In our first ever Future Farming podcast, Janet Hughes talks to Neil Heseltine.
Neil is a farmer and the Chair of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. He works with The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA), The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) and Land Workers Alliance.
Janet and Neil discuss how working with nature can not only safeguard it but can be more profitable.
Neil was born and grew up on Hill Top Farm at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He runs the farm with his partner Leigh Weston.
You can follow them on Instagram and Twitter @hilltopfarmgirl
Future Farming Podcast episode 1 transcript
Janet Hughes: Welcome to our first ever Future Farming and Countryside Programme podcast, and the reason we're doing this is because we in the programme have loads of really fascinating conversations with farmers and I know from talking to farmers that the people farmers really want to hear from is other farmers. So we thought we'd share some of the conversations that we're having, and we're going to start today with the first farmer I met in my role as programme director of the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, Neil Heseltine, from the Yorkshire Dales, who met me along with Rob Hodgkins back last summer when I was very first in my role, and I found myself referring back to that conversation loads of times since, and I always really enjoy talking to Neil, so Neil has very kindly agreed to come on today and be our first guest on this series of podcasts. So welcome Neil.
Neil Heseltine: Thank you, Janet, and I'm honoured to be here as your guinea pig today, but also I didn't realise I was the first farmer you met with Rob back in the summer. I remember it well because speaking to you is always a pleasure but it was also my birthday.
Janet: Oh, you didn't say that at the time.
Neil: I kept it quiet.
Janet: What a way to spend your birthday, talking to me and Rob about farming. Well, it was a great conversation, I really enjoyed it so I hope you did too.
Neil: Yeah, definitely.
Janet: And then, I wanted to ask you because you've had a really interesting journey, haven't you, over the last few years, in the way that you do your farming, and I wanted to ask you to tell us just about what got you started with changing your practices in the way that you farm?
Neil: Yeah, it's a good question, really, Janet, because I regularly just go back to sort of 2012-2013 as being a bit of a defining time, but actually now when we look back and we think back, we actually think it goes back further than that, and I won't go through the whole process obviously but we got involved with the Limestone Country Project back in 2003-2004, and that was a conservation grazing project that was delivered by the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and that was about encouraging cattle and native breeds of cattle back onto the hills because it was found that the the sheep grazing, which had occurred quite a lot in the previous five to ten years, had actually started to change the flora and fauna on those limestone pastures so cattle were encouraged back onto the hills and we got some Belted Galloways as a result of that. And when we look back now, we actually think that was a defining time for us because we got involved within the conservation grazing scheme, that led into the HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) schemes and then more latterly into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. But what it also did, it completely changed our outlook and our philosophy to how we farmed and took us down a route to farming much more with nature than we'd ever even considered before. So it was probably that involvement in the Limestone Country Project, 15 to 18 years ago, that was so important to us in the journey we took.
Janet: That's really fascinating because, often when I talk to farmers, it's one thing that just gets you started and then you really get into it from there. Lots of farmers I talk to who are using agroecology or regenerative-type practices have a similar story. Do you meet a lot of farmers with the same sort of experience as you as kind of almost by accident coming into this way of operating?
Neil: Yeah, we do, and it's amazing that, exactly as you say, it's sort of one thing or one event that just changes the mindset. And actually, as we've gone through the journey, that's one way to call it, it's the mindset that is a particularly important thing. But there just seems to be events in people's lives that they didn't really realise were happening at the time, but when they look back, it's been so influential in, like I say, the journey they've taken, but also the philosophy and the mindset that they've taken forward from there.
Janet: And so what's different on your farm now compared to that time? What would we see that's different and what are you doing that's different on your farm now?
Neil: Yeah, it's a good question because, when you look at regenerative practices, there are quite a lot of grazing regimes which are quite different, and if you come to our farm you wouldn't necessarily see those sort of all singing all dancing sort of grazing regimes. Fundamentally what we've done is we've reduced sheep numbers and we've increased cattle numbers over the last period of time. But we just look much more at how we're grazing the hills and the fields that we have, and how we can change how we graze those fields to actually benefit nature, to look at the carbon that we're using on the farm, and just try and promote biodiversity as much as we can, and work within natural processes, and that is now uppermost in our mind when we're making decisions on the farm. It's very much about how will that impact upon nature and can we do something different that will benefit nature to a greater degree?
Janet: And what do you say, sometimes farmers ask me questions which are along the lines of, well, we've got to produce food so that's what we've got to do, and we've got to choose between producing food and looking after nature, and I'm interested in your view about, do you think that's a choice that you have to make or can you do both at the same time, in your experience?
