Nestled on the edge of the East Sussex village of Forest Row, hidden from the main road down a long dirt track, Tablehurst doesn’t immediately give the impression of being a farm ahead of its time. But then Tablehurst is not your average farm. And Peter Brown is not your average farmer.
For more than 20 years the 600-acre farm has been run by Peter according to biodynamic principles – a closed loop method of farming where the farm is a self-sustaining organism requiring barely any external inputs. In practice, this means a commitment to crop rotation and composting, little or no tillage or application of chemicals, and employment of a system of water capture and reuse.
Many experts believe that, given the damaging environmental impacts of current intensive farming methods, a biodynamic approach will be a key pillar of a sustainable farming industry of the future.
As I toured the farm in early December what was particularly striking was the diversity of the crops being grown and the space afforded to the animals. A series of polytunnels housed row upon row of lettuces and salad leaves; fields were bursting with cover crops such as chicory and clover; natural beehives, which sustain themselves over winter and produce a surplus of honey during the summer, were suspended from improvised wooden houses; and everywhere we walked chickens were darting hither and thither, scratching at the soil and feasting on the rich and varied fodder.
This is likely to conjure an image of chaos for anyone familiar with the workings of a conventional farm yet it is integral to the way in which farms like Tablehurst function. Livestock and horticulture are integrated and interdependent. The cows, for instance, are fattened on grass and their manure is used as fertiliser for the fields. Grains, such as oat, wheat and barley, are rotated regularly along with vegetables and pulses in order to maximise the natural fertility of the soil. Much of the grain is used to feed the pigs (they also feed on whey from a local cheese maker) while some of it is used to mill wheat and rye flour. And so the cycle begins again.
Tablehurst’s cows are distinctive for another reason – they have horns. Peter explains that he believes cows that retain their horns have a more vibrant personality. Does this mean the meat tastes better? Perhaps, but as with much of what goes on at Tablehurst the decision to leave the horns on is as much about farming instinct and an ethos of working with what nature provides as it is about ruthless efficiency (dehorned cattle require less space to move about in and so stocking densities can be higher).
Tablehurst is a social venture as a well as a commercial entity generating in excess of a million pounds each year and employing around 20 people. The farm is owned by the local community with members paying £100 for a stake. It also houses a residential care centre for people with learning disabilities.
Whether biodynamic farming can replace industrial farming as the dominant model in agriculture remains to be seen. The current food supply chain places cost above all other considerations and Peter admits that Tablehurst’s produce is more expensive than produce from larger, less diverse and more mechanised farms.
Supermarkets like to be able to source regular quantities of cheap, uniform commodities from a limited number of suppliers. Under the current business model, health and environmental considerations tend to get squeezed down the list of priorities.
Yet there are signs of a shift in attitudes amid growing recognition of the links between intensive agricultural production and negative impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, water depletion, localised pollution and diet-related ill health.
Biodynamic’s time may not have arrived just yet. But it might not have too much longer to wait.
Do you think biodynamic is the future of farming? Comment below, we’d love to hear from you. And for more information about sustainable food check out our food pages.