Daring to Diversify: The scientist turned farmer

13 February 2024, 07:34 AM
  • As part of our series delving into some of the UK’s most fascinating diversification projects, Speciality Food speaks to a scientist who gave up her career to focus on farming
Daring to Diversify: The scientist turned farmer

“I was one of those consumers who became enlightened,” says Dr Radka Gromnicova from her farm shop, Nature Way Farm at Old Park Farm in Northamptonshire. “I wasn’t happy with how food was produced…how meat was produced.”

Radka leads a dramatically different life today from the one she had six years ago, in the field of medical research, using gold nanoparticles to help treat brain disorders.

Her journey has taken her from the lab to the land. From the study of cells to the study of soil. Radka’s lab coat has been replaced, as we chat, by a thick, insulating winter coat – essential for frosty mornings checking on livestock, or keeping track of produce in the farm shop chiller.

Radka’s story, she says, probably began when she tried to be a vegetarian. It didn’t work for her. But, equally, the kind of meat available in supermarkets didn’t align with her values. “There’s a policy in farming of cheap food, low wages and overworking,” she says. “That doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve always thought we need to tackle that. People need to be prepared to pay more for food. Then, I believe, they will value it more, and less will be wasted.”

At the same time Radka discovered regenerative farming. “It’s a way farmers and land managers can not only produce good quality meat that is nutrient dense, but using certain principles, can in fact help to restore the land and restore biodiversity. When I discovered all of this, I wanted to be a part of it!”

There was a lot of discussion with her partner. Could they change their lives and become country folk? If they could source excellent quality meat, produced in a more sustainable way, would other people want to buy it?

A radical change of pace

For a couple of years Radka immersed herself in research, finding and visiting pockets of the farming community where regenerative methods had been adopted. She worked alongside them, buying their meat, and creating the Nature Way Farm meat box delivery scheme, which continues to this day.

In many ways, the turning point for the business was Covid, which had a dramatic impact on supply chains. “There was no food on the shelves, and I wanted some chicken,” says Radka. “Really good quality chicken. I couldn’t find any.” Not one to do anything by halves, she bought in 30 chicks and went about rearing them on pasture. “Then I thought, how much more work could it be to process the chickens and sell them to the public?”

Radka and her partner worked with the EHO to come up with a plan, using a mobile slaughter unit, adding a flock of ducks to the mix. Her poultry problems were sorted.

Finding excellent quality beef to deliver to customers, on the other hand, proved tricky. “Abattoirs were struggling to fulfil orders, but then I found the farmer John Tims at Old Farm Park.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Enthused by the former dairy farmer’s commitment to managing his 300 acres in a more sustainable, and nature-friendly way, Radka formed a partnership with John, and around 80% of the meat in her monthly subscription boxes is now produced at Old Farm Park, where Nature Way Farm Shop (opened two years ago) is also based.

The offering includes chicken, duck, woodland reared pork, and beef, with lamb brought in from other farms that share her vision.

The chicken and duck produced at Nature Way taste incomparable to anything available on the mass market, says Radka, and the flocks are very important to her.

“When I first started this, I loved the books of Joel Salatin [a regenerative farmer in the USA]. I hated how horribly chickens could be reared. I really wanted to put them to pasture in a system that works for their welfare, but is also economically viable.”

Rearing chickens in this way for the box scheme and farm shop has proven very successful, both for the welfare of the birds, and improving the land they feed on. The chickens are kept in pasture pens (moved daily) while they are small, and moved out of these once they’ve established more feathers and are therefore more resistant to the changeable British weather. Electric netting protects them from predators.

This free-range system, allowing the birds to peck naturally at the ground has, says Radka, had a big impact on soil health. “We’re noticing how deep the grass is rooting where the chickens have been, and how many more earthworms there are. The pasture is responding by faster recovery towards its natural self.”

The only downside, she admits, is the seasonality of farming in this way. With a diet led by grass and clover, pasture raising is limited to late spring up until mid-autumn, making Nature Way’s home-reared chicken a seasonal product. But Radka doesn’t seem to take issue with this, saying she’d rather do things the right way…the most natural way. “You can notice the difference so much,” she says. “They have bigger legs because they are running and walking rather than sitting on their bellies. And in terms of flavour, it’s more chickeny.”

Ducks are also raised across pasture, with constant access to water for paddling and splashing about. “They are very messy so moving them every day is key,” Radka says. “And giving them a large space is important, because they do act as a flock – not like chickens, which tend to scatter. Ducks are very clever.”

