The Perridge Farm Partnership – Regenerating the Soil

Dairy herd
Tor from Old Burford Farm

I began writing this series of articles intending to create a picture of regenerative agriculture in Glastonbury and the surrounding area; but whilst all of those included can call themselves regenerative in one way or another, I have found only one farming business that is regenerative in the sense of actively working to regenerate the soil. This is the Perridge Farm Partnership of Judith, Clive and Naomi Freane, and Judith’s brother Stephen Turner. On Perridge and Old Burford farms in Pilton they run a combined dairy farm  of 400 acres, with 350 cattle, mostly Guernsey and Jersey. They also run an in-house yoghurt factory, producing Brown Cow and River Cottage organic yoghurt and kefir, mostly marketed through organic wholsesalers, the Milk and More doorstep delivery service, Riverford Organics, and also farmers’ markets in Wells. They have been farming organically for more than 25 years, and have been increasingly regenerative since 2017.

Within the farming community there is growing interest in regenerative farming, and though most farmers still use chemical fertilisers and pesticides, there has been widespread concern since the U.N. warned that the soil is becoming dangerously degraded, and if farming methods do not change there will only be fertile soils for another 50 years or so. The partnership uses a technique known as ‘deferred’ or ‘mob’ grazing, which rebuilds the soil, mimicking the way in which natural grassland evolved.  In the wild, herd animals move quickly across the land, bunched closely together – minimising predation. The cattle consume the best of the pasture whilst treading stems and leaf matter into the soil, creating a ‘sponge’ that absorbs rain, and building new soil as this organic matter breaks down. Over thousands of years this has resulted in a great depth of fertile soil being created. That depth and fertility has in many places been seriously reduced since the advent of chemical farming.

‘Mob grazing’ uses electric fencing to create the same effect as natural wild grazing, moving the cattle on up to four times a day but giving each ‘paddock’ plenty of time to recover before it is grazed again. On Old Burford Farm each whole field is grazed over a period of between 30 and 40 days, compared to a standard cycle of 21 days. They use multi-species herbal, clover and grassland plant mixtures, mixed cereal and herbage cropping, minimum soil tillage, and over-wintering green manures. This regime absorbs carbon from the atmosphere as well as restoring the soil biome – the bacteria, fungi and microorganisms that create healthy soil. This grazing system leaves the pastures thick and long, with root systems that penetrate as deep as the plants are high, able to extract water from a much greater soil depth than traditional shallow-rooting ryegrass.

The plants used on the farm include chicory, plantain, yarrow, burnet and trefoils, plus grasses such as cocksfoot, timothy and fescues, combined with lucerne and severasl species of clover.  These herbs, grasses and legumes create a concentrated network of channels surrounding their long roots, which absorb water during heavy rain, and also bring minerals and trace elements up towards the surface – making potentially healthier food. Such plant varietis are more resistant to drought than tyraditional ryegrass and clover leys. Water companies are now beginning to trial projects, in combination with farmers in their water catchment areas, using these diverse seed mixtures that can reduce the rapid run-off from land into river systems during periods of high rainfall, and so prevent flooding downstream. 

Mob grazing 2 copy
Permanent meadow pasture 3 (smaller)

In a group called ‘Innovative Farmers’, the Partnership is allied with soil scientists in measuring the outcomes on their soil microbiome and carbon sequestration. Research projects include measuring the effects of different grazing patterns on the soil’s organic matter, worm counts, bacterial and mychorrizal levels; and the roles of this and the highly diverse mixtures of plants on the soil’s carbon content. Long-term grazed grasslands can potentially store more carbon than forests. Visitors to the farm will see ‘untidy’ pastures full of many tall and deep rooting herbs and grasses, many of them flowering, and full of a huge variety of insects. These types of pastures have the potential to reverse the catastrophic collapse of the insect population, caused by the destruction of their food supply by the overuse of agrochemicals.

I should add that regenerative farming does not mean that we all have to eat nothing but meat and dairy products; regenerative vegetable producers are developing a whole new science of compost making that does the same job. Nevertheless, it is equally untrue that cattle farming and meat-eating are always one of the biggest causes of carbon being released into the atmosphere and therefore of climate change. Stephen points out that whilst this may be more true of modern intensive farming, it is not so for those who use soil regenerative methods such as his family does. “It is also highly misleading to blame ruminant-derived methane as a contributor to global warming. Ruminant methane is oxidised to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere within 11 years, and all the resulting carbon dioxide is absorbed by the plants they feed on during photosynthesis.” He says that if every farmer in the world were to take up regenerative farming, it would go a long way towards solving the climate crisis as well as regenerating the soil. I would also add that with the growing cost of chemical inputs and the clear need to reduce the use of fossil fuels (the main raw material for making agrochemicals is oil), we can imagine that eventually this will be forced upon the farming industry if it is not taken up voluntarily. The present scattering of organic and regenerative farmers such as Stephen and his family can be seen as pioneers.

The farm’s grazing routine takes a lot of time, but he points out that they would rather do that than spend their time running a year-round indoor housing system. The Partnership has been using traditional methods to create highly beneficial compost for their farm soils, using the straw manure produced by the loose housed dairy herd, rather than applying liquid slurry to the fields. However, they continue to learn and develop their practices. They have realised that composting does produce carbon dioxide from the oxidation of organic matter as the manure rots down, and that the process leaves less than 50% of the volume of the original material (which is also true for the composting of all garden and household green waste). They are now trialing Bokashi fermentative composting, using cultures produced from the farm’s own yoghurt production, hoping to retain virtually all the organic matter and carbon that the cattle produce.

The Partnership is keen to promote regenerative farming, and they regularly open their land for ‘farm walks’. Those who come will be impressed by the very different look of the pastures from others on neighbouring farms. The innovative methods produce a lower milk volume per cow than conventional dairy herds, but with a far higher butterfat and protein content. High yielding dairy cattle, particularly Holsteins, require intensively grown arable crops such as maize, cereals, soya, rape seed and sometimes palm oil derived fat supplements to maintain their milk yield and keep them healthy; whilst Old Burford Farm’s milk, as it says on the Brown Cow Organics yoghurt cartons, is produced by ‘happy, grass-fed cows’. Besides the farming here being so much more sustainable than elsewhere, it seems much more worthwhile, for many different reasons; and the yoghurt, by the way, is delicious.

Regenerative grazing (smaller)
Permanent meadow pasture 2 (smaller)

With thanks to Stephen Turner for permission to use his article ‘Thankfulness for Farming’, on which several sections of this piece are based, for his input to this article, and for the use of his photographs of herbal leys and grazing cattle. (Photograph of the view of Glastonbury Tor by Bruce Garrard). Thanks also to Susannah Clemence for her short article ‘Brown Cow Organics’, from the Glastonbury Climate and Ecological Emergency Advisory Committee Newsletter, December 2022.