Arriving at Mossgiel farm on a bright January morning to speak to farmer Bryce Cunningham I am met first by the face of another famous Ayrshire dairy farmer: that of poet Robert Burns which adorns the Mossgiel farm advertising. It’s a reminder for me to stop and look around this rolling landscape. Looking out, I wonder just how much this landscape has changed since Burns’ time?
Aged 31, Bryce is relatively young amongst those of his profession which may explain his innovative approach to surviving in the dairy industry. He tells me that in fact he didn’t want to be a farmer and had left the farm as a teenager to pursue a career with Mercedes. The illness of his father prompted him to return with his wife Amy in 2013 and, in the short time since taking on the farm tenancy, revolutionary changes have taken place. Admittedly these changes were prompted by the market when in 2013 milk prices fell from 28p/L to 15p/L and eventually to 9p/L by 2015. Mr Cunningham Sr. had invested in intensifying the production from his 130-strong Ayrshire dairy herd milking three times daily with all-year-round indoor housing. This wasn’t enough to stem the losses and in 2015 the bank froze the farm’s accounts. Bryce and Amy faced a crisis with their son Arran only 4 months old at the time.
Two aerial pictures of the farm prompted Bryce to reconsider this approach; one from 1973 and the other from 2013. The loss of hedgerows is visible and tallied with the noticeable lack of birds that Bryce recalled so vividly from his youth on the farm.
“I thought you know what we have done to the environment in that short amount of time? Thirty, forty years is a relatively short amount of time. I just started researching conventional farming and how it’s causing issues and how fertiliser is causing problems.”
It was then that Bryce had a real vision of something he had seen down south a couple of years earlier; a herd of English Red Poll cattle at Melton Mowbray with a raw milk machine at the farm gate where Jamie Oliver actually buys the cheese. He decided this was what he wanted to do. So with some online research the next steps included a reduction of the herd by half and a considerable investment in a pasteuriser required to produce non- homogenized milk which is now sold directly. Some 35 litres are sold each day from the fridge in the family’s front porch and over another 100 customers, such as independent coffee houses in Glasgow, who prize the creamy milk for its “froth-ability”.
This business model depends on production of a high quality product that customers buy into as part of supporting a sustainable family-run business. The pedigree Ayrshire cattle take care of the first part; in fact the aim is to have the ‘girls’ fed on 100% forage in the next few years as this not only improves the milk quality for discerning baristas but also reduces the business’s carbon footprint.
Currently the farm is undergoing conversion to organic certification and there are plans in place to make the farm carbon neutral and to improve soil health. Accessing grant funding has been a challenge despite being eligible for the Young Farmers Capital Grant Scheme. Nonetheless they are persisting and hope to create cow tracks across the farm in the near future to improve both animal welfare and reduce carbon loss from trampling bare soil. Of course, this will be no ordinary track and Bryce animatedly describes to me the Consolid system of soil stabilisation which he has researched and found to be more environmentally-friendly and lower in cost.
“ I want to get back more to the way we used to farm; where you would work with nature and work with wildlife to farm better. “
Future work also includes a series of separating ponds leading to the natural wetland on the farm. This has two aims: to improve the quality of wetland habitat and to create a reserve of nutrient rich silt in the ponds which can be dug up and spread across the fields to increase the amount of organic matter returned to the soil. Herbal leys and composting dung for both their environmental and business benefits are aspects that have been carefully considered and are going to be implemented at Mossgiel in 2018.
Here you feel that there is a grand plan in place but Bryce attests that he is simply interested in returning to ‘the way we used to farm’ meaning in a more local, small scale with relationships of trust between producer and consumer. Any use of innovative technology is intended to make necessary processes more sustainable such as heat storage from the pasteurisation equipment.
Like many farmers Bryce sees an obvious advantage to reinstating hedgerows both as a means of stock proofing and also as a key wildlife habitat for many species. Currently he is unsure how he will finance this idea but feels that post-Brexit there may be an opportunity for him if public money is channelled into the provision of public goods such as habitat creation, carbon storage or water purification. Professional advice is another area that he hopes there will be funding for in the coming years.
The Cunninghams are upbeat about the future and feel that each opportunity which has presented itself so far has bolstered their confidence in the new blueprint of dairy production they are implementing. The returning customers are evidence of their success and in future Bryce would like to help other conventional dairy farmers convert to organic, direct production.
Scotland’s most famous Bard wrote works such as To A Mouse while resident at Mossgiel farm and only later do I consider the poignant verse:
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
With the fresh approach to farming Mossgiel perhaps there is hope for nature still.
Read more about Mossgiel Farm here.
Bryce is holding regular open meetings at the farm to discuss environmental win-wins.
This post is part of a series of conversations that SNH Graduate Placement Kirsten Brewster has been having with farmers across Scotland about #farmingwithnature