How one Devon farmer turned his back on industrial farming
PUBLISHED: 10:35 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 10:39 13 March 2018
Peter Greig turned his back on industrial farming, determined to find a better way. He tells Catherine Courtenay about his ethical approach to producing meat
Generations ago, people walked along the lane past Pipers Farm, then the main road to Exeter, on their way to work.
Last year farmer Peter Greig asked some visiting schoolchildren to imagine walking the route. What did they notice? They showed him plants and trees in the hedgerows, the birds flying past... He then pointed out the modern version, the M5, snaking through the valley below. “What about going to work now?” he asked.
“We’d be looking at phones and tablets,” they replied.
“At 70mph how much appreciation of the landscape and nature can you have?” he asks me. “But people travelling this road 400 years ago were intimately involved with nature.”
By the time those eight-year-olds had spent a day with Peter and his wife Henri at Pipers Farm, they were fully immersed in the natural world and, the vital point for Peter, understood its connection to farming and the food we eat.
We live in a world of industrialised farming, but Pipers Farm, and the 20 or so family farms which work with it, are following a different route, the ‘horse and cart approach’, as Peter describes it.
They farm ethically and sustainably, their animals are free range, breeds suited to the Devon landscape, allowed to grow naturally and in harmony with the surrounding countryside.
“Understanding nature and having empathy with it is absolutely vital for farmers,” he states.
This approach to food production is no backward looking, unrealistic dream, he insists. As those who’ve met him will know, Peter is emphatic that his way of farming can and should be the future.
“Industrial farming is growing animals by numbers, it’s about driving down costs for short term profits. The premise it is built on, of not respecting the natural world, means it is on borrowed time.”
But it’s a pervasive global phenomenon, and we are surrounded by it, even in the quiet fields of Devon, he says.
Peter speaks with understanding - his father was an industrial chicken meat producer and his grandfather had a successful chain of butchers’ shops in the south east. Peter has been a farmer all his life. “As soon as I could crawl out of the house into the farmyard I was there. It was all I ever wanted to do.”
He shares this passion with Henri but in the early 1980s the couple made a landmark decision.
“The thing keeping my father’s chickens alive was antibiotics; one of the greatest gifts mankind has ever been given - and the abuse of them to sustain an industrialised system of growing meat protein was a cost far too high.”
Furthermore: “We were producing food which we were not prepared to feed our children and in a way we dared not show to our customers.” After driving thousands of miles, viewing around 80 farms, with two small children in tow, they found Pipers Farm.
It was cheap (a few sheds and a bungalow with no foundations) but set in “a magic location” and importantly it was surrounded by a family farm network, something that had disappeared in the south east.
Peter taught himself butchery and they started small, taking their meat in the back of their car direct to a handful of customers in Exeter.
Their mission has always been to produce great tasting, high quality meat, farmed in an ethical way which supports the natural environment. It’s also about understanding what the customer wants and how they want it and re-establishing the link between farmer and consumer.
Convinced this approach will work because of consumer power and the internet, he’s witnessed young people returning to their family farms, who now also see a future for themselves.
Peter will always tell people that you could eat his chickens raw – if you wish. The fact that meat has warning labels plastered over it is appalling to him, but a result of industrial farming.
He strongly refutes the statement that industrialisation is the only way to feed the world, citing health issues, antibiotic resistance and environmental costs.
“It is unsustainable. If people say they are producing cheap food, they are deluded.”
The visiting children ate sausages around a camp fire in the woods, used nets to catch insects, looked into sheeps’ mouths and learned about gut bacteria; they saw the millions of creatures feeding off sheep poo, they took in about the killing of animals and they picked herbs in the orchard and made their own burgers.
“They got it,” says Peter. “They absolutely got it. It must be a building block of our society for kids to grow up with an understanding in a way that the last generation completely missed out on.
“And it’s about smashing the myth pedalled by the industrial sector that this is playing, that this is not the way to feed these kids or the world. Those kids picked up on it immediately.”
The Pipers Farm mission
Family farms: small scale mixed farms, not factory farms
Sustainable economy: paying fair prices to farmers which don’t fluctuate with the market.
Native breeds: like Red Ruby cattle – because they are used to the terrain and climate in Devon.
Clover-rich grass: ruminant animals eat a diet of 100% pure, natural grass, all grown on the farm.
Slow Food: growing animals at a natural pace, and supporting the Slow Food movement which aims to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, farmed in line with local ecosystems.
Food waste: a zero to landfill business and the whole carcass is used, from nose to tail
Eat less meat: everyone should cut down as it is not sustainable.