Defra Farming podcast

Janet Hughes and Nic Renison - Rotational grazing and regenerative farming

March 15, 2021 Defra
Defra Farming podcast
Janet Hughes and Nic Renison - Rotational grazing and regenerative farming
Show Notes Transcript

In our second Future Farming podcast, Janet Hughes talks to Nic Renison.

Nic farms with her husband Paul on the edge of the North Pennines in Cumbria, where they produce cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. They are part of a growing movement towards regenerative farming that has been picking up pace since 2014. 

Nic is on the steering group for the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) and is part of the Carbon Calling @carboncallfarm regenerative conference organising team.

In this podcast, Nic shares her approach to farming and her views on the future of the industry and the English countryside. Janet and Nic also discuss farm life in the North Pennines and the Renisons’ homemade version of the eggmobile!

You can follow Nic on Instagram @renisons_farm and Twitter @NRenison

Janet Hughes: Hello and welcome to episode two of the Future Farming Podcast where we are bringing to a wider community the fascinating conversations we have in the programme with farmers and other people involved in farming and the countryside, and today we have the inestimable, brilliant Nic Renison, who along with Reno (Paul), her partner, very kindly hosted me on a whistle stop visit towards the end of last summer on their farm in Cumbria. I'm going to talk today about the sort of farming that Nic and Reno are doing and what they're learning, and how they're approaching their farm. So welcome Nic, thank you very much for coming on today.

Nic Renison: Well, thanks very much for having me. I feel honoured.

Janet: Not at all, the honour is all in the other direction. I was going to ask you to start off by telling people who haven't been to your farm like I have, what's your farm like? Where is it? What sort of landscape are we talking about here? What sort of farming are we talking about? 

Nic: So it is 350 acres on the North Pennines and we look at the Lake District, so Blencathra is kind of out of our kitchen window. We're quite high, I think. The house, the farmhouse is at 800 foot, and we go up to 1,100, I think. We've got a mixture of pasture land and then we've got 120 acres of, kind of, we call it allotment, but it's not a garden, it's like rough, rough land that you can't drive a tractor on or anything.

Janet: And it’s quite, you've got some spectacular scenery up there, haven't you?

Nic: Yeah. It's amazing, in comparison to the Lake District, I would say it's bleaker, the sunsets we see, it's quite a vibrant place to live, and we do have this thing called the Helm Wind, which batters us when we get an easterly, and we've just had it a couple of days ago, for three days non-stop, which is exhausting. 

Janet: Yeah, it must be exhausting and absolutely freezing.

Nic: Yeah, I mean, the wind, what's it called? The wind chill was minus 15, which…

Janet: Good grief!

Nic: I know, it’s just grim.

Janet: Proper, proper weather. You were having some proper weather even when I came to see you in the late summer. It was proper weather. There was rain, if I remember rightly.

Nic: Yeah. There was a lot of rain, wasn't there?

Janet: Yeah, yeah. So how would you describe how you farm on your farm because it's quite different to some of the others in your area, isn't it? 

Nic: Yeah, well, since, and this is purely, how it came about was purely from meeting other farmers here and then watching YouTube and stuff with farmers abroad. But we came here in 2012 and we were relatively conventional for the first maybe 18 months, and then part of being here was, we always knew we had to have other streams of income coming in. So we worked for a sheep genetic company and they were breeding grass-bred rams and so part of that was, we met lots of farmers who were really doing, they were kind of at the top of their game with their grassland management. So that opened our eyes completely to rotational grazing, the whole electric fencing, sourcing out water systems. There was a visit, Reno went to see these brothers in Northumberland, analysis, and he came back and he just said ‘What have we been doing?’ - they were his words, there maybe a few swear words in, and he said ‘Right, we're going to do this,’ and since then we've been in a rotation so literally the cows, the sheep, the chickens, kind of the pigs are never on one bit of land for more than three days, so everything's always in a rotation. We hold them quite, in quite big groups and they're always on the move, and that's all to do with, that's kind of, well, we now understand how grass grows. And before, we didn't, we maybe, we didn't probably think about it that much, actually, we didn’t, yeah, it was just something, you know, they were set stocked. It’s just a completely new, different way of thinking.

