Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer are the self-proclaimed soil builders, tree planters, growers of food and of minds of the 150-acre Lynbreck Croft. While these women are relatively new to the farming scene (having purchased Lynbreck Croft in 2016), they have taken to this life with a vengeance having already planted 30,000 trees.
Lynn and Sandra did not come from farming backgrounds. Lynn grew up in Ireland and Sandra grew up in Switzerland with summer holidays in Scotland. They met in 2012 when they worked in southeast England as apprentice Park Rangers for the National Trust. There they learned not only basic ecology and the chance to develop practical skills, but also that they had a shared vision of living close to the land.
They moved to Scotland and worked planting native trees for rewilding projects as they looked for their land. In 2015 they became serious about finding that land and began looking at various properties. In August they found the 150-acre Lynbreck Croft located in the Cairngorms National Park. They moved to the property in March 2016 and came to the sudden realization that they would need to be farmers in order to manage this land in a way that held true to their vision of caring for the land and raising food for themselves in what they have come to call Regenerative Wilder Farming.
Starting a Regenerative Journey
Luckily, in 2017 they saw an advertisement on Facebook about a Holistic Management training with HMI Certified Educator Tony McQuail from Canada. Lynn went to the course and immediately wished that Sandra could have come. “I knew how much value we could get out of the training if we both went,” says Lynn. “We started to get to know people with Soil Association Scotland and they brought Tony to Scotland in 2019 so we both could go together to that training.
“I came away from the first training with the thought of how much everything Tony talked about made sense. It wasn’t oversimplified. The first core thing that made sense to me was that before getting into farming you have to have own personal context, since it’s going to affect everything going forward. From the farming side of things, we had only been here a year and new to everything about farming. So, when Tony wrote on a flip chart ‘You are the expert on your farm,’ it was so great to see that. Farmers are never told they are the experts. They don’t get that kind of reassurance and praise. We can get input and thoughts, but we know the most about this place. The third thing I got from the course was the financial side. Tony talked about how you decide how much money you make. That idea gets you thinking about how much money can you save or avoid spending. It affects the triple bottom line. There is empowerment in getting to know yourself and that you are the expert and you control the finance side.
“I also got another key learning from another farmer at the training who told us to work with what you got. He asked what are your assets without spending more money or learning anything new? We have a great small farm, a great location with local market, and our own skills. Sandra is good with working with animals and very intuitive. We have our holistic planned grazing and mixed species as part of our set up. I have skills talking to and engaging with people so I do the sales and marketing side of the business. I believe open and honest communication is marketing, so we build the business from there.
“We started working on our holistic goal from the beginning. The first day of the training was context setting and learning about Tony’s journey and figuring out our own context. Then we looked at the grazing chart and learned how to understand the science and the biology behind it, and then learned the figures. The last day was the financials. There are so many farmers running at a loss even with government subsidies. We took away that we are in charge of our finances.
“The 2019 training was great to go to as a couple. It was so valuable and truly life changing to work through everything together. It has given us a foundation that has never really shifted. It’s really reassuring to know why are we doing this as a couple.
“We have so many situations that Holistic Management has helped us with our decisions. Two years ago we had breeding female cows and we would bring cows off the farm to the bull. We’d wait nine months and calve and work to breed a cow that would be super resilient in our system. But, because we are such a small set up, it took more time and money and stress to follow that model than what we were getting out of it; we weren’t delivering holistically. So we decided to simply buy one-year- old steers because there are plenty of good farms that had good animals. Have we failed by changing our action? We feel like we tried one strategy and now we feel empowered to change to another strategy. Our context gave us the strength to change.
“We also used to keep sheep to run with cattle. After one year we knew sheep were not for us. They took too much time. We asked ‘Why are we doing this?’ Again, the training empowered us to make the decision to not run sheep.
“The first time we sold our produce, it didn’t make a profit. This was in 2017 and we were very new to farming. We knew this business model wouldn’t allow us to both work full-time on the farm. We looked at figures we were getting to see how to make it profitable. We knew we either had to take on more animals (which we knew from our Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture training would degenerate the land) or make more money on our product. We know our land is our most valuable asset. So, we thought ‘How can we add value to our produce to get more value?’ We developed our customer base by sharing our story, developing Youtube videos, etc. We focused entirely on direct sales, and we developed a small butchery to save butchery cost, but also add value to our product. Pork belly might sell for £1/kg, but if we smoked it and sliced it we could get £15/kg.
“Developing our business model took four years, but we now are both full-time on the farm. Our business is built on diversification. All the benefits we want for nature and feeding our local community and feeding us is dependent on that. It also gives us a variety of jobs to do. Our challenge right now is managing our own time. We have put ourselves last for those four years, so we are trying to work on that now. We are improving all the time, and we have done a lot in just a few years. We are fast tracking the concept of ‘working smarter.’ We can have a holiday in the future. We talk about the importance of resting the land, but we need to work at resting ourselves.
“In the last two years our gross income has doubled. The first three years we were running at a loss as we invested in infrastructure because the infrastructure had been in a semi-derelict state and the land hadn’t been managed. Now we are paying bills and putting money aside. I am really proud, that we don’t take a subsidy government. The diversification stream is what is keeping us going. It makes us feel less at risk of outside influences with different market fluctuating or subsidies changing. Business savvy is what the Holistic Management training teaches you. It taught us that size is not important, it is what you do with what you have that counts. There are massive farms here operating at a loss. Looking at your profit margin is key.”
