Sam and Becky Newington are equal partners in their regenerative farming business Limden Brook Organic.
They have been managing over 160 hectares of permanent pasture since 2012, and have come to do so using the principles of regenerative agriculture, or regen ag, which is a way of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. Rebuilding soil health, for example using longer grazing rotations and keeping mechanical soil tillage to a minimum. Or as Sam puts it: “Doing nothing in the right way”.
Sam comes from a traditional farming family, who have farmed locally for two hundred years. He grew up helping his parents with their dairy farm, went to Plumpton College, worked on local dairy farms then spent a couple of years working on farms abroad in New Zealand and Australia before returning to take over management of the family farm when his father retired.
I go to meet him on a mild grey day in December. We walk into one of his fields, which is scattered with bales of hay. He’s carrying a spade and the purpose of this quickly becomes clear as he digs up some soil so he can tell me what we’re looking at. “Not too compacted. The soil temperature is high for this time of year, the grass still growing. There are lot of roots. You can see the worms, and lots of bobbly bits around the roots.” These bobbly bits are a good thing in terms of soil health and he tells me his 10 year old son James would have been excellent at explaining why. He was keen to come along, thwarted by it being a school day. “He loves to tell people about what we do and why we do it. He gives talks to his classmates about it.”
“We are trying to manage cows as a keystone species to allow for maximum biodiversity. By not overgrazing, we allow grass to fully recover, which feeds the maximum sugars back to the ground. The cows are overwintered in this field instead of in a barn where they’d create waste. We leave the hay in the field and move the cows every day. It’s called bale grazing and it has a massive benefit, including to certain insect species such as the dung beetles.
“We’ve got three pet sheep but we’d like to expand the number of types of animals we have. Everything has its ecological niche. Enterprise stacking it’s called, and done correctly it will mean we can increase biodiversity. Pigs are really useful, for example, they dig and root and expose ground, but you must keep moving them.
“In essence, we are aiming to link food production, conservation and ecology here. I wouldn't have cows if I saw evidence that they weren't good for environment. We farm within the ecosystem. We’ve seen a lot more Barn Owls since we’ve allowed the grass to grow taller, which leads to a lot more mice and vole activity. We're trying to feed the ecosystem so there is more food for them. It makes us feel good to do this and it works as a business. It’s much better than going out and spraying a field and killing things. I’ve learnt a lot from others, so we also undertake some education and knowledge-sharing here with fellow land managers via the Bellhurst Nature Conservation Trust.
“We need to keep small family farms and produce more food locally, finding out what grows, rather than mass produce food that you ship around the world.”
Becky and Sam’s meat is certified by Pasture For Life and they know the butchers they sell to – most of whom have visited the farm. They also sell meat directly to local people - a lot of people who buy their meat, also walk through their footpaths.
© Darin Smith
I ask when their working day starts and finishes. “It varies. Becky and I share the farming and the school run etc. When I milked cows, it was a very fixed day. Less so with a beef farm.”
What is the greatest challenge? “Changing the mindset in my head”.
And finally, what brings the greatest pleasure? “Noticing when the soil looks better. Observing wildlife such as the Barn Owls. Seeing lots of Swifts and Swallows that follow the cows as we move them in the summer, because their movement in the longer grass means lots of insects fly up”.
Find out more about Limden Brook Organic