Janet: And what are the benefits of doing that? Because there must be a lot of work involved in rotating every three days in that way, all of those different animals, the benefits to you?

Nic: You grow well, you grow much more grass, that's the first thing. Things are generally, they just grow better, I'd say, and you hold more water because you've got deeper roots, but then it comes with a double-edged sword because we suddenly were growing loads more grass, so we thought, ‘Oh, we're going to go from 600 sheep to,’ we ended up having a thousand sheep and then the kind of wheels fell off.

Janet: Why? What happened? 

Nic: So, well, just because we just had, were just overstocked, and we had a worm burden, things weren't growing. So that, we kind of got carried away that we could grow all this grass, and then we were greedy and I think there was a bit of vanity in there, thinking that, we wanted to say we had a thousand sheep but we had a few, well one particularly hard year, and then since then we've been trying to find that balance, that kind of sweet spot between cattle numbers and sheep numbers, and I think we've still probably got too many sheep, we're lambing 380 this year and we're probably going to, I think, we'll maybe go down to 200, and it's just finding that sweet spot.

Janet: It really struck me when I came to see you, how iterative and incremental and entrepreneurial you are in thinking about how you do your farming, and it's always like you're watching everything all the time and adjusting it all the time. Is that always how you farmed or does that come with this particular approach or what?

Nic: I think, it's a bit like a snowball. To begin with, I fought it a little bit. Reno's always been a little, well, he's always been a bit environmental, I'd say. But I was brought up on a dairy farm and it's all very production-based and I always take a little bit longer than him to come around. So the electric fencing, I thought it was quite a lot of work to begin with, and then I kind of understood it, and I could see the benefit, and now we're thinking of going into holistic grazing, the tall grass grazing, and I can remember we talked about that three years ago and I was like, ‘Whoah, whoah, this is this is just a step too far, I can't get my head round this.’ So it's step by step and, it's an awful word, but it's a journey and you've got, it's just step by step, and it takes time and you never, probably will never get there. 

Janet: I think that's really lovely, that spirit of constant learning and improvement.

Nic: Yeah. 

Janet: Improving. It's one of the things that I think is really inspiring about it.

Nic: And it is the learning. So we started doing, one of our kind of gurus, there's a chap in America called Joel Salatin, who's got Polyface Farm, and his, so we've learned, we'd do pastured broilers, so meat chickens like he does, and also we've got an eggmobile, and it's just having the confidence to try, set up a new enterprise, and just try it, and if it doesn't work, well, we haven't invested a huge amount of money in it, but we've had a go, and the more you have a go at things, the more confidence it gives you to do more of that. 

Janet: Yeah, when I came to see you you were still building the eggmobile and it was sort of half-built in the yard. But you've done, you've got it out there now, haven't you? Can you say a bit more about what that is?

Nic: Well, yeah. So it is a caravan chassis, which, erm.

Janet: I love it!

Nic: It's on Instagram. It's quite, it took Reno ages and ages to do, and he cursed and cursed, and he was, yeah, so it's the caravan chassis, and it looks a little bit Heath Robinson, but inside there's nest boxes and kind of perching rails, and then the idea is that it's mobile so, as the cows rotate round the fields, the chickens - so it's like 250 chickens in this eggmobile - and they follow the cows three days later and scrap round all the muck and eat all the bugs. But the trouble is, we started in October and it was going great, and it was perfect and then December the 12th, I think it was, Avian flu, everything had to go inside. So, at the minute, the egg mobile is inside and then they go out into a shed, like a straw yard in the daytime, but hopefully that will...

Janet: Hopefully you'll have them back. What's the rationale for having them following the cows around in that way?

