Meet the Farmer: Phil White of D'Oyleys Farm

February 16, 2021

Introducing farmers of the Thame catchment

Questions & Answers with land managers of the Thame

1: Phil White D’Oyleys Farm

Where and what do you farm?

D’Oyleys Farm is a 250 hectare mixed family farm, with grazing livestock and arable, based in the village of Stadhampton in South Oxfordshire. We have 70 suckler cows – a mixture of Beef Shorthorn and Angus, that we graze on our river meadows; these cows suit the farm and our low-input grazing system.  We also have about 300 ewes that we lamb in the spring.  We finish all the lambs on our herbal leys.  We have always produced traditional free-range turkeys at Christmas time and recently we have started rearing slow-grown pasture fed chickens all year round.  We grow milling wheat, along with barley, oats and peas. As well as the home farm we also rent some land and buildings at Rofford Farm.

We have a small summer camping site down by the river, where people can go wild swimming and kayaking. In the last year or so we started selling more of our produce direct and we now have a weekly pop-up shop and sell online.  We have a footpath which runs along the river meadows and for the last few years we’ve taken part in Open Farm Sunday.

What is your relationship to the local rivers/ river Thame?

Approximately 1.5miles of the River Thame borders the farm to the north west, and we have about 20 ha of river meadows. Both at home and Rofford Farm we border the Haseley Brook which joins the Thame at the Northern most point of our farm.  So I suppose you could say that the River Thame is the dominant geographic feature that defines the farm and determines how we farm; we see its immediate impacts, whether through flooding or drought, and are keen to do our bit to mitigate both of these as well as maintain the water quality.

What motivates you to keep farming?

We are the fourth generation of Whites to farm here and having grown up with farming and it is great to have the opportunity to earn a living by producing high quality, nutritious food to high welfare standards.  We’ve always believed that our role is as stewards of the land, to look after it for a bit then one day hand it on; the golden rule being that we intend leave the place a bit better than we found it.  So farming ‘sustainably’ and in harmony with nature is second nature to us.

What are you doing to make your farming practice more sustainable in the face of the increasing impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss?

Going back at least one generation it’s fair to say that my father was very traditional in his approach. As a young farmer fresh out of university I often found his reluctance to embrace more intensive farming practices frustrating.  While other farmers encouraged by government policy were removing hedgerows and making increasing use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, he doggedly stuck to a policy of rotating arable crops with pasture for our cattle and sheep.  Everything goes full circle, and with the increasing focus on environmental sustainability proves to me that he was right all along.

When we inherited the farm in 2010 we entered the High Level Stewardship Countryside Stewardship Scheme (HLS) that Dad started.  We’ve dug scrapes down by the river to try and encourage breeding waders, coppiced hedges to create a nice open aspect for them and put in fallow plots for nesting. We also put in lots of features around the farm to support farmland birds, like nectar and flower plots to encourage the insects the birds could feed on.  At that time, we started farming more intensively alongside the HLS options, but as we’ve gone on, we have started to learn more about the fundamental importance of soil health.  First and foremost are role as farmers is to produce food but given the context of the climate crisis we feel that it is our duty to do so in a way that is in harmony with nature.

Recently we have started to adopt regenerative farming principals. We have not used the plough for 2 years now, sowing all our crops straight into the ground with a direct drill and we’re already starting to see the benefits in terms of soil health. We’re growing more cover crops, aiming to keep living roots in the soil all the time in order to accelerate increase in soil organic matter and lock up carbon in the soil.  This has the added benefit of increasing the water holding capacity of our light land, making it more resilient to drought and less prone to flooding.  We are on a steep learning curve and have made a few mistakes along the way but there is no doubt that we are already starting to see the benefits of the system which we hope will enable us to stay profitable but also deliver environmental benefits.

What is your vision for the future of farming in the catchment, and how would you see your farm, or the way you farm, developing in the future?

There is no doubt that there are challenging times ahead for farming.  We are told by the experts that small, family farms like ours will be hardest hit by the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidy which starts this year and will be gone by 2027.

In my view changes to Government policy with increased focus on payment for public goods through the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) are a step in the right direction.  But there is no way that we can expect that to cover the gap left by BPS.  We are changing the way we farm to reduce our reliance on bought in inputs and make better use of home-grown feed and adapting our business to take advantage of opportunities to sell our produce direct.

I reckon we should start to think how we can collaborate with other farmers and partner with other organisations like the River Thame Conservation Trust, Thames Water and other industries to deliver environmental benefits with much greater impact than by working piece-meal.

One of the benefits of a family farm is that we are in it for the long term – potentially several generations and so we are less interested in short term profit and more about the long-term sustainability of the farm.  I think there is a danger that as profits are squeezed big farming businesses will get bigger and family farms will get swallowed up.

What I find really exciting about being a farmer right now is that we’re in an almost unique position as an industry to make a positive contribution to the environment.  While other industries are looking to reduce their carbon outputs to net-zero, the potential for farmers to sequester carbon is tremendous – simply by changing the way we farm we have the potential to lock up billions of tonnes of carbon in the soil, while at the same time increasing biodiversity, reducing flood risk, improving water and air quality and increasing resilience to drought.  It’s a win-win.  So I think we need to be think more widely about our goals – clearly we need to make a profit to stay in business, but farming in a way that is ethical and for the environment is just as important to me.

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