Ben Hoyles, Brook Farm  

Ben and sheep
Middle field

Ben Hoyles lives at Brook Farm, on the western edge of Butleigh. If you have ever walked along the footpath that takes you from Henley Lane to The White Field – a small nature reserve that used to belong to the permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield – then you will have walked along the edge of one of Ben’s fields, and probably seen some of his sheep. He has built the holding up from practically nothing, his flock has grown from seven sheep to 123 in seven years, and his relaxed manner hides the long days of hard work that it must have taken to achieve this.

Ben sees himself as different from most of those taking part in the Avalon 5-mile Food and Farming project, in that he is a farmer with livestock rather than a grower producing vegetables. This is certainly true of most who came to the big Town Hall meeting in March, though what this really illustrates is just how few members of the traditional local farming community were attracted to the event. Nvertheless, as Ben says, most farmers have little interest in huge factory farms with their attendant huge bank overdrafts; they would prefer the modest-sized family farms that are now in danger of extinction. Farming, Ben agrees, is in a very difficult place.

He particularly dislikes the great quantity of maize that is grown on modern farms as cattle feed, which he blames on EU farming regulations. As he says, this has been bad for the soil, with their need for large quantities of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as bad for the rivers with the high rate of chemical run-off that results. He points out that the River Brue in the area around Barton St David, Butleigh and Baltonsborough has never been so polluted as it is now. Besides that, if you grow maize, you have to harvest it at the end of October, which upsets life’s seasonal flow. The first field that he bought, seven years ago, had previously grown maize year after year for 22 years. The worst part of all this is the scarey warnings about the state of the soil, including reports and statements from the United Nations that say we may have only 50 harvests left.

Nevertheless, when faced with a word like ‘agroecology’ he can’t quite see its relevance to the day-to-day reality of farming life. He has looked into organic farming, but the costs involved with accreditation and compliance are prohibitive. All the same, the cost of agricultural chemicals is rising sharply, which makes buying old-fashioned manure attractive – regardless of organic accreditation. In fact, all his sheep are 100% grass-fed, and what he would call  ‘99% organically reared’.  “I think this is the best way for the animals and the environment. Animal welfare is my top priority, and I give my sheep the best life that I can. Some people say I look after my sheep better than I look after myself!”

His mother once won an award for her contributions to conservation and the environment, and with this background Ben perhaps stands half way between the two extremes in any debate about the way forward for agriculture. I get the feeling that whatever the future holds, he will find the best way to survive and thrive. He joined the 5FF project because a friend persuaded him that it was short of ordinary farmers, and when I ask him if it had been helpful to him he says yes, even though he hasn’t really followed the ‘Elements of Agroecology’ scheme, it’s given him plenty to think about – and in a world with such an uncertain future it’s worth having your options open. The main thing is that “We’ve got to value food, where it comes from and how it’s produced”; and that does not sit comfortably with the increasing dominance in the industry of factory farming and supermarkets.

Whitefield herbs and flowers
Whitefield view

He now farms 30 acres. Half of this is the original large field that he bought on the edge of Butleigh, and divided into three – now the top field, the middle field and the bottom field. He has added to this bit by bit, renting the grazing on fields that have come available in various places in this part of Somerset. He still works mainly as a contractor, cutting grass and hay-making for people living nearby, mainly on small farms and smallholdings where the big contractors’ equipment is too big and heavy for the size of the land. He very much keeps in touch with his local community. An interesting recent addition has been The White Field nature reserve, which he now uses for grazing and helps to look after – following the detailed requirements of the Wildlife Trust’s regime.

His own fields are sown with rye grass, as are most fields used for growing hay or rearing livestock these days. He likes rye grass because it grows quickly and productively. By contrast, the organic wildflower meadowland on The White Field will never give more than one cut of hay each year, but the rich texture of flowers and herbs in that hay means it is highly valued. When I asked him what kind of grasses grew there he couldn’t say, there are so many different varieties of grass, herbs and flowers, even orchids. The contrast between the two, between land used primarily to make a living in today’s economic conditions, and land used to benefit wildlife as part of a charitable venture, is something that he finds interesting and worthwhile – it’s worth understanding both approaches.

Whether the two can ever be combined once again in an environment that can support the whole of nature – including humans – is something that so far remains in doubt. The White Field was bought by Patrick forty years ago (he took his surname from the name of the field). At that time it had recently been calculated that it formed part of the last surviving 3% of Britain’s wildflower meadowland, and that percentage has hardly risen at all since then. He bequeathed the field to the Somerset Wildlife Trust shortly before his death in 2015. It was his uncompromising determination that allowed it and its natural flora to survive, and now to it being held in trust in perpetuity.

We went to visit the field. It’s clear from the way he describes the Wildlife Trust’s regime – for instance, strict adherence to the earliest date he’s allowed to cut for hay – that he really cares. The hay is turned five times, so that as many seeds as possible are left on the field to re-grow the following year. He grazes the field after the hay has been cut and he told me, “When the sheep have been grazing here …” and he paused. I imagined he was going to say something like, “They don’t want to eat the grass from anywhere else”. But what actually came after the pause was “… I move them on to graze somewhere else, and the next year there’s orchids growing there.”  He clearly loves this little miracle of nature, which many may not even have noticed.