How Whitmuir Organics farm was transformed into a model farm

Heather Anderson and Pete Ritchie took a fresh approach to farming at their holding in the Midlothian Countryside.
Heather Anderson and Pete Ritchie took a fresh approach to farming at their holding in the Midlothian Countryside.
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Promoted by The Scottish Environment Business Awards

When Heather Anderson and Pete Ritchie took on Whitmuir Farm, outside West Linton in Midlothian, in 2000, it was – in Heather’s words – “Wall to wall sheep”.

It would take vision and great determination to transform it from a hill sheep farm to the award-winning and visionary organic farm it is today.

Find out more about the VIBES Awards at www.vibes.org.uk

Turning a traditional farm into one that is fit for the future doesn’t happen overnight. As the couple’s experiences show, it takes time, patience, determination, lots of planning and a deep conviction that the way we farm – for all its many good points – could be that little bit better.

Today everything at Whitmuir Organics farm at Lamancha, 16 miles south of Edinburgh, is farmed organically, instantly helping to reduce its carbon footprint: according to the Soil Association, if organic farming was common practice in the UK, it could offset at least 23 per cent of our domestic agriculture’s current greenhouse emissions.

But they have gone further. Solar panels generate clean, renewable energy, they’ve planted trees to help drainage and enhance biodiversity, experimented with crops to help nurture the soil and initiated an innovative waste food collection and bio-digestion project that encouraged local schoolchildren to engage with life on the farm, grow and cook their own produce.

Their 54-hectare farm is open so people can stroll through to see it at work. Their Tamworth, Duroc and Great White pigs are allowed to root, roam and explore the woodland and grassland, and rows of polytunnels burst with colourful tomatoes, salad greens, spinach, rainbow chard, courgettes and cucumber.

“Our entire approach has been around feeding people better,” says Anderson. “Most farmers are restricted to growing a single commodity, they sell that one thing to a supermarket which sets the price and terms.

“We were completely off the wall by thinking ‘let’s grow food for people’.”

Their daring bid to disrupt the way our food is produced was recognised in 2013 when Whitmuir Organics won a prestigious VIBES Scottish Environment Business Award for Changing Behaviour.

The awards group, which has recently revealed their 2019 shortlist, commends businesses which are helping to meet the national ambition to be a world leader in tackling climate change.

While it’s easy to think the climate crisis is a relatively new phenomenon, the VIBES Awards are now in their 20th year.

According to Claudia Rowse, head of natural resource management at Scottish Natural Heritage – one of several key partners involved in the VIBES Awards – Scotland’s agricultural sector has a key role and direct interest in laying the battle lines to combat climate change.

“Humans are having a huge impact on the land and a massive impact on biodiversity,” says Rowse. “The people who are vital to helping us tackle them are farmers and crofters who work the land.

“The question is how we do that and create profitable businesses for the future that reduce carbon, address biodiversity and bring other benefits. It’s very challenging.”

SNH’s recent Natural Capital Asset Index – a register of Scotland’s natural features from lochs to woods, peat bogs to animals and air quality – recently confirmed signs of slight improvement, but there is much still to be done.

Land use – from rearing livestock to using fertilisers, deforestation, wildfires, fuel and simply churning the soil and releasing carbon – are said to be responsible for 23 per cent of all greenhouse gases.

The challenge of meeting the needs of an expanding global population and farming more efficiently with less waste is being looked at both in the field and the laboratory.

At the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, barley – often considered as a little old-fashioned for the dinner table – is being revived as a potential future solution to at least part of the issue.

“Wheat has overtaken barley, but we see the potential for a brilliant product,” says Professor Derek Stewart.

“We grow two million tons, but a lot goes to animal feed. However, there is potential to put barley into other foods. There are components in barley that can reduce the risk of cholesterol uptake, or we could put it into foods and increase the protein level significantly.

“The straw that comes with barley could be processed and used as an alternative to fossil fuels. There are multiple products that can come from a single plant.”

The institute’s scientists, who last year picked up a Climate Change Adaptation VIBES Award for their Barley Hub research, also examined the impact of climate change on the barley crop.

A key element has been the exploration of “magic margins”, textured surfaces at field margins to slow field run-off and reduce erosion, while the Barley Hub has also explored woodland planting and hedging to promote biodiversity.

Elsewhere at the institute, scientists have created Scotland’s first “vertical farm”, designed to be a time-efficient and waste-free method of producing food which could help feed the world’s crowded cities.

Down on the farm, meanwhile, groups of farmers across Scotland are using their own land as experimental platforms for future farming methods.

Rebecca Audsley, team leader of soils and water in the Scottish Government-funded Farming for a Better Climate initiative at Scotland’s Rural College, explains that a climate change focus group of nine farmers has been examining practical ways of reducing their farms’ carbon footprint and becoming more resilient to climate challenges.

“Farmers have always had to work with the weather, but climate change is throwing up some new challenges: colder, wetter springs, warmer autumn, more storms, heavy downpours concentrated in a smaller area,” she says.

“Farmers are really aware of these challenges, and adapting is something they have always had to do. It’s a natural process to be innovative and come up with new ideas.”

The farmers have worked collaboratively on issues such as irrigation and good soil structure to help with drainage and drought resistance. As well as helping to become more resilient to climate change, they found additional benefits to smarter farming: four farmers involved in the project up to 2014 counted around £20,000 of savings and a reduction of 10 per cent on their farm carbon footprint.

However, Rowse of the SNH points out that the farm of the future is not something that can simply be left to farmers.

“They are the ones who suffer from very hot summers or heavy rain which floods their land. But they are feeling under attack and facing a lot of criticism,” she says.

“However, it’s society that has created the problems. We need education for the public, we need to define how food is transported, and wasted both on farms and in our homes. We’re going to need transformation across the society. What we all need to do now is help farmers.”

Find out more about the VIBES Awards at www.vibes.org.uk