The beauty of grazing

A huge part of the Nature Way Farm operation is raising cattle across the grassland at Old Park Farm. Farmer John kept on some of his best dairy cows, with a mix of both Hereford and Aberdeen Angus crosses.

The land is organic certified and part of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, with both John and Radka passionate about improving and encouraging nature across its fields and woodlands.

“We manage the pastures in a way called holistic plant grazing,” says Radka. “It’s similar to modern grazing, but with a bit more of a specific plan. So the animals are where we need them to be for the right reason, at the right time.”

Farming using this method means that at any one point, 90% of the land is animal-free - a natural playground for wildlife. Herds are moved every day, and won’t return to the same area for two months, allowing grass to recover, setting deep roots.

“If you imagine how things used to be, there were huge herds of herbivores that would move across the landscape and graze. They wouldn’t come back to the same area for quite a long time. That’s how grassland evolved. This process builds topsoil and increases the amount of nutrients in the soil. It’s a very efficient way of removing carbon from the atmosphere,” Radka explains, adding that, as a scientist, the microbiology of the soil, and the increasing research into its importance, fascinates her.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in grass height. It was really poor before. This farm was inherited by John’s wife and was in a long-term tenancy as a sheep farm before. The sheep decimated the grass and there was a lot of standing water in places. We have seen so much improvement in that.”

John and Radka have noticed a shift in biodiversity too. Birds of prey can be seen regularly hovering over the fields in pursuit of lunch. There’s a resident group of deer. Lots of hares. Butterflies. “John loves wildlife, so when he goes to mow a field for hay, sometimes he’ll say ‘no, I couldn’t do it today because it was full of butterflies’,” Radka laughs.

Managing woodland has its part to play in balancing nature too, with piglets from smallholders raised in amongst the trees. “It harks back to medieval times when pigs would have been free roaming around the farm, and would eat acorns in the autumn and fatten up. It would have taken two years to rear them. In this day and age that’s not economically viable, and we can’t let them go everywhere, but they have five acres to roam, and we train them to electric fences, and move them every two to three weeks.”

The farm focusses on rare British breeds such as Large Blacks, Sandy and Blacks and a cross of Saddleback and White Lop. “You can notice the difference in flavour from woodland pork so much,” says Radka. “It has a much more buttery, pure taste.” They’ve had exceptional success rearing pigs this way. “Before, the woodland was just brambles and nettles, and now there are so many diverse plants and grasses, forget-me-nots, bluebells. The pigs disturb the seed bank in the soil and eat the roots of the brambles and nettles, which gives other plants space to grow and set seed. It’s a continuous cycle.”

It’s important, says Radka, to show customers the work that goes into producing their meat in this way, and to talk to them about all the things they’re doing to make a marked, tangible difference. This is, she adds, their key responsibility. “We like to take people on little private tours around the farm, to see the animals and where they live.”

The growing demand for better food

Nature Way Farm Shop opened largely due to customer demand. Alongside meat, there are vegetables in season from Radka’s own garden and allotment, her organic eggs, 100% organic milk from grass-fed cows, and seasonal fish from Brixham.

They process their own chickens and ducks on site, while their pigs and cows are processed at an abattoir before going through their own butchery room, where they have a dry ageing chiller. “We had to take control of this side of things,” Radka explains, saying they were keen to ensure quality runs through every part of the cycle, from growing the crops that feed the flocks and herds, to delivering the most perfect, matured beef to the end customer.

Despite being smaller than most and open just two days a week, Nature Way Farm has quite the following, showing an increased appetite by consumers for better quality food. “We have one lady who comes from Surrey because she really wants our eggs – she buys them in bulk,” says Radka. “And someone else from Cambridge drives to us for their eggs and meat!”

Radka and John are keen they don’t respond to all the positivity around sales by stretching themselves too far. Letting the business grow organically remains hugely important. “It’s the way I want to run it,” Radka explains. “We want to be ethical, to pay people well, and to work collaboratively.”

For now, it’s a bit of a dream come true. And far removed from the sterile environment of her former working life. “I never thought I would have my own butchery and shop,” she laughs. “I didn’t think we would be where we are now, but I can see where we are heading to, and it’s very exciting to be a part of it.”

Her advice to other farmers or farm shops seeking to work in better harmony with nature? “If they are farmers, they already know it’s hard work! But it’s great if they want to change. Because we need to change. If we continue to farm conventionally, exploiting our resources, we’re heading into more trouble. But if we can work with the land and animals, it’s an investment in the future.”

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