Guardian: How one couple ditched urban living to set up a carbon neutral farm

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May 2, 2014 by Tess Riley

Imagine learning about something so powerful one day that you decided to quit your career, move yourself and your family 300 miles to the other side of the UK, and start up a renewables-powered farm. All without any farming experience.

That’s exactly what Paul and Celia Sousek did back in 2005. Today they run one of the UK’s first carbon neutral, organic farms. Intrepid journalist that I am, I set off into the Cornish wilderness (!) to find out more. Here are some words I wrote for the Guardian about my day with the Souseks, hens and all.

Cornwall’s carbon neutral farm offers hope for sustainable agriculture

Agriculture is responsible for almost 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and a quarter globally. It doesn’t have to be this way, as farmers Paul and Celia Sousek demonstrate. Their commitment to organic farming without the use of fossil fuels demonstrates that far from contributing to climate change, agriculture can be part of the solution. I headed to Cottage Farm near Jacobstow, North Cornwall to see how on-farm renewables are enabling the Sousek family to fulfil their role as stewards of the environment as they cultivate a successful, family-run farm business.

Cows for beginners

It’s hard to believe that Paul and Celia Sousek, Farmer of the Year finalists in the BBC Food and Farming awards 2011, had absolutely no farming experience when they upped sticks and moved 300 miles West to Cottage Farm back in 2005. Unfazed, they embarked on their new livelihoods with a weekend course in Cows for Beginners and now oversee 50 hectares of land which is home to cows, sheep, hens and some very vocal geese. So why did the couple leave behind successful careers and the life they had built in Kent to take to the Cornish fields?

“That’s a simple one to answer”, says Paul. “I learnt about peak oil. Right on cue we then had the oil crisis in 2007, swiftly followed by the financial meltdown in 2008. Some believe that has all been resolved, but together with the ever worsening climate change situation, I think our problems are only just beginning.”

ruby red cow

And on that farm he had a… wind turbine, E-I-E-I-O

As soon as you pull into the Souseks’ driveway, you can’t miss the solar PV panels on the roof of the 17th century farmhouse. Combined with a wind turbine in one of the fields, these panels enable the farm to produce its own power every day of the year. Heating and hot water needs are likewise met thanks to solar thermal tubes and a wood burner running on wood from the farm, with the heat accumulated in a heat store. To reduce overall consumption, the Souseks have invested in extensive insulation and draft proofing.

Then there’s the biodiesel generator, a Willy Wonka-like construction in one of the barns – run, of course, on solar power. The generator is surrounded by large drums of waste vegetable oil Paul and Celia have bought from local restaurants. The resultant biodiesel meets all the family’s transport needs, including running the tractor and delivering the meat boxes.

So what has the Sousek family gained from spending £32,000 of their savings on the eco-conversion of their farm? For a start, they have almost no bills, they are saving £6,000 a year on heating and electricity alone. Rearing native breeds organically almost exclusively on grass with minimal use of supplementary fodder eliminates fuel, fertiliser and feed costs. They also have no water bills after having their own bore hole drilled. With water charges at £5 per cubic metre in Cornwall and a field full of thirsty cows, the Souseks recognised the value of doing this early on. The few bills that do come in, such as very occasional vet payments and purchasing waste vegetable oil, are covered by feed-in-tariffs the Souseks receive for the renewable electricity that the generate. In summary, the economics of carbon neutral, organic farming clearly make sense.

A green blue-print for the future of food

The environmental case makes sense too. Cottage Farm’s carbon footprint has dropped by 119% from seven tonnes of carbon dioxide a year in 2005 to minus 1.3 tonnes today. In addition, as an organic farm, they sequester 150 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the soil annually, so the farmland acts as a carbon sink.

If carbon credentials alone can’t convince you to opt for organic meat over its non-organic supermarket equivalent, consider this: the majority of farm animals raised on non-organic farms receive antibiotics and other preventative chemical treatments routinely, whether or not they are unwell. The Soil Association estimates that some European pigs spend an average of 20% of their lives on antibiotics. Preventative use of antibiotics such as this has led to outbreaks of new strains of E.coli and MRSA – better known as superbugs’ – and increased resistance to antibiotics in humans over the past decade.

In contrast, organic farms like Paul and Celia’s prioritise animal and human health. The use of native Ruby Red cattle at Cottage Farm means the cows are well suited to local conditions and almost never need assistance with calving or veterinary attention. Contrary to expectation, Cottage Farm’s high quality, organic meat is often cheaper than conventional supermarket meat, made possible by all the cost savings mentioned, and by selling their meat directly to customers, cutting out intermediaries who would otherwise absorb most of the profit.

“I don’t understand why farmers would choose to farm differently,” says Paul. “We produce affordable meat that’s comparable in price or cheaper than non-organic supermarket meat. Our animals are treated well, we rarely need to call the vet, we generate all our own electricity, heat, transport fuel and water, act as a carbon sink, and add no chemicals to the soil. Surely this is how farming is meant to be done!”

The Sousek family

To find out more about Cottage Farm, visit their website or head to one of their upcoming Open Days, run as part of the SuperHomes Network.

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5 thoughts on “Guardian: How one couple ditched urban living to set up a carbon neutral farm

  1. Wenmer says:

    Appreciate you sharing, great article post.Really thank you! Really Great.

  2. Victoria says:

    Yes, a great post and an inspiring enterprise. And I applaud the initiative and commitment of this family. However I find myself (as usual) feeling quite bewildered that the deeply ingrained belief that animals are to be appropriated for our use, continues even amongst the aware and responsible of our planet. As Alice Walker said, animals have their own reasons for being here and they are no more made for humans use than blacks are for whites or women are for men. I too see animals as beings in their own rights and wonder why other thoughtful folk don’t. No matter how caring, effective, economic or sustainable the animal farming is. What happens to humaneness at the moment a knife is taken to the throat of the well cared for (loved?) animal? How is it we all seem to manage that so easily? And how different is this attitude from the narcissist who believes that others are here for his/her benefit? We all seem to find the extreme expressions of that abhorrent. I’m wondering how long it is going to take for us to look back and think animal production, sale and consumption is as much a travesty as slavery, apartheid or human trafficking. Or cannibalism?

    • Tess Riley says:

      Hi Victoria. Thanks for your comments. I’m not a meat eater myself, in part because of the reasons you mention (as well as environmental ones),. However, I am keen to learn about and document best practice – the sad truth is that the world isn’t turning vegetarian tomorrow (as much as we may wish otherwise) and so I believe it’s crucial to ensure that our farming is as ethical and positive for the environment as possible.

      In terms of slaughter, you raise excellent questions. I think it’s important for those who eat meat to understand the processes that have taken place to get that meat onto their plates. Too many people collect their meat from the supermarket shelves/butcher while remaining entirely detached from where that meat has come from. A friend who recently witnessed a butchery demonstration said that the experience has given her a much greater respect for the meat she eats, and she’s bought significantly less meat since as a result, and as she now recognises how precious that meat is (it doesn’t come off a conveyor belt, it comes out of an animal).

      Like you, I look forward to the day when we look back at animal consumption as a thing of the past. I’ve no doubt climate change is going to play a significant role in shaping farming processes and the availability of food.

  3. Julian Jones says:

    Hi Tess, this looks about as good as you can get for a meat farm, but it’s still a meat farm and I’m not sure how rigorous the lifecycle climate change calculations are, even if you ignore the ethical considerations from Victoria (which I agree with by the way). Plants change CO2 to oxygen but animals change oxygen to CO2 and cows especially produce lots of methane as well which is a much worse greenhouse gas. Have you looked for best-case arable farms?

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