Interview with James Odgers, Stream Farm, Broomfield

2James Odgers and family have been at Stream Farm, Broomfield for 11 years now. When they first arrived they knew nothing about farming but knew they wanted to do a lot about the ‘rapid decline of rural communities’. As their work has developed they have adopted 3 guiding principles – to nurture their land and farm organically; to provide local food and local jobs for their local community; to promote healthy eating and living.

Please have a look at the Stream Farm website to discover more. (Click the photo to the left.)

 

INTRODUCTION

JG. Thank you so much for talking to me today. Can we begin by hearing about what you feel is the most important part of what you do here?
JO. Easily the most important reason why we’re here is to look at the rapid decline in rural communities across the country. We want to see what has caused this rapid decline and hopefully to come up with ways to change how that decline is speeding forwards.

JG. Can you tell us a little about how this interest has developed since you first arrived.
JO. For many years I have been involved in urban poverty issues and urban regeneration working with disadvantaged people helping them to establish their own businesses. The aim here is to get as many people as we can earning a living from the land with basic farming businesses. In this way we can show a different way to go about things in the countryside. We’ve been on a very long journey. When we acquired the farm a large proportion of the land had been let out under a commercial tenancy. It took us a long time and great effort to get the land back into a state that I was comfortable with once I had found out what that meant.

GOING ORGANIC

JG. So you had to do a lot of work with the soil?
JO. Yes. During that first year I continued the commercial tenancy and began to understand what commercial farming was all about and I was frankly absolutely appalled. I had no idea what was happening to degrade the soil of this country. Often I was summoned to see very toxic sprays and fertilisers being put on the crops. We had to wear protective clothing and masks and I thought all that stuff is going to end up in our bodies! What has happened? I was a child of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and a lot of other rather unlikely books like Jimmy Goldsmith’s ‘The Trap’ and I began to think about what has gone wrong with the way the land and animals are treated and what, as a complete outsider, I might be able to do to change things. So we took the land back in hand ourselves and going organic was for me a very good discipline. I went with Organic Farmers and Growers who seemed a more approachable organisation than the Soil Association and they, and the people all around us, were very kind and helpful as we began the ‘going organic’ process.
Going organic was the first ‘greening’ of the land and we noticed changes very quickly – the return of the hare very early on and many more song birds. Many problems remain however even if you’ve gone organic – we’re not going to recover the hedgehog or the ground and hedge nesting birds until we deal with the badger but lots of other things seem to be coming back.

DEVELOPING THE ENTERPRISE

JG. The farm seems to fit naturally into this lovely bowl of hills.
JO. We’re a ring fenced farm in this valley of about 100 hectares. One of the things that attracted us to the farm was that it has lots of different shapes and sizes of fields so if we’re going to have lots of people working here it’s very suitable. Our desire was to get as many families on board as we could. They each have a share farming agreement with us and they each run their own show. We put up the land, the capital equipment and the capital intensive running costs and they put in the labour. We then split the gross receipts in a way to make them a livelihood and for us ultimately to recover our capital costs. The aim is that you do your bit with your business and then when the time arises that one of us needs more labour for their business then everybody downs tools and helps them. This is what farming used to be about, especially here in Somerset. So if there is a need to suddenly catch 100 rainbow trout for an order then it’s down tools and we’re all out with our nets. If it’s the lambing season we’re all on a rota.
JG. Brilliant! So did you select your people? Did you advertise for families?
JO. No I haven’t advertised, I’ve done it all by word of mouth. We gradually spread the word that we are keen to help people who always thought they would have a reasonable expectation of a life in farming but this has proved impossible for them usually because of the domination of the supermarkets! We were also anxious to help those who had always wanted to start farming but didn’t know how to get going. Further down the line, we encourage those who have worked with us to leave us after 2 or 3 years taking with them their flock of sheep, herd of cattle, chickens whatever so that they can get going elsewhere. The plan is that they will continue to sell their produce through our brand. Our brand is increasingly well known to be very high quality, top end, beautiful, lovely food.
JG. You’ve got a fantastic array of awards!
JO. Yes, great awards – which is extraordinary really. I think Someone is looking down favourably on what we’re trying to do!

