03 May 2019, 07:00 AM
  • Sustainability pioneer and cheesemaker Patrick Holden, from the Sustainable Food Trust, on changing the world through better systems
“We don’t over-emphasise our organic-ness”

Holden Farm Dairy is a small family dairy farm in west Wales established in 1973, and now making nearly all of the milk from our herd of 80 Ayrshire cows into a single farm raw milk Cheddar-style cheese called Hafod. We opted to start making cheese in 2007, because the scale of our dairy operation was well below the threshold of economic viability in the brutal economic climate of today’s farming world, where food producers have been forced by the economic and policy environment to farm intensively, as a result of which they have become commodity slaves, producing milk and other crops at less than the cost of production, hanging on by their fingernails hoping for better times, with only the larger and industrial producers managing to survive.

For us, the starting point for everything that we do in our farming practice aims to promote the health of the soil, biodiversity, crops and animals which we steward and care for, whilst we harvest the surplus, the ‘fat of the land’, rather than ‘mining’ its natural capital. We believe that the cheese, milk and meat that we produce should be a reflection of this relationship, rather than being too narrowly defined, such as organic or conventional.

Our cheese project, adding value to our organic milk, was inspired and enabled by the support we received from the network of artisan UK cheesemakers that has emerged in the last 30 years. The Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association (SCA) is a wonderful partnership between farmers, cheesemakers, cheesemongers and specialist retailers, all of whom are passionate about British cheeses and the farming stories behind them. They have enabled us to emphasise the provenance of our products by selling to retailers who are looking for more than just a name and price in a catalogue; in this way we have been able to build relationships where questions on provenance, terroir, sustainability and animal welfare are explored as well as texture, flavour and age profile.

Interestingly, we don’t over emphasise the organic-ness of Hafod when promoting it. Instead we communicate the key elements of our farming and cheesemaking story - our beautiful farm on a hill in west Wales, our food production coexisting with nature conservation, our love for the cows, our aim of moving towards self-sufficiency in energy, nutrients and feed, our use of holistic grazing systems, operating within the limits of the carrying capacity of our 300-acre farm, which is run on the principles of the ‘circular economy’. In these ways we can evolve the farm as a self-sufficient eco-system, minimising our dependence on non-renewable inputs.

A further challenge relating to organic labelling is that it raises difficulties for our retail customers when they cut and pack our whole cheeses if they can’t afford expensive organic certification for processing. This is something that certification bodies need to address – they should aim to enable rather than restrict genuine organic production labelling downstream of the producer.

Since our first make in 2007, sales of Hafod have steadily increased, and as I write this, we are selling just a little bit more cheese than we made a year ago, a strong position from which we can hopefully expand. Last week I was in San Francisco and visited Bi-Rite, a shop specialising in organic and sustainable food, where our cheese, Hafod, was on prominent display. The fact that our cheese now sells in half a dozen or more retail outlets on the west coast of America is of course, wonderful and gratifying, but it begs the question – ‘why would these US consumers have an appetite for Hafod?’

Part of the answer is revealed in the labelling: note the references to organic production, the precise location of Holden Farm Dairy, and positive remarks about its quality and flavour. This leads to a wider question, ‘in addition to the more obvious existing factors, such as price, quality and flavour, are future food market trends likely to reflect an increasing level of importance placed by consumers on the method of production and the provenance of food?’ It would be fair to say that until now, the organic and territorial identity components of high-quality foods have not broken through into the mainstream, as evidenced by the reality that the
total market for local and regional foods has stubbornly remained below 5%. However, factors such as climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and growing concerns about food quality may collectively improve the prospects for smaller food producers.

What would it take to bring about a renaissance of sustainable food businesses, eventually on such a scale that it would challenge the current supremacy of industrial scale farming, processing and retailing? A short answer would be the application of the principles of True Cost Accounting. Applied in practice, this would mean the introduction of the polluter pays principle, ensuring that in future, all farmers are financially accountable for any damaging impacts of their farming systems, such as pollution of the environment and damage to natural capital and public health. Conversely, food producers whose farming practices improve soil fertility, biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be rewarded for these benefits to society as a whole.

If the polluter pays principle and its positive counterpart was introduced, this would dramatically improve the business case for small-scale sustainable food production, but for this to happen - as I am certain Michael Gove would privately agree, we need a David Attenborough style wake-up call, promoting much greater public awareness about the degree to which our current farming and food systems are significantly responsible for the civilisation-threatening increases in greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of biodiversity, the erosion of soil, the loss of jobs in
rural areas and the damage to public health.

These form the rump of the aforementioned ‘negative externalities’ as economists like to refer to them. Without this public awareness revolution, it is likely that we will continue with business as usual, with so called cheap food which isn’t really cheap at all, because food prices don’t reflect the damage caused by our existing farming systems to the environment and public health. If everyone reading this article took action by ensuring that in future as great a percentage as possible of all the
food that they buy and eat came from truly sustainable farming systems, we really could change the world, making it a better place for our children to inherit.