Ladies in Beef
PUBLISHED: 21:44 13 June 2013 | UPDATED: 12:59 14 June 2013
At a time when the meat industry is yet again under scrutiny there are deep rumblings in the countryside and the message is loud and clear – ‘buy local and buy quality’. The recent horse meat controversy has further strengthened the voice of independent, select farms scattered throughout the county, who work tirelessly to provide excellent food for their customers.
In a bid to help promote and raise awareness of the quality and flavour of British beef, a group of dynamic female farmers have formed an organisation aptly named ‘Ladies in Beef’. Their aim is to tell the story of farm-assured British beef, covering a range of topics from recipe versatility and nutrition through to sustainability. There is no affiliation to any governing body, just a desire to connect with the consumer and a passionate belief in what they do.
Juliet Cleave, a member of Ladies in Beef, is building up a pedigree herd of the local native breed of cattle on fertile farmland at Lower Trewiggett, nestling in a sheltered valley between the moors and the sea on the North Cornish coast.
Sitting in her flagstoned kitchen surrounded by the flotsam of farming family life, boots at the door and Walt the labrador collie cross at her feet, Juliet explains her traditional system of farming is more than a job, it’s a way of life.
Her face lights up when she talks about her herd of Red Ruby Devons and her hopes for the future of small, non-intensive farms like hers, which specialise in excellent animal welfare and a first-rate product. “My pedigree suckler cows are my pride and joy, their calves are reared right through to maturity with us and the finished beef animals are sold direct to an established butcher in a neighbouring town.
“In terms of food miles, these are kept to a minimum and the supply chain is so small, just us, transport to slaughter and the butcher; everyone involved is fully aware of exactly who and what they are dealing with.”
Standing knee-deep in fresh straw, under the shelter of a covered yard the deep rust coloured weaned calves and heifers corroborate her claim of their stress-free existence. Munching contentedly on hay, even Cracker the bull is too laid back to shift from his bed when she moves through the herd to give him the once over.
Juliet extols the virtues of this breed: “They are calm, good natured and relatively easy to handle and will even come to call when I have to move them, despite not being regularly handled like dairy cows.”
She adds that it is not as unusual as people might imagine for women to manage beef herds. According to data from the Office of National Statistics more women in the UK are choosing a career in farming and food than ever before; there are 23,000 female farmers in the UK at present, compared with hardly any just 10 years ago.
“It is surprising how many of us there are. Traditionally, and particularly on West Country farms, women have always had plenty to do like the eggs, calves and general tidying up, but actually we have a particular aptitude for stockmanship, great attention to detail and are good at managing priorities. Sometimes there are occasions when I think a job is going to be too big for me to tackle, but I have never been physically constrained, I just grit my teeth and get on with it.”
Having trained in agriculture at Bicton College, Juliet has been a livestock farmer all her life and returned to the family farm after working away. She says she has never encountered any sexism within the industry, just positive encouragement.
A few years ago, after peeping over the hedge at each other for a number of years, she married the ‘farmer next door’. It was much to the amusement of friends and family that it took an incident involving their livestock to finally get them together. “My bull escaped into Chris’s fields and was inappropriately behaved with his dairy herd!”
Consequently they arranged a first date at the Royal Cornwall Show and haven’t looked back.
Initially, in partnership with her husband Chris, they ran both farms on land totalling more than 600 acres. Recently they have restructured and scaled down to just one farm to concentrate on what they both do best: Chris maintaining a cross-bred ewe flock of sheep and Juliet establishing her Kew Herd which has steadily grown to around 70 head of cattle.
She started her enterprise with just two carefully selected Red Ruby Devons, one of which she bought as a present for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. “Obviously I kept the cow with me, but it was more of an acknowledgement to my father Henry Tom, who used to have pedigree Devons when I was born. It is lovely to have a connection that goes back through the family.”
A great local campaigner for the breed, Juliet says they are rapidly increasing in popularity for a number of reasons. “The animals are hardy and ideally suited to harsher moorland or coastal conditions and perfect for sustainable farming.” She explains they have few complications when calving, are relatively inexpensive to raise by requiring less intensive care and also reach market weight quickly whilst producing very good quality meat.
The mild climate in this part of Cornwall, coupled with generous rainfall, means pastureland at Lower Trewiggett is probably a little too lush to be ideal for the ‘thrifty’ Devons and Juliet has to take care to keep the cows in working condition and not over fat.
“We use Phillip Warren in Launceston who specialises in grass finished native bred beef, so we tick all of his boxes.”
Juliet urges consumers to look for the Red Tractor logo. “There is a huge revival in local food with people wanting to support their local communities,” she says. “My enthusiasm for our beef is instrumental in my desire for consumers to be able to make informed choices when buying food. The Red Tractor logo on supermarket labels gives shoppers reassurance of production standards, while local alternatives e.g. butchers’ delivery rounds and farm shop box schemes (which can be ordered either by phone or online) are not only dressed to the customer’s requirements but are often cheaper.”n