Am I a farmer? A grazier? A conservationist? Fifth-generation tenant farmer Frankie Guy talks about her struggles to meet expectations, budgets, regulations and principles as well as the joys of farming beef cattle on Salisbury Plain in England.
Sophie Lovell: There’s such a broad field (excuse the pun) of discussion to be had here, from your day-to-day experiences as a farmer in the UK, methods, subsidies, animal and soil welfare all the way to mental health issues for farmers. Then there is the fact that your parents, Richard and Gilly Guy, were pioneers of farm animal welfare through their Real Meat Company, founded in 1986, the UK’s first-ever brand dedicated to welfare, purity and quality, which transformed attitudes to farm animal welfare and food safety and quality and brought consumers the option to purchase meat from animals that had been well-cared for and had as natural a life as possible. That’s a tough act to follow and you have just completed the process of taking over the farm from them. What was it like to grow up with that and how does it compare to the choices you are making today?
Frankie Guy: It’s interesting to have a more intellectual debate about farming systems. I don’t often get to sit back and analyse my place in the food production ecosystem. The day-to-day is all cattle logistics, project managing our environmental work or wrangling piles of compliance paperwork. It’s funny because you catch me at a time when I’m feeling under intense pressure – my parents are retiring from the business and, although that’s long been the plan, the process has been difficult for the whole family and the mental health aspect of things hasn’t been great the last few months. It’s super interesting to be able to step back and get back into the mindset of thinking about farming in a more philosophical way as well as the sense of place here and doing the right thing in the right landscape.
Orlando Lovell: Let’s start with where you are based and what type of farm you have.
FG: I run a South Devon and Angus beef herd across 600 hectares of land on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in the southwest of England. The open landscape is famous for local landmarks (Stonehenge), its role as a military training area and its status as the largest unbroken expanse of chalk grassland in northwest Europe. Because the Plain was acquired as a military training area in the early 20th century, it is mostly untouched by modern, intensive farming methods. I and the neighbouring tenant farmers are privileged to be stewards of such a unique piece of land.
My farming approach is environment-led, by which I mean that I think about the environmental impact of our business practices ahead of the food production aspect. Both are important, but I could never be the kind of farmer who prioritises intensive production methods over the health of the local ecosystems.
It’s such an amazing thing to be able to farm in this particular location and to have an opportunity to do it in a way that is, I guess, environmentally friendly – depending on what metric you’re using to measure that.
OL: Do you find it hard to pinpoint a definition for what you are doing, to align yourself to what farming is for you?
FG: Yeah, it’s definitely difficult to pick what kind of lens you want to look at it through. Am I a farmer? A grazier? A conservationist? If you were to ask my landlord, the Ministry of Defence, they’d say the tenant farmers are “vegetation control” who ensure they meet their environmental priorities by managing grazing in line with chalk grassland conservation aims and help prevent wildfires on the Plain, which are increasingly frequent with climate change. Because Salisbury Plain is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) we have to manage the grass in a certain way – but is it the right way? Earlier this year, I listened to an entomology lecture that touched on an interesting point: should we be trying to restore and reverse habitat loss until we reach a pre-war state, or should we be focusing on designing new, climate-resilient landscapes?
SL: Do you think it is harder today to define your role and where you stand in an environmental context than it was for your parents?
FG: Absolutely. After WWII, farming had to be production-orientated. My parents grew up in a world where, through necessity, hedgerows were ripped up [to create larger fields] and chemicals applied indiscriminately. New technology, maximising yields, more chemicals – the advances must have been quite something to witness. But the environment got left behind and it’s only in recent years that the extent of the damage has really been understood.
When you grow up farming in a certain way, I think it’s hard to let go of old practices. I’ve had to challenge a lot of preconceptions on the journey of learning to farm here. Obviously, the Real Meat Company had a massive influence on how we treat animals in this country, but it didn’t focus on the environmental side of things, per se. It wasn’t so much of a thing then.
OL: So your parents have now just retired and you took over the farm entirely this summer of 2022, do you farm alone? Is anyone else in the family involved? How big a team do you have?
FG: I have part-time help for 2 -3 days a week. This is my first year farming without my parents’ help, so I’m still figuring it out. I can’t afford someone full-time, which means life gets pretty hectic. My fiancé lives on the farm with me but isn’t involved in the business. I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to handle calving season next spring without someone else on site. for example. It’s a pretty full-on 9 weeks!
OL: And what about you? What were your experiences before you came home and took up this huge mantle?