Nic: It's that kind of a symbiotic relationship between the, so the cows are in a confined, you know, area of the field. They poo and wee everywhere, and then the chickens come around three days later and they, so they eat the fly eggs and just spread the muck around, really. They're kind of like aerating the soil and, yeah, so they do that job and as a kind of, they pay for that with their eggs, and their eggs are, we're having a great time selling their eggs because they're just, the quality is amazing because they're obviously on grass, well, not at the minute, but yeah, yeah.

Janet: The other thing that was, I thought, really interesting about what you're doing is how you're using hedges and trees on your farm. Can you say a bit more about that, and kind of where you've got to on your thinking on that?

Nic: Yeah, so as I say, we've we have this Helm Wind, which is just awful, and when we got here, there wasn't really any internal hedges on the farm, so we've worked, well, we're in an HLS [Higher Level Stewardship agreement] and we've just reinstated a lot of hedges. We've worked, we've got a great chap at the Woodland Trust called Pete Leeson who's helped us a lot and we've just, yeah, put a lot of hedges in. So they're quite wide hedges and they look, nothing looks more miserable than a double-fenced area with a new hedge in it, just all you can see is the plastic tubes and I find that quite depressing. But we planted a lot of hedges in 2014 and they look amazing now, and it's just invaluable with the shelter.

Janet: That's the main reason then, because they're creating shelter for the animals.

Nic: Creating shelter. And now, because we're looking now, because we've got quite a big field, so we're looking now to put hedges in to help with our subdivision for the electric fence thing.

Janet: So you'll have them permanently divided?

Nic: Yeah, permanently divided, and then we can use fences to then divide them, those fields, further. But it's just things like the bird life, and so we're trying to create corridors around the farm so, you know, everything can kind of connect, yeah, but the hedges have been, I was quite negative about the hedges to begin with, but…

Janet: Why? 

Nic: Well, just because we paid a lot of money to buy this land, then we were fencing it and putting a hedge in it, and I just thought, ‘Oh,’ but now I can completely see it.

Janet: Yeah. What's changed your mind? 

Nic: I think my mind has just changed. I got a total mindset change, total, and that's where I can completely see when people maybe fight it a little bit, because I've been there. And also, there's a little bit of, you're a farmer, you should know how to grow things, and I didn't really know how to plant a hedge, you know. The Woodland Trust kind of taught us how to do it and there's just simple things that you kind of think as a farmer you should know. But I think these skills have been, well, we just, lots of people haven't, we’ve had a few generations of no one planting hedges. 

Janet: So you don't, you just don't come up learning those skills anymore.

Nic: Yeah. I mean, my dad, he's, what is he? 70 something? And he's, he’ll have never planted, well, they've just put one in now, but up until then, he's never planted a hedge, and it's just, you know, he's pulled hedges out because that was the thing to do, and it's, so it's not really the farmer's fault, it's just how, you know, how it's been. 

Janet: Yeah. But there seems to be a shift now. It seems like some of these ideas that you're talking about, do you think they are going mainstream now? Are they getting more picked up by others, do you think, or is it still quite a kind of fringe activity, would you say?

Nic: I think over the last maybe two years, 18 months, the whole regenerative thing has picked up pace, and that's amazing, but I think we've got a long way to go. But, I think, you do have to realise that it's going to take time, and it's taken, well, it’s taken me personally six years to get my head around it. So hopefully people will be quicker learners than me.

Janet: But there's testing and learning to do in every different situation, isn't there, to see, how do you apply these techniques on your particular farm?

Nic: Yeah. I just think we've been purely production, it's just been production agriculture, and now, I think, we can produce amazing nutrient-dense food and do the environment stuff as well, and I think some people maybe think that it's one or the other and it's absolutely, definitely both, because the way we farm now is far more cost effective than we would have been, for us, if we'd been conventional.

Janet: That's really interesting, because people often think there's a choice between being good to the environment and your animals and being profitable, don't they? As well as the choice between productivity and the environment, so tell me a bit more about why is it more cost effective to operate in this way? 

