In 2000, Kate Palmer bought West Yeo Farm in the heart of the mid Devon countryside.
After a long career as a textile and art teacher and then county councillor, Kate was keen to return to her family’s farming roots and run her own farm, farming with conservation at the core. Three years later she was joined by her partner Robert James, and together they manage a self-sufficient 29ha organic mixed farm.
Kate & Robert run a pedigree herd of red ruby cattle (15-20 cows and followers) – the herdbook goes back to the 1850s, a pedigree flock of rare breed black Leicester longwool sheep (25 ewes & 4 rams), a few pigs and chickens, and manage a third of the farm as arable – growing a variety of winter feed for their animals (barley, oats, peas, turnips and kale).
Robert James, has been a butcher all his life, and an organic farmer for the past 20 years. He has always worked with traditional Devon cattle because of their gentle nature and the quality of the meat they produce. At West Yeo Farm Kate & Robert raise, butcher and sell all their own organic meat direct to their customers. Direct selling for them ensures control over the quality of the end product, enables them to maximise their income and helps their customers understand the seasonality of their produce.
They also produce their own organic, undyed wool products. Taking the fleece from the black Leicester longwools, spinning it into wool and employing 4 local knitters to produce luxury woollen goods.
“From the start it has been our aim to prove that farming with conservation can be successful. We took on this previous intensively run farm but over the last 13 years, with help from agri-environment scheme funding, we have demonstrated that farming practices can incorporate nature and produce sustainable products. We employ locally skilled hedgelayers each year to lay the hedges in rotation, have restored the hedgerows and stone walls to the old 1850s map (smaller fields are healthier for movement of our organic livestock) and we were keen to restore the landscape features on the farm, including 3 former orchards. Native Devon cattle have always had a historic relationship with the culm grassland moors of north Cornwall, west and north Devon, so by returning them to an area of neglected culm grassland we have restored this habitat we call it the ‘rainforest of Devon’. It’s so rewarding to see how nature has responded to our sympathetic management – the farm is now alive with wildlife.”
The farm supports many birds including flocks of yellowhammer, skylark, some grey patridge, hunting barn owl and lapwing appear over winter. The culm grassland, now a County Wildlife Site, once again flourishes with ragged robin, marsh orchid, wild angelica, devil’s bit scabious and is alive with insects, whilst the arable land supports arable plants and brown hare.
Kate and Robert are keen advocates and want to share this piece of Devon with others. They run a farm B&B and facilitate many educational visits to their farm.
“Being organic is hard work and as farmers we have all choices to make, but we should all look after what we have got and start to be more self-sufficient in the way we behave. Although Higher Level Stewardship has been more bureaucratic and decision making is not transparent compared to the old Countryside Stewardship Scheme, we couldn’t farm without this support. We do need help from the Government and Europe to continue farming as we are – but there needs to be better understanding of these special places and how they work, and support for extensive farming systems such as ours.”
Photos credits: Kate Palmer & Robert James (Laura Whitehead), Red ruby cattle on the culm (Laura Whitehead), Leicester longwool ram (Laura Whitehead), Culm grassland field on farm (Deborah Deveney), Arable plants (Laura Whitehead), Hoverfly (Laura Whitehead)