From organic to conventional: how converging milk prices affected one Devonshire farm

Charlie Taverner, a history student at Durham University, grew up on Taverners Farm just outside Exeter. He runs Earth Blog 21, reflecting on sustainabilty, culture and the environment.

Charlie kindly agreed to have a chat with Eco Eats about how his upbringing instilled him with an awareness of sustainable food…

You grew up on an organic farm in Devon. What’s the farm like itself and how did you find spending your childhood there?

Our farm about ten minutes outside Exeter has been home for my entire life, even though I’ve spent the last three years studying at the other end of the country. It was originally taken on by my great-grandparents and has since been handed down. My dad was even born there! In its current form, it’s a dairy farm of roughly 300 acres carrying around 250 cattle- a mix of Holstein-Friesans (black and white cows) and Devonshire Milking cows.

We officially became organic in the early 2000s, but the process began a few years before, taking into account the time for conversion. For the last decade we’ve run a farm shop and butchery, stocking our own meat and a variety of local produce. More recently, we’ve been producing ice cream using milk from a traditional Devonshire breed of cattle, the South Devon, and selling it from our ice cream parlour. Last year my dad chose to give up the organic status as the converging organic/non-organic milk prices made the extra land and feed costs unsustainable.

Taverners Farm has been passed down the generations for years. Image: Taverners Farm

Taverners Farm has been passed down the generations for years. Image: Taverners Farm

Spending your childhood on a farm is a privilege. It’s a cliche because it’s true: the space to run free, the fresh air to breathe and contact with animals all make for a tremendously wholesome, grounded start to life. To top it off, Devon is right up there amongst the most beautiful parts of England. Saying that, I think I’ve only realised how lucky I was since I’ve left home.

Were you parents keen for you to be actively involved in the running of the farm and its related businesses?

I can’t remember a particular piece from my parents about getting involved in the family business, but from an early age my dad would take me out in the Land Rover to check the stock or feed the calves in the afternoon. We’d help through the summer, particularly when silage had been cut, or wash down the milking parlour on Christmas Day or Easter.

When we opened the butchery I helped on Saturdays, cleaning the fridges and equipment before working a little on the front counter. When we expanded into a bigger retail operation and an ice cream business, I became a lot more involved in the longer term direction and marketing side of things. It was never forced, just a natural progression and part of family life.

The farm have now closed their butchery to focus on ice cream. Image: Taverners Farm

The farm have now closed their butchery to focus on ice cream. Image: Taverners Farm

How has growing up on the farm shaped your views of sustainable food and farming?

I was again privileged to grow up surrounded by lots of fresh, locally produced, often organic produce. That’s not just because of our set-up at home, but the rich variety that is cultivated in the varying landscapes of the county. We ate exceptionally well and my tastebuds certainly relished the experience!  I don’t think I’d have made a brilliant butcher but I’m not too bad at picking out cuts of meat.

My upbringing hasn’t made me a die-hard foodie but it has sowed a seed of interest and awareness that informs my opinions today. I think fresh, local food produced in a sustainable way is the ideal benchmark that in a perfect world I’d love us all to be eating. However, there are a lot of people in the world who have got to be fed well and at the right price. Whatever lofty ideals we’ve got – and I’m an environmentalist – that’s the truth. It’s about taking the essence of what’s pure, sustainable and delicious about local food and injecting that into a more mass market model.

Tell me more about the ice-cream please!

As part of an effort to diversify our farm business further, in 2005 my dad decided to try something radically different. The family farm used to have a herd of South Devon cows- a traditional local breed with orange coats, large bodies and long noses, nicknamed Orange Elephants. They fell from favour internationally as although their milk was beautifully rich and creamy, the yield was low. That doesn’t matter for ice cream!

For the last few years we’ve been building up a herd of Devonshire Milking Cows using the South Devon genetics and making ice cream at home on the farm for sale to customers. This winter we decided to close the shop, butchery and restaurant and focus on really expanding the ice cream trade.

An Orange Elephant cow and the delicious ice cream it produces. Image: Taverners Farm

An Orange Elephant cow and the delicious ice cream it produces. Image: Taverners Farm

You say you had to stop being organic because of converging milk prices. What effect has this had on your farm?

There has been a long term convergence of organic and non-organic prices stretching back to the financial crisis so awareness that there might be the need for a change built up gradually. For the farm, the effects have been entirely positive. They are able to spray grass for weeds and it allows you to use different cattle feed. The grass is lusher and more plentiful. Having said that, my dad regularly says the organic experience taught him a lot about how much the soil can achieve on its own and how best to give it a little bit of ‘prompting’.

Is the future bleak for organic farming?

Organic farming will certainly continue for those who want to follow that particular ethical route. It’s never going to be a mass market model and, despite its boom in the last twenty years, it never has been. Saying that, look at the success of something like Riverford Farm, who started selling veg boxes in Totnes and now have a vast network of growers across the country.  If growers and producers decide to make organic their unique selling point and wholly commit to it, they can certainly be successful.

Building up their herd is a key priority for the farm. Image: Taverners Farm

Building up their herd is a key priority for the farm. Image: Taverners Farm

Do you ever foresee your farm regaining its organic status?

I can’t predict the future but organic is not at the forefront of the farm’s strategy for the next few years. The priority is building up a healthy, high-yielding herd of Orange Elephants, producing milk at a good profit and creating more fabulous ice cream. We know the cows have peaceful and comfortable lives, the raw ingredients come directly from the farm and the ice cream is made on site. To be honest aren’t they the most important things?

Why should more people see sustainable food as important in our modern age of convenience?

Choosing to eat sustainable food is not about being a new age yuppie who thinks they know better than the last 250 years of economic development. It’s about understanding where your food comes from, where the ingredients are grown and who did the making. You can still do your supermarket shop- Tesco and Sainsbury’s are here to stay- but a glimmer of awareness means your decisions are less likely to be governed purely by price. The other vital thing is heritage. I’m all for technological development, but if we were to lose all awareness of where our meat and milk, fruit and veg, comes from, I think it’d be a sad day for humanity.

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