Nic: I think it's just our inputs are less, so we don't, now we don't use any fertilizer, we don't buy any feed for the cattle or sheep. Things are generally healthier so our vet bills are less. We've, yeah, our output is less but those inputs are much less, you know, it's a positive outcome. So I think, but then we have invested a lot of our time in learning new things, and there's much more of a thought process, and now we'll go out and kind of look at things more, which sounds a bit waffly, rather than just jump in there with with a drug or, you know, with inputs. So it's much softer and thoughtful. God, that sounds very waffly! Softer and thoughtful.

Janet: It isn’t at all. It isn’t at all. It's a much more considered way of farming, isn't it? It's a much more thoughtful, deliberate way of farming, it seems.

Nic: Yeah

Janet: And when you say, you had a lot to learn, so you mentioned following Joel Salatin, looking at YouTube, are they the main ways that you learn, watching YouTube videos, or who else do you trust for information about how to do this stuff? 

Nic: Well yeah, so Joel Salatin, Greg Judy, and there's an amazing chap called Richard Perkins, who's in Sweden, who's just, it's a tiny farm but the stuff he does there is, it will blow your socks off. So we've got that kind of YouTube side, but then also we've created, and mainly through Twitter, actually, and how we met, Twitter is, there's a great community on Twitter, where you can just message people and say like, I had some people the other day, asking me about the eggmobile, so yeah, it's that, very open, rather than kind of, I think sometimes, farmers possibly have kept everything inside, this is very open and everyone wants to learn from each other, and you're going to make loads of mistakes, but that's not a big deal. 

Janet: I see that a lot on Twitter, of people encouraging each other and saying, ‘Oh, don't worry, it’s gone wrong this season, you can get it back,’ and kind of, it's always like, willing each other on. There's a real community there, isn't there? 

Nic: Yeah. 

Janet: So looking forward, on your farm, do you have a really clear view of what you want to do over the next five or ten years on the farm? Or will you take it kind of one year at a time and see what happens? 

Nic: I think we have got a clear view. So, well, it's relatively clear. So we've gone from producing a commodity of fat lambs and beef, and now we're very much, we sell quite a lot of our meat in boxes and obviously the eggs, and we've gone from being a commodity producer to thinking of food, and we want to create, produce really good food, and we want to sell it locally, and sell it locally at a price that local people can afford, because there's lots of people that say with our chicken, ‘Oh, you should sell that to London.’ It's like, ‘Well, I don't really want to go to London with the chicken, I'd rather go down the road.’ So, we want to be producing amazing food and sell it locally. We're looking at possibly an acre of agroforestry and just get that in and just see what happens with it.

Janet: What will you do with that, what will you do?

Nic: It kind of stems in with the other stuff we're doing. So we want to do a bit of glamping and I'm thinking we'll have this acre of apples and gooseberries and plums and whatever, redcurrants, and people can go there and pick their own stuff. But also then, what I would love to do is to have a few farmers doing that alongside veg, as well, and then possibly supply a cooperative, and then have a shop in Penrith that just sold, everything was, you know, local produced. That's a little bit pie in the sky, but that's what I would love to do, and there are other people that are kind of thinking along those lines as well. So I think it's all about local food, which is kind of a step going back in time a little bit, but it's, yeah, I mean Covid has just highlighted that so much, I think. 

Janet: Yeah, I think that's become much more important to people, hasn't it, during the pandemic and lockdown? People seem to be valuing local food production much more highly than they might have done previously. Are you finding that with your kind of local market and interest in your produce? 

Nic: Yeah, definitely, definitely, and I think it's, people are like, they go on about how amazing our eggs are but all they are is fresh eggs.

Janet: Yeah.

Nic: You know, done at a relatively small scale and they're just fresh and, you know, they go on about how amazing our mince is. Well, it's just mince, it's from cattle that are completely grass-fed, it's been hung for three weeks, it's done at a small abattoir, it's just simple stuff. 

Janet: Yeah. 

Nic: You know, it's not rocket science, it's just, I think, done right. Erm, yeah.