FG: My Dad always pushed me away from farming. His experience of taking on this farm at a young age (he was only 24) was a big part of that I think. My grandparents were tenant farmers near Basingstoke; they lost their tenancy in the late 1970s (while Dad was working on the farm, but had aspirations of an alternative career). When they found the tenancy on this farm, it made sense for Dad to sign the agreement as it was a three-generation tenancy. He went through immense physical and mental hardship in his first years here. I’m very fortunate to have had an easier start.
Because Dad was so against me farming, I went to university (UCL in London) to study French. After a year or two struggling to settle on a career after that, I blew my savings on a plane ticket and went backpacking. I spent a few months in South East Asia before moving to New Zealand, where I lived in Christchurch for 2.5 years where I worked in headhunting for engineering and construction, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy being behind a desk all the time, I hated trying to be “sales-y” – it didn’t fit my personality at all.
I had always thought I’d end up back on the farm in some shape or form, and as the years went on I romanticised it more and more. Farming has turned out to be far more intense and difficult than I could have ever imagined, but it’s also been incredibly rewarding.
SL: Generation changes are also perspective changes. What kinds of decisions have you been making with respect to what kind of farm this is and has been and where you want to take it?
FG: There is no simple answer to that. The grassland has been organic for just over ten years, and I’d like to make the arable organic too. I have to wait until 2026 as we’re currently in a Countryside Stewardship scheme, which is a government initiative that provides us with funding to manage the land environmentally.
Our arable area is currently home to wild bird food areas and nectar-rich plots to encourage pollinators. Arable is only permitted on a small area of the farm and it was the only part of the business that used fertiliser and chemicals. The scheme allowed me to stop doing that – all of the plots are now being grown under organic principles. I don’t yet have enough knowledge about how to correctly manage an organic crop rotation, so the environment scheme is an interim measure. In the future, I hope to have a mix of environmental focus areas and organic crops.
I guess you could say, “Oh, hey, that’s taking the land out of food production, that’s terrible” but equally you could say, “Hey, it’s a segue into taking advantage of the subsidies to turn the farm completely organic.” This is usually a two-year process whereby you are ‘in conversion’ for two years before you are able to sell any produce as organic. You stop using chemicals and fertilisers, but ultimately you can use some natural inputs to help with crop production.
SL: It sounds like there are so many parameters you could choose to adhere to and at the same time so many conflicting thoughts about ideal farming practices. How on earth do you decide what is the right or best path to follow? Is it in the end about being generally more regenerative but not dogmatically so?
FG: I am not sure about the term ‘regenerative’. It’s an unregulated term which feels like a “rebranding” of many of the practices we already have in place here. However, it’s great to see environmental farming principles becoming mainstream…even if no one can agree on what being “regenerative” means. It’s also important to think about the context of the landscape you’re farming in. Here, we have practised “conservation farming” for years and years, which means I manage the chalk grassland in a way that keeps nutrient levels low. You’d hardly call that “regenerative”, but chalk grassland is inherently nutrient deficient. It’s one of the features that allows such a wide range of rare plants to thrive. If I had a regenerative approach, i.e. trying to build soil organic matter and increase fertility, we wouldn’t have such a diverse range of flora and fauna.
But then you could step back and think, “Is it right or wrong that we’re managing for a particular species or type of ecosystem in the first place?” The army bought this part of Salisbury Plain for training during the war and that is the reason it remains relatively untouched. I think only about 0. 2 per cent of England is chalk grassland, a tiny amount. It’s really species-rich but also very much a managed landscape. And the big question is: should we be doing that? Is it right to continue to manage this landscape, to protect the species diversity there? Especially in the context of a resilient future food system. Or is it not? Should we be building up the soil with organic matter, according to regenerative principles and using that land to grow food? I don’t know. It always feels like there are far more questions than answers in farming.
OL: Presumably, since everybody likes to have an opinion about how farmers should be doing things, you are also getting lots of conflicting advice, incentives, and criticism on the subject as well.
FG: Yes, everybody has a different opinion. But I think by questioning and combining approaches, you can start to see the overlap points where things can intersect or grow together. Sometimes I tie myself in knots over what’s actually the right way to farm, but then I come back to thinking, “Hey, what a beautiful place we have here and we’re looking after the landscape as best we can.” We’re trying, you know? But it’s hard to know which direction to take when there are a hundred different methods and a hundred different opinions to take into consideration.
SL: I can’t imagine what it must feel like for you sometimes and the pressure you must feel you are under to do right by the land, by your livestock, by your family and community, globally and in terms of the expectations on you to be a food producer within such a maze of restrictions and regulations. What do you do to help with the psychological burden of this pretty tough life you have sought out? Are there support networks with other young farmers? Or knowledge networks beyond articles in the press? Does your honest sharing about your daily joys as well as tribulations on your Instagram feed help?
