Back To The Land
On his West Somerset smallholding, a car dealer-turned cattle farmer practices regenerative farming techniques to mouthwatering results
By William Sitwell
February 14 2023
It’s a bright sunny morning with clear blue skies and a fresh breeze when, reaching the highest point on his land, Dan Holmes stops his all-terrain vehicle and we climb out to admire the view.
“The Quantocks are to the east; the Bristol Channel is ahead that way, with Wales beyond; and to our left is Exmoor,” he says, as I take in the terrain. “We had a party up here the last summer before lockdown,” he reflects as I take in the breathtaking landscape, “and then all our friends understood what we were doing down here.”
Today, Dan, his wife Emma, and their two young children live in a house at the centre of their 260-acre farm. Their respective parents-in-law live in two cottages nearby, on hand for occasional nanny duties as well as moral support for the rigours of running an organic livestock farm.
Wind back to 2015 and Dan and his then-girlfriend Emma were living in London in Barnet, the last Tube stop on the Northern Line, two miles from the South Mimms service station on the M25. Dan was running the family business as a commercial vehicle dealer, but the time had come to sell.
“I wondered what I might do next,” he says. “I’d always liked food and farming.” Fast-forward seven years and the new family business, Westcott Organics, boasts a herd of Longhorn beef cattle, a few flocks of sheep, a smattering of Large Black pigs, and a collection of chickens.
“We liked the idea of living in the South West,” Dan explains, “and when we found this farm here in Brompton Ralph, with a good train link to London from Taunton, everything dropped
They purchased the farm and started a herd of Longhorn, which may seem a leap for a North London boy, but the family did have a small holding beyond their Hertfordshire garden.
“We were on the edge of green belt,” he says, “and we had seven cows. I chose Longhorn as from my research it simply seemed to be the best meat in the country,” he explains. “It’s a docile breed, easy calving, stunning to look at, fantastic to eat and able to tolerate extremes of conditions.”
Gazing over the fields across to Exmoor, I get an inkling of what he means. It may be mild in summer, but this place can feel wild and remote when the cold sets in in January. Dan grabs some stiff blue pipe from the boot and we head down the lane to a gate, beyond which some of his prize Longhorn are grazing.
“They’re very good at converting rough pasture,” he says, as we drag ourselves up a steep hill and the herd comes into view. One glance and you understand their name. Their horns are almost comically long and I reassure myself that he used the word docile earlier as his pipe seems a little meek in comparison to their long and rather sharp-looking headgear.
We walk up to them and they eye us nonchalantly. “There’s a lot of talk about the inefficiency of protein conversion in beef farming,” Dan says. “But these animals are very proficient. We use our sheep to graze the grass further down, once the cattle have eaten it to a certain height, and we sequester carbon with regenerative farming techniques. This type of farming has considerably less carbon impact than making oat milk.” And you can truly taste the difference of free-range, grass-fed, organic meat.
Dan is a passionate advocate for the viability of a relative smallholder in a world of highly commercialised factory farming and I’m here because I like the way he sells his meat. There’s no middle man. You can buy his beef, pork, lamb, or chicken direct from the farm; he markets through word-of-mouth; and in this day-and-age it’s a wonderful way for us to engage with the food we eat. Dan has started building a butchery at Westcott and has plans to build a farmshop, too. As he does mail-order, there’s no longer any excuse to load your supermarket trolley with anonymous steaks, loins and rumps.
“It’s very hard work, margins are tight, and it’s an extremely complex business,” he says, “but we are raising animals the way that they are supposed to be raised and you can see here that we have the best agricultural standards in the world. And, for me, what we do enables people to act in the way they should, as we consider the environmental impact of human life and farming: to eat less beef, but to eat better quality.”
Today, Dan’s customers are friends, family, and locals, but his ambition is to make Wescott Organics a national brand. His favourite cut and cooking method is a brisket on the barbecue – the latter a huge piece of kit that that he uses all year round, set proudly on the terrace outside the kitchen.
“The softness of the meat, the texture, and the sweet fat makes this the best beef in the world,” he says, gently prodding a beast before we repair back down the hill.
A few days later I taste a few cuts: a rib-eye, an onglet, and a chuck grilled over coals at home and nicely rested. With a spoonful of Dijon and a slurp of Rioja, I’m sold on the concept of mail-order beef from a farm on a breezy hill in West Somerset.
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