Neil: I think the fact that you use the word choice is really interesting. For us, it isn't a choice, it's very much a joint initiative and it's about producing food, which in our in our case is sheep and beef, meat, red meat basically, but it's how we produce that meat in a way, as I say, that respects natural processes but benefits nature at the same time. So for us, it's been a complete symbiotic relationship, it's been about promoting nature but at the same time producing as healthy food as we possibly can, and as an actual fact, we we think we've produced healthy food, we think we've produced or given nature an opportunity, but that's actually benefited the business perspective as well and we feel that we're much better off, not only financially, but we actually feel that we're better off in our work-life balance as well. So, you know, we think there's sort of been four wins from it rather than just a win-win.
Janet: Why is that? Why is it benefiting both your profits and the kind of quality of what you're producing and nature?
Neil: We essentially overall have less stock on the farm, and that's allowed us to manage the land in a way which allows areas of the farm to develop its biodiversity at the critical times of the year, which is spring and summer. But what we've done within the business is decimated costs. We used to rely very much on concentrates, we used to send sheep away in winter, we used to buy very high value pedigree sheep, that was never a good move for us personally. But the reduction of those costs, so although our output was less, the reduction in cost was greater, so the actual margin ended up being greater as well. So we feel that just benefited the business, well, we know that benefited the business at the same time.
Janet: Yeah, and I was really struck when we spoke about how you felt it just benefited your quality of life as well because you weren't having to work such long hours or do so many different things on the farm ?
Neil: Yeah, you know, when you look at it, that's probably the most important thing. Obviously climate change and nature recovery is critically important, and making a living and running a business is critically important, but when you look at it from a personal or social perspective, that's probably the most important thing. Violet, our daughter, came along in 2013, and there's no doubt that I've been able to spend more time with her than I would have done, how I was farming previously, and that's that's critically important. I think Leigh, at the moment, would prefer I was spending a bit more time with the home schooling than I currently am.
Janet: I think you're probably not the only person in the country that’s finding themselves in that sort of dilemma. At the moment, there's a lot that are. We're certainly finding that in the office here, well, not in the office, yeah, in our homes. One thing that really fascinates me is when you start out working in these new ways and you're trying out different things, where do you go for information that you can trust about what to do and what's likely to work?
Neil: It's a good question in that, at the time, it was a very much sort of just feeling our way because we out-winter all our cattle, and we were guided at the time by obviously the prescriptions within the Limestone Country Project and that, as I say, rolled over into HLS (Higher Level Stewardship). So you're guided by those kind of principles, but we were very much feeling our way, and we've learned a lot of things over the years as to how we best manage cattle to out-winter them. But we also feel that the cattle have taught us a lot of things as well, in how they behave and how they act when they're allowed to express their natural behaviour, and actually to see that process has been fascinating. But the other defining time for us was, we got involved with the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association in 2012, that led to us going to the Oxford Real Farming Conference very early in 2013, and those two events were critical, not only because you've got an organisation which is is there to sort of help you and give you advice, but what we realised was, there were other people out there looking and thinking along similar lines to what we were. And and prior to that, it felt a little bit, I won't say lonely, but a little bit alone in in our sort of thinking, but that that gave us the sort of the impetus to be able to kick on with it and say, yeah, there are other people thinking like this and if then we needed any support, we could go to the PFLA (Pasture-Fed Livestock Association) or ORFC (Oxford Real Farming Conference), or people who were associated with that. So that's why we always think of that as being the other defining time.
Janet: I'm really fascinated by the kind of community aspect of this and the kind of different events and discussion groups and connection. Are you seeing much more of that happening now? Some farmers say to me there's much more, there's a bit of a growing movement around these ways of working and it's easier now to find people doing the same stuff. Do you find that?
Neil: Yeah, I think it is. You know, not only are there more groups cropping up, you know, we're also involved with the Nature Friendly Farming Network. Obviously we're in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, we still go to them for information, and there are lots of the regenerative agriculture sort of Facebook groups, and this sort of thing, but the technology is there to be able to support that as well. There are Facebook groups, there's Twitter, there's Instagram. We use all those heavily within the business, but also at the moment there's the virtual meetings and the webinars going on, and you can almost go to an agricultural webinar every night of the week if you like, and we do watch those and they're an incredible way to learn and just to experience what other people are experiencing literally from all over the world, and that's just just such an amazing font of knowledge to be able to dip into and it's this, sort of, unfortunately the pandemic that's brought that about, but it's, I guess, that's one of the positives of where we're at the moment.