Janet: Really interesting. And coming onto the government's role in all of this, what do you think we can do, in the programme that I'm working on, that would help you over the next few years? If we were to be doing something that was really really helpful and helping you to do the things that you've been talking about that are good for your farm and good for the environment and good for the animal welfare, what are the most useful things we could be doing and how should it look from your point of view well? 

Nic: From our personal point of view, it would be to, with the local food side, it’s supporting local processing. So, we have a real problem with our abattoir, our closest abattoir is an hour away, and the one we use is actually further than that away, that's a real problem. It would be great to have a mobile abattoir. It would, simple, there's another simple thing. So we want to, we're looking at processing our meat chickens on farm, and the rules for that kind of thing are only, with the waste water and stuff, are only designed for huge fat, you know, chicken factories. So everything's been scaled up, so if you go to your local agencies and say, ‘Oh, this is what I'd like to have a go at doing, or we're looking at this,’ there aren't any rules for micro, well, there are, but they're unrealistic.

Janet: Right.

Nic: So it's getting, it's being able to support innovation, support ideas. It's supporting young people to come into the industry, and I would love to see in six, seven years’ time, more small farms and, well, more farms in general really. That would be great.

Janet: Brilliant, and if we really pull this off, this is my favourite last question on these podcasts, if we really pull this off and we manage to successfully deliver everything that you've just talked about, what does farming look like in the next 10 years? So we've got in 10 years time, we've got more more farms, what else is going on in the sector, if we've really, really been successful? 

Nic: OK, so it would be 20 percent of farms be growing veg, fruit on on their farm, there'd be hedges everywhere, honey bees everywhere, less, I’ll probably upset people here, but less industrial farming, and for the whole farming community to be, support producing food that gets to the consumer quicker without that middle, the middle section taking out a huge chunk of the margin, because I think as farmers we get a poor deal because lots of people do sell commodities, and we just get a really poor deal. So you end up with, say, dairy farmers who, they've invested hugely in producing a commodity and they've got so much money invested, but actually the return on that money invested is relatively slim. 

Janet: Yeah.

Nic: But it's because it's a commodity, and it's going to, you know.

Janet: But what you're doing, selling your produce locally, that gets you, that shortens that supply chain, doesn't it, and gets you, and that cooperative that you were just talking about, that would presumably really help with that set of issues.

Nic: Yeah, but the trouble is with that at the minute, it's very hard to imagine it happening, and it's a hard idea to sell. But there's no reason why we can't, there's no reason why we couldn't along this fell edge, all be growing an acre of veg. 

Janet: Yeah.

Nic: But we, you know, we need the support and the kind of help to do that. But it's completely possible to do that.

Janet: What support and help do you need to do that, to grow veg? What more support? 

Nic: [Laughing] You told me that I was, I’d planted my leaks wrong, I remember, Janet! 

Janet: [Laughing] I did! Just to be clear, I didn't just proffer that comment, you did ask me what was going wrong with them, so people, don't think I'm wandering around farms! 

Nic: So, well no, I think it's just, we've done some veg gardening, but it's just knowing where to start, and it's having that support of maybe someone on the end of a phone or just support to have the confidence to have a go with it, because I said to Reno the other day, if we grow an acre of veg or the agroforestry or whatever, just do an acre. Whatever we do, it's not going to bankrupt us if it all goes wrong, we can just put it back to grass. It's not a big deal. 

Janet: So you start small and do small experiments.

Nic: Yeah, just, yeah.

Janet: Yeah, makes a lot of sense.

Nic: Yeah.

Janet: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Nic, for coming on the podcast with us today, it's been fantastic talking to you and lovely to catch up, particularly with the eggmobile, which I'm particularly fascinated by. If you want to subscribe to this podcast, you can get it wherever you normally get your podcasts from, and if you want to follow the Future Farming and Countryside Programme in a bit more detail, you can follow us on our blog Thank you very much for listening and thank you again Nicola for coming along today.

Nic: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.