There are many inspiring examples of how to do things better but few match up to Abbey Home Farm, located outside Cirencester in the Cotswolds. It’s not especially picturesque – workmanlike describes it better – but as an example of actions speaking louder than words, it’s up there with the best. Sustainability infuses everything the farm does and is built into its infrastructure. So much so that, if I had my way, I would demand government ministers were quarantined in the farm’s new education centre until they realised just how much difference an organic-cum-sustainable ethos can achieve for the good of all. I’d also make sure that as many school children as possible could spend a couple of glorious hands-on days there learning the value of sustainability in our world.
Abbey Home Farm is an organic farm where you can see, eat, stay, get involved and learn about every aspect of a kinder, better and more sustainable way of living. It’s an organic farm where joined-up thinking and practice is writ large. It’s run by eco-environmentalists Will and Hilary Chester-Master, who took it over in 1990. The farm has been in the family for nearly 500 years, and while Will got to grips with the custodianship of the land and converting the 1,500 acres to certified organic farming, it was Hilary who, step by organic step and against all the odds (including weathering the recent crippling financial recession), provided the vision and drive to transform Abbey Home Farm into the people-friendly beacon of sustainability it is today.
The farm’s winning formula has three key strands. Most vital is Will and Hilary’s commitment to providing as much food for the local community from the farm as possible. This began with a modest one-acre vegetable plot and tiny farm shop and café. Fast forward 20 years, and today they produce and sell all their own organic meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, wheat (milled locally and made into their own bread) along with 15-acres worth of fruit and vegetables . The farm even sells firewood and homegrown flowers. Everything – except some of their beef, lamb and cereals – is sold exclusively from the farm shop, eaten in the café and used to feed people on courses in their education centre. Abbey Home Farm is a model of mixed, local farming, serving its immediate community by producing an array of key staples. It’s a model that some argue we must return to, if we want a more sustainable food system.
Award winning café, serving 100% seasonal organic food
Along the way, Will and Hilary have built their own butchery and micro-dairy and expanded the farm shop and café. The latter are at the heart of the farm – literally and physically. The shop is the best one-stop farm shop in Britain, in my opinion, selling the same range as an organic supermarket, with well over 2,000 lines. The café is unswervingly seasonal and offers total farm-to-plate joy. Provenance here is measured in feet not miles, and at the height of summer 90% of the food sold and eaten in the café is produced on the farm. For nine months of the year, the only item not produced on the farm is the cooking oil for the Sunday roast lunches; but an oil press is on their wish list. If writer Michael Pollan shopped and ate here, he would think he had died and gone to food heaven.
It is this extraordinary farm-to-plate connection that elevates shopping and eating to a different dimension. “For me, it’s about going back to basics,” says Hilary. “Research has shown, for example, that people who have some connection with the food they eat are happier – and this, in a sense, is what we are trying to achieve. We see people from the town just come for a coffee, book onto a course, then become a shopper and end up becoming ambassadors, bringing their friends and family on farm walks.”
If producing organic food is at the heart of what the farm does, its second commitment is to sustainability, in the widest sense of the word. “Treading lightly,” as Hilary puts it, is the lifeblood that underpins everything she and Will try to do. The farm’s green buildings (built with green oak from the farm) – including its farm shop, café and new education centre – are visible examples of this ethos, which continues behind the scenes.
An aerial view of the heart of the farm
Take energy and waste, for example: two 11kw Gaia wind turbines plus an array of 24kw PV supply around a third of the farm shop’s electricity. A 50kw wood chip boiler (the farm had the first one in Gloucestershire) and solar thermal panels supply all the heating and hot water for the shop, cafe, education centre and other buildings. Waste is also taken very seriously. Despite well over 1,000 visitors a week, unbelievably, only five normal domestic rubbish sacks go to landfill per week, and another four sacks of edible waste go to the compost heap. Everything else is either recycled or re-used.
Their green credentials are also matched by their commitment to social sustainability. Hilary says that “providing local employment, and being a social hub for the local community, where everyone is made to feel welcome, is very important. Our reward is fantastic loyalty from our staff and customers, who are our best PR. We don’t advertise and have grown largely by word of mouth. Nor do we preach – I’ve always seen our role as enablers. What is particularly satisfying is when people say that coming here has changed their views, or that it’s the best sort of education.”
Their social sustainability stretches as far as India, which is their other passion. Twenty-five years ago, Hilary set up a micro block-printing workshop in Rajasthan, whose products are sold in the farm shop and online. This provides a steady annual salary for two printers – unheard of in these parts of India – which then ripples out to their extended families.
The deeper you delve into Abbey Home Farm, the more one appreciates how each of its enterprises feeds and nurtures others. The result is a symbiotic ‘living web’, a linked system of pathways with many entry points that anyone coming to the farm can dip into at their own pace, and reach their own conclusions.
Which brings me to the third important strand of Will and Hilary’s formula: education. Once again, it’s their multi-faceted approach that sets them apart. The range of facilities includes a demonstration kitchen, conference room and accommodation; their programme encompasses school visits, cookery courses, artisan workshops and hands-on practical training, providing a variety of ways for people to engage with the farm and what they do. They are also one of the founders and key players in the Soil Association’s Future Growers scheme, which trains new organic growers. To date, they have nurtured 11 apprentices from the scheme on the farm, and over 200 trainees have come to their seminars.
“Experiential education has to be the ultimate key to positive change, especially for young people,” explains Hilary. Their new eco-education centre, The Orchard, is intended to facilitate just that. It will enable Abbey Home Farm to throw open its doors to many more people from all walks of life, helping them to get involved with all the farm’s activities. It’s the final piece in the jigsaw that has taken over 20 years to complete. For Abbey Home Farm is no hobby farm: sheer grit, determination, stubbornness and passion has made it what it is – no mean feat for two vegetarians who never had a grand plan and never intended to become farmers.
For more information about the education centre, contact hello[@]thefarm.education.org.