Nic & Reno Renison used to have a conventional mindset but changed to farming regeneratively
Penrith, Cumbria, England
We visited Nic and Reno Renison at Cannerheugh Farm in Cumbria as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out how they're creating a modern mixed farm.
Nic and Reno have been on quite a journey since arriving at Cannerheugh, in Cumbria, in 2012 with a “100% conventional mindset” – a legacy from Nic’s upbringing on a dairy farm and Reno’s experience of traditional fell farming.
Muddling along for the first few years, they reached out to other farmers who were trying new things. “I can remember”, Nic reflects, “Reno came back and said, ‘what have I been doing my whole entire farming career?’ So we started rotational grazing, and then we stopped using fertiliser and sprays. And since then, it's been like... just a journey into more regenerative-type farming. Our ruminants are 100% grass fed and the pigs and poultry have soya free feed, which for us makes so much sense in terms of the environment, meat quality and taste but also giving our customers what they want."
“I'd never even heard of rotational grazing” Reno adds. “We weren't taught about it at agricultural college. So once I discovered how grass actually likes to grow, then it felt like we were gaining momentum and we could go forward. You kind of open this whole new world of a different type of farming, that just makes 100% sense.”
They recognise that it’s a path that still feels closed to many farmers. “For so long, farmers have had feed, fertiliser, sprays. All those inputs cost money. Agri-business loves this model of high-input farming, all production based, farmers are heavily encouraged to go down this route from every angle, when actually, the only people that make money is everyone else, other than the farmer. And then all of those inputs have a poor consequence on the land, on the earth. And so it just becomes a race to the bottom.”
This realisation inspired them to start changing things on their own farm, reducing their flock from 1,000 to just 200, and moving towards a more mixed farming model with suckler cows, pigs, laying hens, and during the summer months meat chickens. All the livestock are kept on pasture and rotated around the farm, moving at least every three days, often every day. This ‘rotational system’ has seen huge benefits to soil health, grass growth and has really highlighted the importance of ‘rest’ periods.
They’ve also changed the breeds of animals they farm. “You turn to more of a rotational style of farming, and you then choose those animals that get on in that system. So that's why we've moved to Lleyns as our sheep and Angus for our cattle.”
They’re developing the diversity of their business, too: “we're looking to grow more vegetables, plant more trees. We want to try laneways of fruit and nuts and get our own wood chip, for biomass and bedding”.
“We know we can make this place really productive and also a haven for wildlife too.” Reno adds. “At the moment people are talking about setting aside land for nature, but with regenerative agriculture you can do both. You can be producing amazing nutrient-dense food, at an affordable price. And you can have the birds, bees and butterflies too. It’s not either-or”.
It’s not the only benefit they’re seeing. Nic is enthusiastic about their new business model. ”It was good to see the impact on our balance sheet of no fertiliser... and then feed. When we do budgets, there's just a big fat zero there for those two things. And that speaks volumes.” Reno adds, “we’re learning to focus on the margin, not the amount we can get for each head of cattle”.
They’ve also been delighted by their customers’ reactions. “What is reassuring is the customer's interest in how we farm. We say ‘come and pick your meat up and have a look, we’re an open farm … some farms out there can't do that'. And it is local people wanting to buy the food that we produce here, local people wanting to pay an honest price.”
The way they think about yield, and the role of farming in feeding the UK has changed too. “People talk about a growing population, ‘we need more food, we need to industrialise and mechanise and use more genetically modified seeds and all this kind of stuff - it's a fallacy. Farming regeneratively, like this, we can grow an awful lot of food off a very tiny acreage.”
Their way of farming also has wider benefits for the community beyond good food, as Reno explains. “Water infiltration is better on ground that's been rotationally managed. So water from heavy rainfall is more slowly released, because the ground isn't compacted. It’s not running straight off into the rivers, and down, for example, to Carlisle.”
Reno adds, “You know, farming can solve a lot of the climate crisis. We can lock down a lot of carbon - much, much more than what we're doing already - if we adopt some of these practices.”
They’re now sharing their learning with others – and they’re convinced of the benefits and possibilities for any farm, anywhere. Reno: “They say ‘you're in a low rainfall area, it's easier for you' and so on. But actually, anyone can start growing longer grass, have a longer grazing season, and get their costs down. So even if it's for less time than perhaps we can, it's still a beneficial thing to do for their business.”
It’s inspired them to launch the first northern regenerative farming conference too. “We went to Groundswell with farming consultant Liz Genever and we were just blown away,” Nic recalls. “We came back from there and just thought, wouldn't it be amazing to do this in the north, with more of an animal-based theme?” Carbon Calling, in June 2022, will be a grassroots, farmer-led event. “The whole regenerative movement is a real groundswell of farmer-to-farmer learning. And that's what we want to build on” says Nic.
It’s not all easy though – and both Nic and Reno are clear that there are still hurdles to farming regeneratively and selling to communities that need solving. “There’s huge demand for our chickens” say Reno, “they’re totally different from your supermarket chicken. We're trying to get a processing unit on the farm but the hoops we're having to jump through make it, at the moment, not financially viable. We’re having to process them in the north-east. We need more local processors and co-operatives to sell produce grown this way - not everyone wants to go out and sell their own product. They want to supply maybe a co-operative where they then sell the product.”
They’re hopeful for the future, and they have plenty of plans to adapt and develop the business still further. Reno sums it up: “I think this farm is just going to keep on changing the whole time, for the better.”