members of The Pevensey Levels Farmers Group, which is funded by the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund. Set up in January 2018 to run for three years, the group brings together more than 50 farmers to improve the natural environment at local level. There has been a series of talks ranging in topic from re-wilding by Sir Charles Burrell, of Knepp Estate, to liver fluke, by Nick Pile from Cliffe Vets.

One topic identified early on by the members has been predator control. To this end they have been working with Richard Dann, of the Environment Agency, who has trapped 14 mink in the past six months, with the aim of reversing the decline in water voles. There is more about the group at www.pevenseyfarmers.co.uk.

They are also members of the Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, which offers free business skills training to family farms across the UK. Of particular interest to them was the session on farm succession, a topic that many families avoid, but one that is important to discuss with the next generation. Find out more at www.princescountrysidefund.org.uk

Stepping back and the future

With David and Marian both now in their sixties, they are slowing down and have started to step back from the day-to-day running of the farm and yoghurt business.

This is thanks to their team, which has taken years to build. James Gwynne, their herd manager, is taking on more responsibility on the farm, with the ex herd manager Simon Wicks supporting him. Sally Holding, their dairy manager, now runs the yoghurt side of things with Carolyn Band supporting her, along with their son Peter who does deliveries and his wife Jess who helps with yoghurt making.

They are feeling quite positive with the new ELMS scheme coming in. “We don’t know exactly what it comprises but it should chime with our farm philosophy, we want to be involved in it and hopefully it will benefit the farm,” said David.


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