Cornish farmer and cheese-maker Ben Mead gives his neighbours plenty to talk about these days. His grazing pastures are filled with a mixture of deep-rooting herbs including chicory, dandelion, plantain, yarrow, burnet and birdâ€™s-foot trefoil, plus a variety of different clovers and grass species. The sorts of plants most farmers try to get rid of.
Thereâ€™s something else special about Ben Meadâ€™s farm. He doesnâ€™t use fertilizers not the chemical sort at least. Instead he infuses the land with â€ścompost teasâ€ť â€“ home produced liquid supplements loaded with beneficial bacteria and fungi extracted from compost he makes on the farm. Unlike fertilizers its purpose is not to supply plant nutrients directly but to stimulate the life and biological activity of the soil. The re-invigorated soil then works with plant roots to supply nutrients they need.
This complex network of subterranean life â€“ known as the soil food web â€“ is able to take up atmospheric carbon and nitrogen, cutting greenhouse gases. At the same time it regulates the flow of minerals held in soil reserves, making them available for the grasses and herbs. As a result Benâ€™ cows graze pastures that are far better nourished than the chemically-fertilized monoculture that most cattle are forced to subsist on. â€śThe way I think of it is that while most dairy cows eat the bovine equivalent of a cheap burger, mine eat a la carte,â€ť he explains. â€śItâ€™s more akin to something by Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey, but with fresher, more local ingredients. And, of course, without the histrionics.â€ť
Benâ€™s aim is to create a â€śsuper-pastureâ€ť, rich in minerals and vitamins. This he sees as the key to producing the high-quality, nutrient-rich milk thatâ€™s essential for making top-quality cheese. â€śMany of the key micronutrients for building strong, healthy minds and bodies â€“ in humans as in animals â€“ can only be synthesised naturally in the plant kingdom. Animals and humans lack the mechanisms to do it. So if the plant world lacks or has inadequate ingredients to synthesise these micronutrients, itâ€™s a bit like putting low-octane fuel in a performance car. Youâ€™ll probably get to the shops okay but you wonâ€™t win any races!â€ť
For a nation whose diet includes plenty of meat and dairy produce, nutrient-rich forage is essential for health and vitality higher up the food chain. Yet any chain is only as strong as its weakest link, Ben warns. â€śWhat worries me is that when basic raw materials lack some of these ingredients, weâ€™re forging fundamental weakness into those initial links. This can only impact negatively on the health, vitality and achievement of full genetic potential for everything higher up the food chain â€“ and that includes us humans.â€ť
Ben sums up his philosophy as one of â€śseeking natureâ€™s approvalâ€ť for whatever he does. Itâ€™s an approach that has its roots in the BSE crisis of 15 years ago. â€śBSE awoke me to some of the murkier practices of the cattle feed companies, and Iâ€™ve never been able to trust them since. The cowâ€™s a herbivore, I thought, so why not just feed her herbs and grass as nature intended. So thatâ€™s what I did. I exercised my consumer power as a disgusted buyer of cattle feed, and we went over to all-grass feeding. Itâ€™s hardly rocket science, though as you get more involved it does become a rather satisfying mixture of art and science. And putting it into practice has delicious results â€“ the milk and meat taste so good.â€ť
Ben admits that turning conventional farming wisdom on its head hasnâ€™t been an easy option. Like many of todayâ€™s practitioners of biological agriculture, he has gained confidence from the writings of earlier pioneers like Andre Voisin, Albert Howard, Newman Turner and Weston Price. He explains: â€śAs I discovered this material itâ€™s as if the scales had suddenly fallen from my eyes. Here were respected scientists powerfully making the link between soil fertility and human and animal health.
â€śWhat’s more there was a respect for complexity â€“ for the intricate intertwining and delicate balance of evolution and the living world. I realised that if I went on trying to sublimate these powerful life forces Iâ€™d be spitting into the wind for the rest of my life.â€ť
The book that has most inspired his farming methods is Allan Savoryâ€™s Holistic Management. â€śSavory observed that when the first white settlers set foot on the North American Prairies and the South African veldt, they recorded immense herds of wild animals that had clearly been in existence for thousands of years. These wild populations far surpassed the per acre stocking levels and the life expectancy of todayâ€™s modern, industrialised herds. Yet they did so without the buildings, machinery, artificial fertilizers, hybrid seeds, veterinarians, antibiotics or toxic chemicals weâ€™ve been led to believe are obligatory accessories to modern farming.
â€śItâ€™s humbling when you stumble on this information. Many farmers canâ€™t handle it because it calls into question everything theyâ€™ve been doing all their working lives. Yet I believe that trying to understand the principles â€“ and attempting to integrate them into the way we farm â€“ holds the key to genuinely sustainable food production that neednâ€™t cost the earth.â€ť
Ben owns and milks a herd of 130 dairy cows on his grassland farm at Pengreep, Ponsanooth, near Truro in Cornwall. Together with his wife Catherine, a marketing specialist, he diversified into cheese-making in 1995, forming a joint venture with D E Horrell and Son, makers of the well-known Cornish Yarg cheese brand. In 2001 the couple built an all-new cheese dairy on their own farm and, following the retirement of the Horrells, are now the exclusive owners and producers of Cornish Yarg.
Benâ€™s own quest for higher quality foods began much earlier when he returned to the family farm in 1998 following a career in motor industry journalism. He admits it wasnâ€™t the ideal time to get started in dairy farming. â€śIf Iâ€™d been headhunted for the job Iâ€™d have been back for the headhunterâ€™s scalp,â€ť he says wryly. â€śAs a career move it probably wasnâ€™t the smartest. Milk prices went into free-fall. In the space of a couple of years the price from the co-ops plummeted by nearly 40 per cent. Thatâ€™s a pretty big hit to take to your income.â€ť
The cheese business with its vital added value helped him survive. So did the lower costs of producing milk from grass. He had also discovered that the cows stayed healthier and lived longer on their pasture-based diet. In 2005 he won a Nuffield agricultural scholarship to study pasture quality and how it affected animal and human health.
Everywhere he travelled in New Zealand, Australia and the United States he found a growing interest in nutrient-dense foods â€“ especially pasture-fed products â€“ and the farming methods that produced them. â€śWhat really struck me was where farmers had embrace the philosophy of farming in partnership with nature, the whole farm buzzed with energy and vitality. This extended to the whole farming family, with some of the brightest, healthiest, sparkiest kids Iâ€™ve encountered in a long while.â€ť
Now Ben is applying the techniques on his farm in Cornwall. The key elements are a fertile soil and a species-rich pasture to provide the cows with all the nutrients they need. The cows themselves are not the usual high-yielding Holsteins. Ben has bred his own – a three-way cross between Friesians, Jerseys and Ayrshires. An attractive dark brown in colour, theyâ€™re long-living, fertile and great converters of grass into nutrient-rich milk.