In the heart of Buckinghamshire, 20 minutes by train from its Marylebone holdings, The Portman Estate oversees a beautiful 2,000-acre organic farm. The Journal pays a visit to witness a form of farming with its roots in the past but its eyes on the future
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Kris Piotrowski
“My wife thinks it’s sad, but every time I drive past this field I stop and have a look at it,” laughs Richard Aldis, pulling into a gateway and gazing into a field rippling with tall green crops. I have to admit, I was expecting something more striking: cattle, perhaps, or the small flock of sheep that the Burtley Farm manager recently bought to diversify the farm’s income stream and support its organic system. Yet it’s this field, with its darkly fertile soil and bright, verdant lucerne (also known as alfalfa) that marks both the progress Richard’s made this year and the merits of organic farming.
“When I came for the interview for this job in October last year, I remember thinking, I hope this field isn’t mine. It was just a sea of weeds,” he recalls. “Now look at it.” Richard started in his post in December, whereupon he “hammered this field with muck, ploughed it as deep as we possibly could, then planted. We didn’t use pesticides or fertilisers.” A lot of meteorological luck—we might look longingly back to last year’s four-month heatwave, but this year’s duller, wetter iteration “has been a very good summer for farmers,” says Richard—and considerable amount of exertion have enabled this particular field to flourish, as so many others have around the farm. “I’m harvesting so much silage at the moment, I don’t know where I am going to put it all—which is amazing, given they had such a poor year here last year.” Now rolls of silage bound in pink—part of an awareness-raising project by Cancer Research—and the more familiar black plastic are piling up in every available square metre of yard.
Owned by The Portman Estate, one of Marylebone’s two historic landlords, Burtley Farm is managed by Richard and his sole colleague Nik. It is a vision of what modern farming could be—should be—with good practices, sufficient space and generous investment. It has been organic since 2005, thrives on a combination of crop rotation and cultural pest control, and has numerous sources of income, from property rentals to forestry and game hunting. “Diversification is key for farmers,” says Richard. He himself is not responsible for any income streams beyond the livestock and the forage crops—but he is alive to the vital role these extraneous activities play in ensuring the financial stability of Burtley Farm, partly by tapping into the area’s well-heeled local population. “Much of these smaller pieces of wood will go to nice wood burning stoves,” he says as we drive past the timber yard. In the strategic diversification of the farm’s commercial activities, Richard sees parallels with the Estate’s work in the very different environs of central London. “When they took me round Marylebone, I was amazed. I love that The Portman Estate has grown in such a way that they haven’t needed to flood the area with big chains—it feels like a real community. That sort of thoughtful approach is what we’re starting to see here, too,” Richard continues—albeit, here it is likely to take the form of things like a farm shop and a craft brewery utilising excess barley, rather than perfumiers and furniture designers.
Twice the age
Such organic growth is what he envisages above as well as below the ground—and if what Burtley produces so far is any indicator of success, then there is much to look forward to. Between them, Richard and Nik manage 500 head of cattle, of which 180 go to Waitrose annually while others go to people and businesses nearby. The farm spans 2,000 acres and the cattle are out grazing on grass for at least six months each year. Their oldest cow is 15 years old: that’s twice the age of your average beef cow farmed in a conventional, non-organic setting. A calf will spend nine months with its mother, growing strong on her milk before being weaned, and every animal is fed a grass-based diet, supplemented with cereal crops that are only ever grown on the farm.
“It’s an ethos I like,” says Richard simply, “and it’s an ethos Lord Portman supports. He is very keen on sustainability.” Richard is not blind to the fact organic systems cannot feed everyone—not yet, anyway, and certainly in our current economy—but he does believe a more sustainable future lies in reducing the amount of chemicals and industrial processes used on our farms. He cites the example of a farming friend, who cultivates cereal crops conventionally. “He came round the other day and said, yours are looking better than mine—and he spends £1,000 a fortnight on chemical pesticides and fertilisers.” Returning the manure to the land, crop rotation (“growing certain products like lucerne and beans which fix nitrogen into the soil and make it much more fertile”) and the introduction of sheep to graze weeds have created “a land that gives back”, says Richard, as opposed to one that needs chemical support to thrive.
