Winners Follow-up: Mat Cole, 2019 Sheep Innovator of the Year

Mat Cole was named Sheep Innovator of the Year 2019 as a result of his work in founding the Dartmoor Farmers Association along with four other farmers. Hannah Noble speaks to Mat about how his innovative approach has helped other sheep producers in the area.

Following the decoupling of agriculture payments from production in the 1990s, Mat Cole and four other farmers recognised something had to be done to protect centuries of hill farming in Devon’s Dartmoor National Park.

So in 2007 the Dartmoor Farmers Association was formed, which effectively brought producers together to market their lamb and promote the area’s livestock,
environment and famous landscape.

Mat, who has been a director and a driving force behind the initiative since the outset, says: “The income from support was going to stop so we had to add value to our stock.

“We decided to do this by selling the provenance of the National Park in which our livestock is produced and also helps to maintain.”

There are currently more than 90 members in the co-operative, incorporating the majority of the larger beef and sheep farms on Dartmoor as well as some  smaller farms too.

Support from the area’s biggest landlord, the Duchy Estate, has been warmly welcomed and helped shape the farming initiative.

The endorsement by Prince Charles towards Dartmoor Farmers has been helpful in opening doors to buyers such as Morrisons, who they have come to work very closely with.

“We have sold beef since the beginning, mostly selling into restaurants, hotels and wholesalers,” says Mat.

“Lambs have been harder to trade but we are now going into our third year of our partnership with Morrison’s. It took two years to put the partnership together and I now deal directly with them each week.

Supportive

“They are very supportive of what we do and of British agriculture in general, and have understood the fact the provenance of our lamb is very special.”

In their first season working with the supermarket, Dartmoor Farmers supplied 4,000 lambs but in the 2019/20 season Morrisons took 10,000 to bear the Dartmoor Farmers stamp on their ‘The Best’ range of lamb.

“10,000 lambs is not a massive amount in the grand scheme of things but it is a great start, and by working together in a group we have a great story to tell about our produce and it makes us part of the conversation on price as opposed to just being price takers.”

While the farmers are currently limited to supplying 350 lambs a week, there are farmers within the group who could supply more and the aim is to ultimately market all of the lambs produced on Dartmoor thorough Morrisons stores.

Dartmoor Farmers is currently in discussions with the retailer to increase the number of stores their lamb is sold in and they even hope to be gracing the shelves of stores in London in the future.

“Our lamb is a seasonal offering, open from July to February, we do not fatten many lambs from February onwards because of where we are and the type of
lambs we are producing.”

The group’s aim is to produce lambs that fit inside the mid-range weight bracket with carcases of 15-21kg, which accommodates the hill lambs.

The co-operative supply mostly Scottish Blackface, Swaledales and Welsh Mountains, which are the breeds of choice for inhabiting Dartmoor’s harsh moorland and exposed granite tors.

“The conversation with Morrisons started well before the Brexit debate,” says Mat.

“But certainly now it has come to the fore just how vulnerable most of our farmers who are producing midrange and light lambs are.

“That said we are encouraging members to get them that little bit heavier to help achieve a better price.

“Given the volatility in the lamb market, by working with a large processor we are able to smooth out those creases a little bit. We will always have to follow the market price but it helps if we can lessen the weekly impact of it.”

“It certainly seems like we made the right decision five years ago by starting to have these talks with Morrisons.

“We are ahead of the curve on this and a lot of people are asking how we did it.

“It took hard work and the hardest thing of all was getting nearly 100 farmers to work together, especially in upland areas where they are sharing commons and grazed areas.

That’s not an easy feat.”

 

“We are part of the unique association we have formed to supply our niche product, and in uncertain times innovation is even more critical”

 

Farm

Mat runs Greenwell Farm, Yelverton, Devon in partnership with his wife Gemma, his brother Neil and Neil’s wife Anna.

The farm consists of 607 hectares (1,500 acres) of enclosed land and 242 ha (600 acres) of common grazing near Tavistock. The family graze 2,000 breeding
ewes, comprising a majority of Scottish Blackface and Swaledale ewes as well as a small flock of Whiteface Dartmoors and Bluefaced Leicesters.

“Part of the enclosed grazing includes Dartmoor Prison farm which covers 1,400 acres, the farm does not have common rights so we are not able to turn out onto
the moors.

“But there is a lot of improved grazing at the prison which means we have the opportunity to draft three- and four-crop ewes from the commons onto the prison land. They are then put to the Bluefaced Leicester tup to produce mules.

“By producing the mule gimmer lambs, they are able to add a premium of £15-20 per head onto the price demanded by a fat lamb. As well as the sheep, the family runs a herd of 250 suckler cows, mostly made up of Galloways and Belted Galloways, but also a small herd of South Devon cattle and all the beef is finished on the farm.”

Creating a sustainable future for not only his own family business but for other farmers on Dartmoor and the area in which they farm, remain key drivers for Mat.

This passion to work collaboratively contributed to Mat being named as the winner of the Sheep Innovator of the Year award, at last year’s British Farming Awards.

“Attending the British Farming Awards with the other directors of Dartmoor Farmers was a great opportunity to celebrate 10 years hard work and was a fitting testament to what farmers can achieve by working together.”

Niche

“We are part of the unique association we have formed to supply our niche product, and in uncertain times innovation is even more critical.”

When speaking about the future of sheep farming on Dartmoor, Mat believes the future could be brutal for the area’s sheep farmers, with a lot riding on the new agriculture bill and question marks over their economic sustainability in the long-term.

“I think the sheep trade will settle down. We do not know what effect Brexit is going to have and that is a real worry. We think we have secured our market but obviously whatever the commodity price is for lamb will affect us, but I don’t know what else we can do, farmers are price takers.”

“I am sure some of our smaller tenant farms will fall by the wayside, it is inevitable. The owner occupiers are a little bit safer although most of them have borrowings so it is going to be difficult times.”

However, despite the uncertainties, he remains optimistic and his hope, as a group, will be the continuation of sharing knowledge and using their collective power to cut costs.

“We are all upland beef and sheep farmers, we are all buying and selling the same things so there is an infinite amount of opportunities to buy things together such as fertiliser, lime and farm machinery.

“None of these are new ideas but when you put nearly 100 farmers in a room together starting to talk, suddenly those conversations begin to open up.

“The directors have worked very hard and our focus over the last 12 years has been beef and lamb but now we are waiting for the opportunity to invite new young blood into the cooperative

“Costs continue to rise and our produce seems to have no value, the positive thing for our industry through coronavirus is that people are realising they need food, it is essential and could almost be put on the list of public goods.”