Janet: Yeah, I've been really enjoying that and I particularly enjoy it that you can have people from all over the country dialing into something where normally it would have been really difficult to get that mix of people there. We've had a few events in the programme where we've had farmers from all over the place all talking to each other in a way we just never would have been able to pull off normally. It's fantastic.
Neil: No, absolutely. And I think I've commented on one of your meetings in the past, Janet, where it was probably one of the most dynamic meetings I've been involved with, it was only an hour and it was all obviously virtual. You used quite a lot of the sort of little things, technological advances, to garner people's opinions within a meeting like that, so instead of sort of 12 people sat around the table, you had 60 people, all of whom were able to contribute to that meeting in about five different ways, I think you used that day, and that just would never have been possible before, but it allows every type of person to be able to contribute, even the introvert people who aren't necessarily there to stand up and say their peace, they still were able to contribute to that meeting. I think that was a really sort of powerful meeting and really interesting that that sort of thing has developed over the last year.
Janet: Yeah, I really, I know exactly the one you're talking about, it was brilliant. It was about regulation and enforcement, and we got such a diverse bunch of people from different bits of the country and different elements of the different parts of the industry, and we could do in an hour what it would normally take us three months to do in government, because we publish a consultation document and wait for everyone to write to us, and we found out just in that one hour, we did three of them and we found out more in that hour actually than we would have done from a consultation. I think that's one of the things we really want to take with us after lockdown into whatever our new ways of working are afterwards, I think.
Neil: No, absolutely, yeah.
Janet: Can we go back to the thing about natural processes, because I think this is really fascinating, just to get into what sort of things are you thinking of when you say the animals are following their natural processes, what does that mean, what does that mean in practical terms?
Neil: We're talking about it at a good time of year, actually, and it's this time of year where we started to understand how cattle behaved on different pieces of land, and just as an example of that, we have one field that's 180 acres, it's the highest field we have, and in the early days of out-wintering our cattle, it's almost split in two, is this field, limestone on one half and millstone grit on the other. For the geology people out there, we're on the Mid-Craven Fault, which means there's a split in in rock type, and I won't go into all that for you, but it just means that the farm has two different rock types, and this particular field has, and the the animals whether it be sheep or cattle, they always favour the limestone side. And it's taken the cattle a long period of time to start to understand that they will graze the limestone side in the first half of the winter, and then they will start then moving on to the millstone grit, which is less palatable for them, but as food starts running out on the limestone side, they then start moving onto the millstone grit side to the bits that they don't like quite as much, but they're almost forced into that area because they need to go foraging and finding things to eat. And it was just, and that process has taken place over several years, where they might, you might see them on the millstone grit side a little bit, but over the years they've got used to going to those areas, in bad weather they'll go to where the rushes are, when the snow's on, because the rushes is sometimes the only thing sticking out of the top of the snow. So they go foraging in those areas and just now, sort of 15 years down the line, and we're getting a bit of bad weather now, you see that activity to a much greater degree and it's almost like they've learned that at certain times of the year and certain weather conditions, that's where they go to, and just to see that develop has been fascinating.
Janet: That's really really fascinating. It must be really rewarding and inspiring, as well, to see things playing out over that sort of timescale, and see the animals adapting to what you're doing.
Neil: It is and it's been one of the joys of actually farming in this way, is that you start to understand animal behaviour to a much greater degree than you would do if they were in their shed, for example, because you just put them in a shed you muck them out, you put the feed in front of them, and that's pretty much what you do. Obviously there's some stockmanship involved in that, but to start to see animals and how they do behave when they're given that ability to express their natural behaviour, like you say, it's just been really really interesting.
Janet: Really interesting. So, having had all this experience, over all these years, what can you think of, one or two things that you really wish you'd known when you started out, that you know now, that someone starting on the journey that you've been on, what could you tell them that you've learned over this period the hard way that you wish you'd known at the beginning.