PURSUING QUALITY

JG. Has quality always been important to you as well as your desire to help young farmers?
JO. Yes, it’s absolutely vital. I think its part of people’s suspicions about farming. They haven’t really understood where the industry has gone – even calling it an ‘industry’ is wrong, it seems to be suggesting it’s like other industries and it’s not as I know from wide experience. I have never come across an ‘industry’ that shouldn’t be one so obviously as farming. Farming is all about connections to the land, relationships and the community. You can’t suddenly up-sticks and go because it’s cheaper to produce something somewhere else. It is just such a wrong way of looking at the land.

BUILDING MARKETS

JG. Did you use your wide contacts for your markets?
JO. No, we just started from scratch. We began by knocking on doors locally and then by knocking on doors in Bristol and Bath and because I’m up and down to London looking at the urban regeneration projects I’m involved with, up and down the streets where we live. I’ve always said that I wouldn’t provide our produce in London to anyone who lives more than a welly boot throw from our warehouse!

OTHER ‘GREEN’ INITIATIVES

JG. Have you pursued any other ‘green’ initiatives?
JO. I have looked extensively at power – wind, water and sun but I think these are all very intermediate technologies at the moment. I think round the corner it’s going to be a lot easier to harness some of these things. We’ve got the eponymous stream running through the property but it doesn’t have a deep enough fall for us to be able to use water power. I’ve looked at wind power but we’re in an AONB and I know there are issues there as I’m on the Parish Council. I also feel that photovoltaic arrays are going to be a lot better in 20 years’ time. So at the moment I get all our power from Good Energy who at least use renewable resources. They are more expensive but that’s part of our commitment.
JG. Were you advised to go into beef farming first?
JO. No. I couldn’t see a future in dairy. I thought if push came to shove I could probably make something out of beef, lamb, pork and chickens, all of which people are now involved with. New initiatives have followed. We planted 928 apple trees of 5 different varieties 6 years ago for our Stream Farm Apple Juice. We should have had a bumper crop this year like everybody else but we didn’t have as much as we thought. 16 of us picked 9.6 tonnes in a day which was good fun but I had expected 15 to 20 tonnes and the answer to that was the lack of bees – so the next business, starting on the farm in March, will be 6 – 8 hives up in the orchard. I’ve always wanted bees but now we need bees as well as wanting them.
JG. Do you have ‘experts’ coming in to advise on such matters?
JO. We do have people in on all these businesses whether it be the organic advisers or other farmers who have been extremely helpful.
JG. The fish business is interesting was that always part of the plan?
JO. No. When we came there was a lake and there were some ponds that had fallen into disuse which we renovated. We brought in an enthusiast and now have the beginnings of a thriving business. We’re hoping to add fish smoking in the near future.

Final thoughts

JG. What do you feel is your greatest success?
JO. Without doubt the on-going enterprise of building a community. We love sharing our experiences, learning from one another, developing new skills, diversifying and watching the extending of our influence.

JG. Have you had any failures?
JO. We don’t think in terms of failures. Things that don’t work as expected or that prove disappointing are learning experiences which we all use to develop what we are doing. We do however resent the endless legal and regulatory ramifications of some of our enterprises – for example the Spring Water bottling – for which we have had to jump through a seemingly endless series of hoops causing severe delay to the project.

JG. How do you regard farming subsidies?
JO. We don’t accept any subsidies from any source if we can avoid them. What we are trying to build here is a viable farming model for the future. We can’t be distracted from this by short term advantages – and indeed central government and the EU are part of the problem not the solution.
JG. I know you feel very strongly about the power of the supermarkets.
JO. Indeed. Our ultimate aim is to break the power of the supermarket chains. We currently sell our produce through farm shops, food fairs and farm boxes. What is needed are independent outlets that provide an alternative to the supermarket experience. Shoppers have shown they prefer to buy everything in one place so we must seek to provide excellent quality, responsibly sourced, local produce from a variety of suppliers under one roof. We would then be able to offer the consumer good food at a convenient local location provided by a multitude of local suppliers. What is surprising is that if we can do this we could undercut the prices of the big supermarkets. What is happening at the moment is that because of their near monopoly position, supermarkets are able to set their own prices to ensure themselves huge profits. Local farmers could provide good local food, produced by local people at cheaper prices – as we do now, look at our beef box – thereby ensuring that people could eat healthily and cheaply as an easy choice.

