Light bulb moments

Mar 19, 2024

By Nic Renison

Cannerheugh Farm sits on the edge of the Pennines, half an hour from Penrith. We look over to the Lake District and on clear sunny days there is no better place to be.

It has been our home since 2012 when we moved into a caravan in the yard, with our two daughters then aged 2 and 4. That winter was particularly tough but being in our thirties and brimming with energy it was a fitting start to farming on our own.

I was brought up on a dairy farm on the Welsh Borders, Reno is from the Wirral not from a farm, this combination is I think one of our strengths. Prior to the move we had been in Patterdale, near Ullswater where Reno was a farm manager; it was here he learnt to wall, work dogs and gather the Fells.

It’s funny looking back to our early days at Cannerheugh, it was all about production, pushing the land, getting as many sheep as possible. I doubt if the word ‘regenerative’ was ever uttered in the first two years!

We knew that to pay the mortgage we would have to work off farm too – early morning milkings at a local dairy farm, working in a supermarket, cleaning holiday lets – we were up for anything to keep the show on the road. One role we had was working for a sheep genetic company, this involved visiting farms in the north east. It was meeting organic farmers Duncun and Angus Nelless in 2014 and seeing their grazing system that was our first light bulb moment.

Both Reno and I had been to Agricultural College, but neither of us had ever been taught how grass grows! At this time we only had sheep, so started setting up electric fencing and having a go at this ‘rotational grazing’ malarkey. This is where you need determination, patience and grit! A combination of Swaledale sheep (with horns), electric fencing and walls are a tough combo.

But we stuck to it, at the same time we were immersing ourselves on YouTube and books into the worlds of Joel Salatin, Richard Perkins. Twitter was also a really useful place to network and build contacts, farming differently to all your neighbours can be a lonely place to be so finding others in a similar boat has been really useful.

Jumping forward to 2024 the farm now looks and feels completely different to how it was a decade ago, as is our business. We now have 90 Aberdeen Angus suckler cows, selling store cattle at around 17 months, 600 pastured laying hens who follow the cows in egg mobiles, and a handful of pigs who cause chaos but taste mighty fine. We sold the last of our sheep in 2022, this has allowed us to push the cow numbers up and grow the grass longer. At the moment the cows come in for three months, we hope to reduce this further, the housed period is costly and time consuming.

Regenerative Farming is a very hot topic at the moment with many multinationals jumping on board, green washing is a commonly heard phrase. For us ‘regen’ is more a state of mind, we are always trying to ‘regenerate’ rather than ‘de-generate’, looking after our soils, reducing inputs to an absolute minimum, thinking and managing holistically. Producing food in a thriving ecosystem, and feeding our local neighbourhood with the very best eggs, pork and beef.

We have planted thousands of trees, and many hedges, progress takes time particularly in the windy Pennines. But nature is coming back, a recent bird survey showed huge improvements, Owls and Bats particularly seem to love it here. The saying ‘build it, and they will come’ is definitely true.

We had our first WWOOFer experience back in 2022 with Adam, who was just about to start at the Schumacher College. He was a huge help to us, a quick learner who got completely stuck into any job we were doing; tree planting, collecting eggs, moving cows.

This year we are looking for WWOOFers with green fingers. We have a no dig veg garden which absorbs huge amounts of time, alongside working with the hens, feeding the pigs. The cows tend to be in one big group and need moving every day, moving 240 head of cattle isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Farming can be quite insular, we have enjoyed getting to know WWOOFers, their thoughts and experiences. We look forward to welcoming more to Cannerheugh this year.

We went to Groundswell conference in 2019, and loved the vibe and openness of the event. Completely inspired we set up Carbon Calling a regenerative farming conference in Cumbria. This year it’s the first weekend of August, inspirational speakers, a bar, comfy sofas and music make it a fantastic thought provoking weekend.

You can find out more about WWOOFing at Cannerheugh Farm here.

We’d like to thank Nic Renison for writing this article for us and hope you found it as motivational, inspiring and uplifting as we did when we read it.

Here is a link to Renison’s Farm website: A corner of Eden Valley with cattle, pigs, chickens and loads of birds, bees and bugs.

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