Neil: I think one of the hard things we've learned is, there was a period of time that we farmed in a way that we felt we had to farm because it was how we were expected to farm, you know, there was a certain amount of peer pressure, and people around us, when we first out-wintered our cattle, thought that was a little bit odd, and some still do. And just to overcome that peer pressure and that sort of standing, it's not standing in the community, but the sort of position in the community where you're doing something slightly different to what is expected of you, has definitely been a tricky thing to get over. But when we look back now, we just wish we'd made the changes earlier than we actually did. We just didn't believe enough in our own sort of, the way that we wanted to go, we stuck to what we were expected to do for a little bit longer than we should have done, and if we’d looked at things more closely from a financial perspective and then had the courage of our conviction to go with it earlier, that's probably what we should have done really.
Janet: That's really hard, though, isn't it? I've met a few farmers who are trying to, putting their toe in the water of some regenerative practices, doing things like mob grazing, for example, and your farm looks quite different quite quickly, if you do those practices and they would say, they've said, you know, the people all around them are just laughing at them, and it's really hard to hold your nerve because you don't get immediate feedback. It takes you a few years to really show that that's going to work and really discover it's going to work. So what kept you going during that time, what kept you determined during the time when that was happening to you?
Neil: I think for us it was either a case of keeping going, and it is about taking that leap of faith and the courage of your conviction, and ultimately we had to kind of ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing? We were starting to see improved biodiversity on the farm, so a lot of the things that the Limestone Country Project, HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) were telling us we would see, we're starting to see those, so that was encouraging for us. But we either, we just kind of felt, and economically we felt things are going better, but we just kind of felt we either stick with this or or we sort of compromise who we are as people, and what our beliefs are. So we just had to sort of say, you know, let's stick with it, and people are ready to jump on you and criticise you, and look at you and laugh at you over the fence, like you say. Things will go wrong, but if you've got courage in what you're doing, and you've got conviction in what you're doing, then you've just got to stick to that, be what you are, make your own decisions and stick to it.
Janet: Well, there's a lesson for life for anybody, not just farmers, I would say.
Janet: I wanted to finish on asking you about what we're doing in the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, and your thoughts on that. So we're going to be closing, looking after and then closing down our existing schemes, introducing Environmental Land Management, doing some Farming Investment Fund and other prosperity types of support, changing the way we do regulation and enforcement, we are looking at quite a broad range of activities over the next seven years. When you look at that set of things, if we imagine ourselves seven years from now, having a conversation and saying this has been fantastic, it's gone way better than I ever could possibly have imagined, well done team, what would it be, what would we need to have done by then, what would it look like to you, for us, for you to be able to say to me in seven years time, that has been fantastic and we've really knocked it out the park, and we've really done it, we've really done a good job. What would that look like from your point of view?
Neil: I think, as farmers and landowners or managers, I think we're in an incredibly fortunate position with where we're at globally at the moment. When you look at what society needs, food. First of all, we need to find a solution in some form to climate change, we need to reverse nature decline and nature collapse, and then, to potentially a lesser degree, we need to manage land so that there's less flood events, which seem to be increasing at the moment. There are other things as well. Obviously air quality and water quality, which are things which you're including. Where I think we're incredibly lucky is that, from farms we can contribute to all four or five or six of those, and we can do them concurrently, we can produce those, if that's the right word, all at the same time. And the route you're heading down at the moment means that we can be paid by the market for the food that we produce, and hopefully that's incredibly healthy food for human consumption, but we're also potentially going to be paid for overcoming climate change, you know, sequestering and capturing carbon, or delivering habitats for nature, or slowing down the rate of water flow. And so in terms, for me, and and I find that really exciting, I find that like, as I look forward as a farmer, I'm thinking if I can deliver all four or five of those, and I can get paid for each of those, and I've got a fairly robust and resilient business as a result of incomes coming from four or five different elements, then I think we can look back in seven years time and say what a fantastic thing, that we're delivering as farmers, contributing to all these things which we need in society, incredibly important to society. So not only does it deliver in terms of business, but it gives us an amazing amount of self-worth which is sadly lacking in farming at the moment, we're taking a bit of a battering, and in some cases that's been deserved, but we can now create farming, we can make farming, and with your help and efforts, help and National Park’s help, etcetera, we can make that farming into an amazing industry and an industry that's relevant to 21st century modern life that's so inspiring.
Janet: What a brilliant note to finish on, Neil. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, and your thoughts with us today. I'm sure others like me will just feel really inspired and energised by what you've had to say and then, I for one will be going up to my allotment this weekend with an extra spring in my step having had this conversation. So thank you very much.
Neil: Well, it's very kind of you to say so, Janet, and I hope people find it interesting. Thanks very much to you for asking me to come and speak to you in July last year, and to be your guinea pig has been an honour.
Janet: Thank you so much.