‘I firmly believe that there is still hope for farming and for rural communities in general in spite of the catastrophic and rapid downward spiral we are experiencing at present; but it will take all of us to bring about the radical changes that are needed and this can only work if we all make choices in every area of our lives every day in favour of the small producer.‘

James Odgers Dec. 2013


8 Comments »

  1. What a great start to our BLOG! James is a real star shining over the Quantocks! Wish I could afford to eat his wonderful Dexter beef every day!
    Quantock Eco would be delighted to organise more food fairs, James!

    Comment by carole darke — December 13, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

  2. I agree there is a real balance here between being more sustainable and feeding the growing world population. However there are other facets to this debate regarding what we eat – a more vegetarian styled diet is what is also needed.

    Comment by Ian — December 14, 2013 @ 11:55 am

  3. Whilst I accept and respect the success and aims of James approach, I would recommend
    that you also read the Nuffield Report published in October 2013 http://bit.ly/H1uA6S
    by Robert Craig.
    Whilst many of the organic and sustainable techniques employed by James are laudable, they do not fully yaddress the issue of food availability for all. Whilst rising food prices may be seen as good for
    farming, they are a disaster for those going hungry. The peasant farmer in
    developing countries has no choice but to farm organically, but the fact is
    that farming needs science and engineering technology to maximise production.
    That needn’t and shouldn’t mean industrial type production, but it does mean
    efficiency. We are in danger of only supplying beautiful food to those rich
    enough to afford it. That is morally wrong when so many are starving.

    Comment by David — December 14, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

  4. What inspiring work you are doing James. I didn’t realise how much you are working with the issues our land faces today and encouraging others to farm. I would love to completely stop shopping in supermarkets. We are lucky to have Plowright Organics in the Quantocks also.

    Comment by Jill Goodwin — December 15, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

  5. Hi Carole – I know what you mean about the Dexter! Yum.
    Not too expensive! If you work it out cut for cut against supermarket prices (even ‘basics’ and ‘essential’ prices) it is far cheaper!… despite being grass-fed, organic, pedigree etc!

    check out http://www.streamfarm.co.uk/news/56-beef-boxes-available/

    Comment by Will CC — December 16, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  6. David’s comment is in danger of saying that what they are doing at Stream Farm is morally wrong (I know he does not actually say that). But I think it does rather miss the point of what James Odgers is doing at Stream Farm. As I see it is as much, if not more, about addressing issues to do with rural communities and helping young people make a start in farming than about producing good (and tasty) food. He is not trying to solve the problem of feeding the world’s hungry, but doing something else that also valuable. We have to try and experiment with a diversity of approaches if we are to be more efficient about producing food.
    And anyway the Dexter Beef is excellent!

    Comment by Philip Comer — December 16, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

  7. James’ work is laudable. As a complete novice on the farming front, it still seems to me that we rely far too heavily on the technological fixes always looking for maximising profits and production but at the expense of sustainability and quality food. Nature has been honing itself for millions of years- providing fertility, beneficial interactions between organisms that we’re only just starting to understand. Nature can do a lot of the work for us if we understand what is needed and we can use our technological advances to enhance this.
    I read that Britain’s soil has only 100 seasons left. Is conventional farming is slowly killing it? http://shine.sheffield.ac.uk

    Comment by Jill Canney — December 16, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

  8. Good news to hear about another local organic farm. Looking after the care of the soil is critical
    - I’m with James all the way on that.
    Yes, we need to eat less meat. But a little less that may be a bit more expensive and produced with care for the land and the animals must be better than eating ‘conventionally’ produced meat. I’m impressed!

    Comment by Lorna Scott — January 20, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

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