Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Farming and health

By Liz Findlay

Nantclyd Farm, Ceredigion

Liz Findlay runs a mixed biodynamic enterprise on about 38 hectares, centred around her flock of 800 to 1,000 laying hens and the allimportant aerobic composting system.

We have a number of different enterprises here, all interlinked, and at the very heart of it is our compost system, which is completely integral to the whole farm. It feeds our soil, or rather the microorganisms in the soil, and supports the health of everything that lives on our land and also the people who eat our produce.

The poultry enterprise starts with day-old chicks, which we buy in, and we keep the birds until they’re around two-and-a-half years old. They live in 200-bird laying sheds, which are out in pasture, surrounded by woodland, and they’re free to scratch, roam, and find food for themselves, along with receiving a suitable poultry ration. At the end of their life with us, we sell them on, because they are still laying hens, or we slaughter them for home consumption.

Besides the poultry, we have 30 breeding ewes, Dorsets, that lamb in the autumn. They’re integrated into the poultry system inasmuch as they graze the paddocks to maintain grass growth. We sell the lambs at around six- months-old, after they have been pasture fed over the winter.

We also have cattle that are again 100% pasture fed. They build up fertility, they paddock-graze to feed the soil, and are finished at around 24-30 months and sold locally or wholesale. We also have arable land that produces grain for the poultry, and we grow a range of field scale veg – roots, brassicas and alliums. And then we have polytunnels where we grow a mixture of salad crops, tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines, along with growing strawberries. We mainly sell our produce locally in the shops in Aberystwyth.

I’m a first-generation farmer. My dad was a grocer in Lancashire, so I’ve always been quite familiar with where food comes from. And I love my animals, really. That’s a little bit why I went into farming. I did a Higher National Diploma (HND) in agriculture at college in Aberystwyth at the end of the ‘70s, and I learned that you couldn’t grow grass unless you used chemical fertiliser. I then spent 10 years working on livestock farms, realising that it did not work. The people who made the money were the feed sales people and the fertiliser people. So I saved up some money and met my partner and we bought this land. And once I got my own little bit of land, the very last thing I was going to do was put any chemicals on to it.

By then I had realised that the problem is the whole economics of it. Food is expected to be cheap and you cannot grow quality food cheaply. We don’t really get enough money for the food we produce. And we take no government subsidy. It’s more trouble than it’s worth for what we would get. We absolutely do make a living. We just work very hard at making it.

But to come back to human health, it’s all to do with the aerobic composting. Any waste product whatsoever from the farm goes into a windrow composting system, where it is heated and turned to kill the pathogenic bacteria and leave behind the beneficial stuff. It ends up as a product that smells and looks like floor-ofthe-forest soil. It smells so nice you could almost eat it. We’ve analysed it, and it’s full of beneficial bacteria and fungi. I think it’s been shown that we have, and need, very similar bacteria and fungi in our gut. We are so connected, we just don’t recognise how connected our gut biome is to the same microorganisms that make our whole planet tick

I think intuitively people from many generations past have known that. It’s why we’ve developed fermented foods, so that we can eat them. And it’s true of our animals. Our cows have a rumen full of bacteria to digest their food and those bacteria have got to be fit, healthy and diverse. When you start putting antibiotics in there, or adding this, that and the other, you’re going to affect the ecosystem that lives inside the rumen, which the animal depends on for its health. Our sheep tidy up our veg field, graze the grass around the poultry paddocks, eat the docks. It all adds to a diverse diet. And it’s the same for us, I feel. The bacteria and the fungi are the very roots of life. They’re in everything that grows out of the soil.

Making compost is like making food in reverse. It’s all one big cycle. We can so simply fix the whole climate change problem we have created on the planet, there’s nothing difficult about it, it’s about just going back to that cycle. We can lock carbon that we’ve put in the atmosphere back down into the soil if we manage it in the right way, with grazing livestock, with grass, with growing crops in a holistic way. And our health, most importantly our health. We can do away with the NHS, just about, when it comes to human health.