The increasingly urgent debate around care of the planet raises the question about whether it’s possible to have an environmentally friendly and economically resilient approach to livestock farming. Andrea and Charley Walker have an answer.
They have been tenants at Barnside Farm on the Abbey St Bathans Estate near Duns since 2001, and employ an organic, outdoor, grass-based system that delivers positive economic results.
Charley explained that their approach has been determined by a variety of factors: “We’ve followed this policy because it fits with the farm’s resources and suited the skill set we had when we began. Our core aim is to operate a system that works with nature to produce organic beef and lamb, providing a healthy margin for the business, a healthy soil for the future and a healthy quality of life for ourselves and our visitors.
“Technology has its place, but we look to nature for practical and ecologically sustainable methods. We try to replace fertiliser, grain, fuel, machinery, pesticides and labour with knowledge and effective management.”
Among other things, their methods were developed by pre and post-university travel to countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA, where they worked on farms and picked up new ideas.Now, they attend meetings and open days, and take part in progressive discussion groups to compare systems and discuss ideas.
Of course, they have faced challenges. Initially, a lack of capital was inhibiting, as was their relative inexperience. Later, it was difficult to find pioneers in the UK they could learn from.
“A good grain-fed system is likely to beat us for output in terms of kilos per hectare. However, we’re very competitive, especially since we have much lower financial and environmental costs. Our approach is in tune with nature and it’s enjoyable.
Willie Dobie, the Walkers’ landlord, concurred: “Over the years I have had many fascinating discussions with Charley and Andrea and I am very supportive of their approach to farming. I particularly like the way they work with natural processes rather than impose on nature with chemicals and other artificial inputs.
The Walkers’ success, and that of likeminded operations, has prompted growing interest. They regularly host visitors and undertake speaking engagements, the groups they are part of have expanded considerably, and there is increased social media activity.
Charlie said: “Resilience is key. Our main inputs are sunshine, rainfall and the ideas in our heads. We are a little less exposed than people who rely on diesel machinery or buying in grain, though it could be said that we’re more at the mercy of the weather.”
The exploitation of new ideas is key to success. Most recently, Andrea and Charley have become involved in holistic management and restorative agriculture. They are exploring different grazing methods including a tall grass model where some surface grass is trampled to create biological food for microbes, worms and so on.
Charley concluded: “I believe the questions we should all ask ourselves is: ‘You might be doing things right, but are you doing the right things?’
“The system we operate can increase farm profitability and efficiency, and deliver the environmental improvements that are vital to maintain life on the planet.”