The Robinson family has worked the land of Gazegill Farm for over 500 years, but it was under the care of Ian O’Reilly and Emma that it converted to being completely organic
When Emma Robinson and Ian O’Reilly took over the management of the family farm in Rimington from Emma’s parents they knew from the outset that they wanted to carry on the proud tradition of sustainable and responsible farming, protecting the land for future generations. Emma's grandfather had resisted all attempts to persuade him to turn the farm over to intensive farming methods during the Second World War effort but it is under Emma and Ian’s care that the farm has committed to completely organic methods.
“Our main job here is to look after the soil,” explains Ian, “and when we get that right then everything else falls into place. We’ve got a 2000 year old Roman track running through this farm land and parts of the farm are classified as biological heritage sites so why would we want to change that? Our traditional hay meadows are a natural habitat for so many birds and wildlife and we all work together to make the farm work. We’ve chosen not to spray things to kill them – we let nature take its course.”
Emma’s grandfather spotted at the tender age of three that she had a natural affinity with the land and was the obvious choice to take over the reins when her parents decided to retire. Ian and Emma wanted to continue to diversify the farm to ensure its sustainability. The 250 acre site switched to being completely organic with all the livestock selected for their suitability to this way of farming.
“Modern cow breeds need a diet high in protein to produce milk, which also makes them very windy, so it’s not good for the environment. They’re also very stressy animals. Our herd are Old English Shorthorns, which are great at converting meadow hay into good milk. As the seasons change the make-up of the meadow changes and so does the milk. We also have Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, who produce the most amazing meat. It’s like nothing you’ll have tasted before – it’s slightly darker and redder than typical pork but the flavour is amazing. We also have Hampshire Downs sheep, again a breed that has a great flavour in the meat. They’re really versatile, very easy going. All the breeds we have here have great temperaments as we believe that has an effect on the end product. We just couldn’t imagine having animals that couldn’t graze outside in the sunshine. Nature has most of the answers to keep our animals healthy and well fed. They don’t get given antibiotics all the time, like other dairy herds, so we know there’s no residue of antibiotics in our milk. We have to let the animals build up their own resistance to things – and cows will self-medicate out in the fields when they have a problem. Fennel is a natural prevention for mastitis, meadowsweet is an analgesic if they’ve stomach pains and garlic is a natural antibiotic. They also lick the soil if they need certain minerals. They instinctively know what to do to make themselves better and we only get involved if we really have to.”
Turning the farm into a viable business has taken meticulous planning from Ian and Emma. They are now 75 per cent self-sufficient in terms of energy, their plans to be able to sell everything they produce was completed a year ahead of schedule, they have an onsite butchers shop and bottling plant and they’ve built a new education centre with up to 250 school visits a year. Here children can learn everything from milking to making butter and for older children they can also learn more about meat production. Their only remaining plan is to open an onsite cafe so more people can appreciate first hand their natural approach to farming.
With a growing concern from many about how their food is produced – with everything from genetically modified feeds, routine use of antibiotics to factory farming methods – Emma is confident that we are on the cusp of a food revolution that will see people getting back to basics and seeking out food that has been produced in a more natural way and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. “There’s a complete misnomer that organic food has to be expensive, but we are living proof that it doesn’t. We don’t spend huge amounts buying fertilisers and sprays for the farm. We let nature takes its course and with our low input we have happy animals that create great meat and milk. We supply nationwide to independent shops and individual customers, so more and more people are getting a taste of how great all our produce is.”
So who’s going to carry on the baton for future generations? “The farm is such a thriving business now it will take both our children to run it. They are still only six and eight but still get involved and we can already see that they’ve got what it takes in terms of grim determination and stubbornness to make this work!” laughs Emma.
Gazegill Organics, 01200 445519, www.gazegillorganics.co.uk
To meet our other local food heroes check out the latest issue of Samphire. Download your digital copy here