FG: The pressure can be all-consuming It’s easy to get caught up in it and neglect your physical and mental health. In recent years, I’ve been so grateful for the connections I’ve made through social media – there are so many wonderful, supportive people out there. Farming is a big, scary and often lonely job. You end up in a kind of Manichaean struggle between completely succumbing to your work and remembering to put your own health first. It’s easy to end up really anxious or depressed by the enormity of the task. Sharing some aspects of this on social media has provoked some really helpful conversations. There are some really good farmer-led mental health initiatives around. I recently reached out to the Farming Community Network, after an extremely difficult few months, who have set me up with a local support contact.
In terms of looking after myself, I make sure I leave the farm a few times a week, I’ve recently (re)taken up yoga and started bouldering – both are a wonderful brain break. On the rare occasions I get a good window to leave the farm for a few days, I prioritise seeing friends or travelling somewhere new.
SL: To top it all, you are also a beef farmer, which has a pretty bad press environmentally these days. Do you get flak for that and if so how do you deal with it?
FG: I think one of the most depressing things I’ve read, but also the most interesting is that, if the only metric you are going by is carbon emissions, we should all be eating feedlot beef that is intensively produced and hyper-efficient. In that kind of context, it’s sometimes very hard to have the conviction that what you’re doing is the right thing. Who knows what’s right? Should there be more urban farming using artificial conditions to grow things that can be more hyperlocal? Or should we be focusing on doing more environmental work on existing farms?
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote an article recently that said organic pasture-fed farming is the worst kind of farm system there is. Sometimes I think: “Can you just, you know, maybe give it a rest?” It’s not like there are farmers out there who actively want to destroy the environment. There are all these generalised international stats about livestock farming in Australia, for example, but no nuanced looks at the merits of nature-friendly farms. I firmly believe that, in the right context, organic, pasture-fed farming is the right direction. That does, however, raise questions about food prices and affordability. I’d like to see a world where everyone who wanted to eat it was able to afford meat raised the ‘right’ way.
OL: You go to a lot of effort to raise your cattle as naturally as possible, outdoors and in family herds – very much continuing your parents’ animal welfare and food safety goals. Does this chain follow through to the consumer? Do you have a special outlet or labelling for your beef so people can choose to buy it if they wish?
Unfortunately not. The commercial supply chain is not set up in a way that values cattle raised this way. I’m working at a scale where I don’t have the time to build direct sales. Selling 80 cows’ worth of beef every year would require a lot more time, infrastructure and space than I have available. But I’m not big enough to merit the abattoirs’ attention either – in order to advocate positive change. I’d love to see a special scheme or labelling to help the consumer differentiate. For now, it’s pot luck at the supermarket – you may be getting ethically raised beef, or you could be buying something intensively produced. There’s no way to tell. The craziest part is that there are no metrics for eating quality in the UK (and I believe European) meat grading systems. Worse still, the best prices are for animals where the meat cuts fit in the plastic packaging in the supermarket without needing too much trimming. It’s unbelievable that the packaging size dictates prices.
OL: That is so sad and shocking to hear. Especially after your parents spent so many years trying to do exactly that – give both farmer and consumer a choice with respect to the quality of life the animal they are eating had.
SL: It is so hard to talk about complexity and cause and effect at a food system level. I think we don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it properly yet. And we haven’t even touched upon legislation, or the urban/rural disconnect – the fact that for the majority of people, the rural, including food production, is no longer connected to daily life. This perhaps is another reason that labels such as ‘regenerative’, ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ are problematic because most people aren’t conversant with the complexities of what they involve in practice. Maybe we should end this conversation by narrowing the focus completely: Where do you want to get to with your farm? What would you like to achieve or what balance would you like to reach?
FG: In a perfect world, I’d have a farm that achieves the ideal balance between enhancing and protecting the local landscape while producing high-welfare, nutritious meat. When I have some more headspace, I’d love to explore ways to bridge that urban/rural disconnect. I’ve always wanted to create more of a sense of community here and maybe host educational trips, but I’m not sure where to start.
Frankie Guy is a Fifth-generation tenant farmer navigating the highs and lows of running an environment-led beef farming operation on military training land in South West England. You can follow her experiences on her Instagram account Far From the Madding Cows.
Title image: Frankie’s cows weathering “Beast from the East” snowstorm in 2018. All images © and courtesy of Frankie Guy except where indicated.