His grass is green, his cows are happy and his butter is a beautiful deep yellow. And it’s all thanks to a bypass through his farm. Ivy House Farm’s Geoff Bowles explains why since going organic, he’s never looked back.
Nestled in the Somerset countryside, Ivy House Farm in Beckington, near Frome, is a self-sustaining organic dairy farm, where Geoff Bowles and his family grow all the feed for their 120-strong Jersey cow herd, and process all their milk into clotted cream, milk, butter and buttermilk.
After years of farming intensively, a simple twist of circumstance coupled with a niggling desire to do things differently led him back to the farming methods of 60 years ago. Newly improved with the help of some modern technology, his business is doing better than ever. Given that it’s National Bread Week, we thought we’d follow up our article on Britain’s best artisan bakerswith a little bit of butter and visit Geoff for the low down.
Why did you switch from an intensive dairy farm to an organic one?
We were a non-organic Fresian and Holstein herd, fairly intensive but your normal, run of the mill farm. A bypass was built through our land, which divided the farm into four pieces. It made expansion impossible and with the size of the herd we had and the size of the farm reduced, the chances of our survival were just a dismal hope. The only way to move forward was to process our own milk. We switched the farm over to organic around 15 years ago, and began supplying Neil’s Yard Dairy in London with our clotted cream.
What do you produce now?
By 10am every day we have a vat of warm milk. From that we produce salted, unsalted and slightly salted butter, butter milk, skimmed, lo-fat, semi-skimmed, full cream and breakfast milk which has 6 per cent fat, and whipped, pouring, single, double and clotted cream. We deliver into London but 70 per cent of what we make us sold within 15 miles of the farm.
How do the two methods of farming compare?
I have almost forgotten what it was like intensively farming 20 years ago. We’d spray our crops just in case we had aphids. We’d worry that last year’s seed wouldn’t take so we’d plough up the field, plant new seed and fertilise it. The way we farm now is much more relaxed. We let the animals deal with situations as they come, and because they’re in a much lower stress situation, they can deal with weather and crop failure. Nature levels itself out anyway.
Everything was done organically 60 years ago so it’s all come full circle, but it’s much easier now. If we need to put manure on the fields we don’t use a horse and cart and ten people with shovels! It’s mechanised and that makes us more efficient.
How did you get into making butter?
Making butter started as a waste management strategy for us. We were producing cream that we couldn’t sell. I dragged my mother, who used to make butter when she was a young’un, in to show us how to make butter. At first the price we had to sell it at was comparatively expensive, and we sold it as an add-on to our existing customers. Then the world price of butter went up, it turned out our butter wasn’t that expensive after all, and people began to be interested in buying it.
What’s unique about your butter?
It’s not made from homogenised cream and it’s not extruded. It’s handmade and made into three or four different shapes, though no one pat of butter is the same. We wrap it in a clear butter wrap rather than a conventional opaque greaseproof paper because we want people to see the colour – the Jersey herd produces milk which gives it an extremely yellow colour.
What are the benefits of being an organic farm?
I didn’t switch to save the world. I did it because I thought it was a better way of treating the land. We used to have all sorts of things going on. For example, our rye grass silage was treated with sulphuric acid (battery acid) to help fermentation and we wondered why the cows had the runs. All those sort of things have stopped. The cows are happy and they live longer. I think we are three quarters as productive as the average farm but when you consider food waste, that’s probably just right.
What are you most proud of?
Between our farm and pig farmer Steve Tucker’s who now runs a farm shop in our parish, we employ 60 or 70 local people. There are people who had to travel to work or move away, and now they walk to work, can afford to buy houses here, and eat the food from the land where they live. It’s local jobs and local food for local people and I think that’s great. I’m more proud of that than anything else.