Enterprises don’t come much more alternative than biodynamics, as Scott Casey discovers
When thinking of on-farm diversifications, most famers probably wouldn’t consider biodynamic farming as an option. But with the right business attitude and a passion for the style of farming, it can be a profitable endeavour.
At Tablehurst Farm in East Sussex the good business sense of the resident farmers, and their dedication to the method of farming, has seen returns increase and their farm expand.
Owned by about 600 shareholders in the local community, the 500-acre farm has grown from being an unprofitable enterprise managed by a local school to a thriving farm business, with a diverse range of stock and a booming farm shop.
Egg producer Daniel Hoeberichts, who keeps 1,700 laying hens inside a 30-acre apple, pear and soft fruit orchard, came from outside farming and studied biodynamics in his native Netherlands. “I wanted to work closely to nature and with biodynamic farming you bring all those connections back,” he said.
The birds are kept in 12 moveable sheds, which are provided primarily for shelter at night, laying and for storing their feed. But mostly they roam within the orchard.
The sheds are moved up and down the hill upon which the orchard is built on a weekly basis, about 10m each time, in an effort to spread the manure from the birds and the associated nutrients as far afield as possible.
Each shed has a small flock of 130 hens and these are paired with five cockerels which, Mr Hoeberichts says, allows the chickens to live a more natural existence.
“Cockerels do a great job. They guard the hens throughout the orchard, they look for food and if they find anything they will call the chickens and let them eat it,” he said.
“During the night they bring the birds back to the house and they protect them against predators. You can really see their social interaction working. There is no feather pecking, no cannibalism, none of the problems you get in intensive poultry.”
Feed comes in from a fellow biodynamic producer, Perry Court Farm in Kent, but soon Tablehurst will be milling its own feed on-farm.
“The chickens are spreading the nutrients we need, so from a biodynamic perspective we’ve gone to another level. It’s better to produce the manures on the farm than bring it in from outside, so it’s more connected to the farm.” Mr Hoeberichts told Poultry World.
“We’ve worked on it for a couple of months and at the moment the plan is that, by next year, all our feed will be biodynamic.”
They have had some problems on the farm, such as convincing DEFRA they didn’t need to supply dust baths as the birds simply find and make their own across the sprawling orchard.
“If you look to nature, they just make their own. We don’t limit the birds so it’s quite a natural habitat. So DEFRA came here to have a look and they agreed that it was fine,” said Mr Hoeberichts.
Another issue is foxes and while the orchard is surrounded by an electric fence, powered by a biodiesel generator with a battery backup for night-time, when it fails the results have been disastrous.
“It’s always been Christmas Eve they come. Perhaps they want a big dinner too,” Mr Hoeberichts said. “The severe snow we’ve had over the last two winters has been a problem. The electric wires get covered and we lose the electricity and the foxes get really hungry.” When he started the farm with his girlfriend in 2008, Mr Hoeberichts says they took on every customer they could get. But now they’ve got to ration their eggs as they can’t keep up with demand.
Eggs from the birds are sold in the farm shop at Tablehurst, through local shops around the farm, and at farmers’ markets in London.
“We can’t take on any new customers. We have to make sure we can supply our current customers and keep them happy. We can’t just buy in eggs to make up the difference.”
Despite the poor economic climate and the much publicised decline in organic consumption, Mr Hoeberichts sees plenty of room for growth in his method of production.
“We would like to add a few more houses because we can see if we expand another 20% or 30% that will be the perfect number of chickens for the orchard. We don’t want to go beyond that because the balance will be gone,” he said.
“It means four more houses to put up, but financially it’s quite an investment and we would need to employ someone for a few hours each day. But we wouldn’t want to become huge. That’s not what biodynamic farming is all about.”
What is biodynamic farming?
Biodynamic farming is a method of farming developed in the 1920s that is simply organic farming taken to its highest level. Farmers view the entire farm as a living organism, avoiding outside inputs as much as possible.
Biodynamics also incorporates a form of spiritualism into its practice and uses preparations in a similar way to homeopathic medicine, which was also founded in the 1920s by the German philosopher Rudolph Steiner.
“I believe there are forces in your food and not just the chemicals that are printed on the label,” said Peter Brown, who raises broilers at Tablehurst Farm. “It’s not a conventional outlook, but it’s what interests me.
“I think in 50 years time agriculture will be revolutionised. If you’re feeding the soil in this way then you’re really feeding the soil and you get really healthy plants.
“I came into biodynamics because I think there is more to life than a physical substance. I mean, we all know it’s dependent on the sun, but there is a moon and other planets and in homeopathic medicine things are potentised, then you see are dealing with forces not substances.”
An interesting niche Mr Hoeberichts and Tablehurst have carved out is supplying the generally smaller eggs produced by pullets, with information on packaging explaining why they are smaller.
Only available once a year, the pullet eggs are very popular with customers and come in trays of 36 eggs. They are bought mainly by keen local bakers who want to use them for making pastries and desserts, as they are richer than eggs producer later in the laying cycle.
“We just can’t keep up with the demand. We run out really quickly because eventually the egg size goes up,” said Mr Hoeberichts. “We think its very important to put that extra information out to the customer and, when they understand why the eggs are smaller, they like it more because they understand more.”