Partnering with Nature
The community response to Lynn and Sandra’s focused efforts on improving their land and building a viable business operation in a relatively short amount of time has been telling. They have won numerous awards including: Newbie UK – Best UK New Entrant Farm Business 2018; Cairngorms National Park – Cairngorms Nature Farm Award 2018; Scottish Crofting Federation – Best Crofting Newcomer 2018; Farm Woodland Award for Young People – 2019 Winner; RSPB Scotland Nature of Scotland Food and Farming Award December 2019; and Compassion in World Farming – Sustainable Food & Farming Award.
They planted over 30,000 trees and became members of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, participating in numerous educational videos developed by Soil Association Scotland as well as filming their own videos as part of their educational outreach from their website. They also wrote a book Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft published by Chelsea Green and have appeared on BBC’s “This Farming Life.” They have a “How to Farm” course and regularly lead tours of their farm.
But all this attention doesn’t distract Lynn and Sandra from their focus on the land and their desire to partner with Nature. Their team members include Highland cattle, Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, chickens, bees, trees for forage and shelter, as well as the soil microbes in their produce garden.
Holistic grazing planning is key to Lynn and Sandra’s work with their animals and they are seeing their efforts pay off. “Our Animal Units/Hectare are still in flux,” acknowledges Lynn. “We are noticing much more forage through our visual observations than when we first started. We also are noticing we may have less hay to buy in for the winter but it depends on when the snows start. We are targeting moss with bale grazing, and now the sward has a lot more diversity. With the bale grazing we are getting more productivity where the moss used to be.
“Our vision with the chickens was that they would follow the cows, but because of the terrain with our hills, our egg mobile can only be used in the flatter areas. With spring growth, the cattle move through first and then we target areas with the chickens. We move the fence down the hills and leave the egg mobile on the top so we can cover more area that way. The egg mobile stays in one area for 5 days and might only come back to that spot one more time in a year. “
Currently Lynbreck carries seven steers getting ready for finishing, two one-year-old steers, and one matriarch cow that settles the steers. They stagger the buying in of animals as they carry the animals until they are 24 months. Although they have 150 acres, they only have 70 acres of grazing. 40 acres of that grazeable area is bog so they can only graze that certain times of the year. They also have 10 acres of woodland which leaves 20 acres of pasture. The bog is used for summer cattle grazing with grazings of three to four days at a time. In the winter, the pigs graze the bog while the cattle bale graze the pasture and are moved once a week. The last three weeks of the winter the cattle are held in the bog before the grass flushes in the pasture.
The cattle are managed based on a 30-day recovery. Moves are slowed down in the summer to allow for 55-60 days of recovery. The hens move into grazed area in a few days after the grazing to scatter pats and work large patches of moss.
Lynbreck purchases Oxford Sandy and Black pigs in at the end of summer and the beginning of the spring when the pigs are eight weeks old. There are lots of people raising rare breed pigs so sourcing them is not a problem. Lynn and Sandra want the pigs for working the woodlands and the bogs in the winter as well as being an income stream.
Lynn and Sandra work to build up stockpile to extend the grazing season which goes from mid to late May to mid to early December. They harvest the animals in October and buy the new cattle in May. They work with a local butcher to get smaller cuts that they can process further on farm and market as tree fodder and grass finished meat. They use the trimmings from the trees to feed the leaves to the cattle who can take up to 12% of their diet from trees.
They have planted a variety of trees such as willow, alder, and rowan specifically for animal feed and shelter. They have also planted oak, aspen, and hazel and eventually cattle will go into these areas for fresh browse and shelter. They are planning for long-term future as these trees grow slowly because Lynbreck is on the eastern side of Scotland. Even with an enviable 38 inches (950 mm) per year, this region has harsh winds and temperatures that can slow tree growth.
What the Future Holds
Lynn acknowledges that there were many challenges for her and Sandra as they learned about agriculture with no farming background. “At first, we thought that lack of knowledge was a disadvantage,” says Lynn. “But, now we see that lack of knowledge as a big advantage because we had no preconception. It’s been a financial challenge. We were able to buy the farm, but there was no agricultural structure here when we moved and we didn’t have the money to invest. So, again, the key principle of Holistic Management was so important—work with what you have. We needed to pick the right animals and enterprises for the land.
“It’s just the two of us and we don’t have any surplus money. We’ve purposefully stayed the size we are because we enjoy the tasks we do and we don’t want to grow. You feel the pressure to continue to expand and grow. We’ve really had to buck the trend because this size works for us. We are content with what we have and we are really focusing on the quality of life elements. We are very community focused in what we do. Our commitment and contribution to the community is our way to contributing to mental health and well-being. We see people every week and we build our community.
“We’ve really worked hard at the story element and engaging people with what we are doing. That has helped us be able to charge what we charge. We announce our meat box releases and have eggs by subscription. In the summer we sell extra eggs through an honesty box at the end of the lane. The less stock we have to hold, the less risk for us. Our selling model is fairly efficient. With our box releases, we have a delivery route and it’s all done in a handful of days and the finances are all handled through the website which allows us to stay focused on the farm.
“Our vision for the future is to really focus on our quality of life. We focused on building up the business, earning the money, and developing the diversification. Everything is running really well. After November 2022 we have no plans and we are at a comfortable point to see what happens. We need a bit more time. We are going to carry a few less animals and get more time. We had a five-year plan and we achieved it. We don’t have a new five-year plan because we are remaining open to what we might learn when we slow down. It feels good to not know what we will be doing.”
Check out the following videos created by Soil Association of Scotland featuring Lynn and Sandra.
If you’d like to learn more about their farming journey read their book “Our Wild Farming Life“
To read more stories about Holistic Management producers, sign up for a free subscription to HMI’s journal, IN PRACTICE.