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Son of the Soil

Turning organic has brought a better quality of life – as well as increased profits – for the inaugural Scottish Agriculture Awards Sustainable Farm of the Year.

It is no exaggeration to say that Stuart Mitchell, who is still only 30 years-old but has run the family farm for five years, has an old head on young shoulders.

When he was a young lad he was absolutely “tractor mad,” as was his father and grandfather before him, but now it’s his name on the cheque book he has adopted a more back-to-basics approach to farming 442-hectare Whitriggs, near Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

“When it’s you who is paying for shiny new pieces of equipment, it gives you a different perspective,” smiles Stuart.

“Everything we do on the farm now is questioned. Does it earn its place? Could it be done in a more sustainable way?”

Being crowned this year’s Sustainable Farm of the Year feels like industry validation for the Mitchells at Whitriggs, and Stuart is quick to praise his parents, Robert and Lesley, for having the foresight to tackle the perennially tricky subject of succession early.

“The awards ceremony was a very special evening; especially having the whole team there with me,” says Stuart.

“If a farmer’s son or daughter is years off taking over the farm and not really getting paid, then you can understand that driving around with the latest machinery is a kind of compensation for that,” says Stuart. “Whereas I am fully responsible for the financial decisions and have to accept the consequences.”  

One of Stuart’s first major decisions – apart from following an organic path – was replacing the farm’s 1,000 Lleyn ewes with 330 red deer.

“The sheep had a high level of maedi visna disease and rather than keeping fighting it we made the move over to deer,” explains Stuart, who came home to the farm after completing a degree in agriculture at the university in Edinburgh.

“Swapping sheep for deer was a massive jump and took considerable planning, both financial and practical, with things like fencing and handling facilities. Again, I think with being young it gave me the enthusiasm to push the farm forward in a new direction.”

The farm runs 330 breeding females, with those not being kept within the herd going direct for venison.

“The deer are naturally from Scotland – this is the habitat they are meant to be in – and because they are in the landscape they hail from they thrive,” explains Stuart. “So once the infrastructure for them was in place the actual hands-on work involved is very minimal – not even a fraction of what we needed to put in (for lower returns) with the sheep.”

150-head of suckler cattle, bred three-ways with Shorthorn, Angus and Hereford blood, are mob grazed through the summer. Whereas cattle on the farm were previously kept in four or five bulling groups, the new system means they can be split simply two-ways into cows and heifers.

“Because they’re not eating among fresh dung – being moved onto new pasture every day – their worm burden is kept to a minimum. It’s about three months before they are back grazing to the same spot, by which time, with no host on that strip of land, any parasites are long dead.”

“Outwinter bale grazing has been an absolute game changer,” enthuses Stuart. “It used to take us 4 hours each day to feed the cattle inside. Now it takes us 30 minutes to unroll the bales and move fences, and at the same time we can be checking them over.”

All the mature cows are wintered outside, with heifers until February and calves kept out until mid-January. This keeps greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum, avoiding the labour, machinery, diesel and other input costs associated with winter housing. 50 hectares are down to arable crops, split between winter oats and spring barley. These are sold off farm to a local mill and other organic farms as all their livestock are only fed on pasture/forage.

“I told the judges for the awards that you can’t look at sustainable farming solely from an environmental point of view,” says Stuart. “It’s all inter-connected. There is no point following certain farming paths or methods for the benefits to the environment if they are not sustainable for the next generation. Farmers futures and livelihoods depend on working with the environment – but doing so in a sustainable way. How I do this is question everything. Sometimes, as farmers, we do something a certain way because we always have. If you go right back to absolute basics and question why you need a certain piece of machinery or chemical then you can find a path to farming more sustainably. It’s all about working with nature, not against it.”

Stuart is married to Kate, who juggles helping on the farm with bringing up the couple’s two year-old daughter Eilidh.

“The winter before she was born there was probably only a handful of days when I was finished work before five o’clock at night,” says Stuart. “Since then, there has been no more than three days when I’ve end up working later than five during the winter. There are no two ways about it, we have a better quality of life now than when we were farming conventionally. The sheepdog certainly does as well!”

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