Just three miles from the centre of Exeter lies West Town Farm, a largely livestock farm where the land is managed organically, the animals are cared for to the highest standards and every effort is made to conserve the wildlife that lives along side and within the farm. It’s a real working farm with wildlife-rich meadows, woodlands, happy livestock and a lively diversity of community activities.
The tenant farmer is Andy Bragg. Andy feels strongly that everyone should be able to enjoy the countryside, understand farming and benefit from local produce. He wants to see people at the farm, learning about the farm and seeing how food is produced, with the farm a centre of community.
The main enterprise is beef, reared organically and entirely grass-fed – either fresh grass or silage and hay depending on the seasons. All the silage and hay which the animals are fed, and most of the straw that the cattle are beded down with in winter is all grown on the farm. The farm’s herd is 135 or so cattle, made up of around 45 mother cows and their young. Laxfield Bonanza, a Hereford Bull, has the ‘job’ of ensuring all the mother cows produce calves. The calves stay with their mums for 8 months before they are weaned.
On a smaller scale there are pigs and sheep and small amount of vegetable growing. The pigs are the traditional Oxford and Sandy Black and are kept outside all year where they can root through soil giving the micro-nutrients that they need to stay healthy. They sheep are Shropshires which uniquely do not eat trees – hence they can be pastured in the three orchards around the farm. Their grazing and management of the pasture in a traditional way controls the height of the grass and so provides an ideal habitat for smaller animals such as voles and insect species. Such thinking is part of the Higher Level Stewardship which the farm has attained for its environmental practices.
Andy Bragg was not on site when I visited so I had the pleasure of being shown around by then herdsman, Alex, and WWOOFer from Norway, Nanna. Their openness, approachability and commitment to the farm and its animals speaks millions for the ethos of the farm.
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[Double clicking on any of the images will open up the images up in a slideshow format which you can then run using ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons. Full screen view can be opened with F11 – at least on my PC it is, actual key needed may vary. To get out of full screen its the same button, not ESC!]
The farm is and has always been a Church of England Farm, and has been farmed by the Bragg family for the last three generations. Andy took over the farm in 1982 and then farmed a dairy herd. It was his care about animal welfare and biodiversity that led in 1990 to make a switch to organic farming, completing conversion in 1992 and producing organic milk until 2006. He gave up dairy farming then in response to the low milk price, changing to organic beef production by buying a pedigree Hereford bull, and starting to breed from him and the best of the dairy cows.
As well as livestock the farm has a small area growing organic potatoes and a range of squashes, and is the location for traditional orchards that grow a range of apples from small sour cider apples to sweet Rose Russets. The aim is to sell all the produce locally, which means a very active self-service farm shop which is open everyday from 9 until 5 pm and the meat is also available from several shops around Exeter and the local farmer’s markets.
The continual development of the farm under Andy Bragg’s direction means that West Town farm is not just a small Church of England farm. With partners OrganicARTS, an educational charity providing creative farm based learning, and Love Local Food, a social enterprise working mainly in Devon and connecting local people to local food through our mobile shop and education and community projects, the farm hosts over 150 educational visits a year (well over 5000 individuals!!), has a community garden used by vulnerable adults, hosts family open days, conferences, birthday parties, music festivals and art shows, and is even able to host weddings. Its been chemical free for 25 years and the diversity of wildlife that has found its home here astonishing with hedgerows and orchards being reinstated.
All in all its a spectacular success. Long may it be so – great visit, great place.
For more on West Town farm see the farm’s website.