A special farm on Dartmoor
As I drove down the quiet farm lane towards Greenwell Farm, a quintessential Dartmoor beef and sheep holding near Sheepstor, I couldn't imagine how this beautiful and peaceful spot could once have been a busy, bustling, noisy home to movie stars and the scene for a Hollywood blockbuster.
But that is exactly what it was back in the summer of 2010, when Steven Speilberg dropped in to shoot the box-office smash Warhorse, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, two Golden Globe Awards and five BAFTAs.
For six weeks security guards and helicopters patrolled the floodlit fields as Speilberg wandered around and farmers Mat and Neil Cole were required to sit around and drink tea. There was even a rumour that Speilberg needed a three-acre field ploughed up to provide the backdrop for one of the scenes, but that Natural England had refused to allow this to happen as the field in question was under an environmental stewardship scheme. Mat confirmed to me that the rumour was true, albeit that the said field was not one of his. Speilberg overcame the problem by laying down a large membrane and covering it with truck loads of topsoil from the nearby clay works and then ploughing the soil on the top of the membrane. If only problems with Defra and the farming regulators could be overcome so easily in the real farming world.
So I asked Mat what keeps him busy when he's not drinking tea and mingling with the stars.
Mat is a fourth-generation producer, farming around 1,800 acres on and around Dartmoor with his brother Neil and parents Arnold and Bridget. They keep South Devon and Galloway suckler cows as well as Scotch and Swaledale ewes on the hills with lambs bred to sell. They also have pedigree flocks of Bluefaced Leicester and Whiteface Dartmoor ewes.
The farm keeps Mat pretty busy, but his hard work is not assisted by a tightened cash flow, resulting from a transition from the old ESA scheme to the new HLS scheme. Cash flow is always tight in spring and early summer in the hills, brought about by late lambing and high feed and fertiliser bills and therefore the ESA payments, which were historically received in the spring of each year, came as welcome relief. However, under the HLS scheme, payments have been pushed back to the end of the year and therefore coincide with the SPS payments, when cash flow has eased somewhat anyway. A return to spring payments would certainly help relieve cash flow for many uplands farmers. Perhaps more open dialogue between the RPA and the industry might help both sides of the equation to understand the relative pressures and facilitate a more flexible and workable solution. Mat is also very much involved with Dartmoor Farmers Ltd, a co-operative company that he helped to set up in 2007 with the support of Prince Charles. The company comprises around 50 hill farmers working together, to promote quality beef and lamb produced on the moor in a move away from commodity-driven supply, to the supply of a unique premium brand.
Through hard work and enthusiasm they continue to grow, engaging in new markets and partnerships, selling top-quality meat to local shops, pubs and restaurants. The message behind the co-operative is that the Dartmoor Farmers' meat is top quality, sourced from the fantastic environment of Dartmoor and from sustainably run farms. Without any one of those three ingredients the other two would deteriorate.
And it seems that this is a powerful message. Many of the co-op's members are regularly asked by both locals and tourists where their meat can be bought, and it is very helpful to be able to refer them to the Dartmoor Farmers. Indeed, Mat was very proud that Dartmoor Farmers were asked to supply the beef for the stewards' and stockmen's dinners at the Devon County Show.
When not farming or promoting Dartmoor Farmers, Mat even finds time to play rugby for Tavistock and to enjoy his young son, Tom, who, at the age of one already carries the burden of expectation to continue farming at Greenwell Farm.
So does Mat enjoy his life up on the moor? Well yes. While it can be very hard work, he and his family are living the dream.
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