Perhaps the strangest part of the Portman approach to farming is that it’s really not strange at all. It used to be commonplace. “Prior to the 1960s, all farms would have been mixed farms, growing cereal, cattle, sheep and pigs. They only split into specialisms when we went into mass food production,” says Richard, when farmers were encouraged to pick a lane—dairy, arable, beef and so on—in order to cut costs and increase yields. “The problem with that is markets are usually poor in one sector and not the other, so if the market crashes, that income is completely gone.” What’s more, where all farmers once had natural fertiliser and feed to hand, now arable farmers had to pay for fertiliser while livestock farmers had to pay for forage crops. “There is a farmer near here who was mixed but has packed in dairy because of the milk prices. He has since noticed that, because he has no manure to put on the land, the soil structure is suffering and the crops are suffering.” It’s a scenario that has been playing out across the country for decades, as families that have lived off the land for generations struggle to eke out their living, either for want of fertile soil or for want of demand.
“It is surprising how someone in parliament can make a decision and it may be a generation before its effects materialise. Then we have to start changing back again,” Richard observes wryly. He’s not always farmed organically, but it has always been a passion of his, despite the admin involved. “We are audited annually, and we can have spot inspections any time. There’s always new legislation,” he says, “and we have to go through numerous online courses to tick Waitrose’s boxes.” With only two farmers for the whole herd, spring is exhausting. “I do the 4am shift, and my colleague Nik has been doing nights, because he’s up anyway, having just had a young baby,” Richard laughs. Yet if you do things right, with the right food, environment and timings, the cows should be capable of calving by themselves. “We didn’t need to call the vet out even once this year. He actually called us to check if everything was okay, because he hadn’t heard from us!”
Cavorting and feeding
I arrive at Burtley Farm the day after the last calf is born, in late June—“a bit too late, for my liking. Four months is a long time to be rising at 4am,” Richard says dryly. The new calves are in the field with their mothers, cavorting and feeding, and a beefy black Aberdeen Angus bull is abroad to inseminate next year’s cohort. They’ll remove him in August to avoid the chance of June babies next year. Burtley’s beef calves are raised for a minimum two years before slaughter—at least six months longer than a conventional calf, “so it’s roughly a three-year cycle”. It’s more expensive for him—and by extension for us as customers—“but that slower growth gives a better flavour.”
“If I wanted to shave six months off, I could fatten them up quickly, but our animals are near-enough grass-fed,” Richard continues. To fatten them up would mean a more grain-based diet for the cattle and lower-quality beef for the customers. Driving through meadows of knee-high hay laced with wild flowers, he points out those plants that are natural wormers or that enrich the beef with minerals and a herbaceous depth of flavour. The lambs too will be raised to a riper age here than they would conventionally: “Hogget has a lot more flavour than fast spring lamb, so I think we will go for that when we can.” There is, in more ways than one, more taste in allowing an animal to live and thrive for over a year, especially with as much space and fresh pasture as Burtley Farm allows. What’s more, in an organic system, sheep are more than just meat. “They eat certain weeds, and are good for the worm burden in cattle,” says Richard, “as well as being another revenue stream for the farm.”
We drive past a beautiful, red-brick stately home. “Not mine,” Richard jokes. “That’s The Hall Barn Estate, owned by Lord Burnham. There’s a historic link between the two families that goes way back, and the two work together closely.” Burnham Beeches, the ancient forest of which The Portman Estate own half and the City of London own the other half, nestles alongside. “The Lord Mayor was up here visiting last week, in all his regalia. It was surreal,” Richard laughs, before turning back to his abundant pastures.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do with all this silage. We’re running out of space already! But then,” he shrugs, smiling, “that’s a nice problem to have.”