​Agriculture

One century later: How the Atkinsons are building sustainable practices into their family farming legacy

Credit: Meonside Farm

By Simon Toft [email protected]

Published: April 21, 2023 | Updated: 26th April 2023

As shoppers become more and more interested in where their food comes from and the environmental impact of producing it, Hampshire farmer Will Atkinson reckons he can offer unbeatable traceability and sustainability.

Lambs are born and reared on the 1,200-acre family farm at East Meon in the heart of the South Downs, grazing grass on hillsides that have remained unchanged for centuries.

Will, who farms with father George and brother Ollie, said: “We love the Meon Valley and the wildlife in it. Our lambs are known as ‘nature’s lawnmowers’ and play a very important part in shaping the landscape of the valley.”

The Atkinson family has farmed in the same spot and had a flock of sheep since 1906. Will explained: “Over the years we’ve seen many changes, but fundamentally sheep farming the South Downs is a very traditional form of farming.”

He explained that grass-fed lambs don’t eat soya-based products, which are harvested abroad with a massive environmental impact.

Will Atkinson. Credit: Meonside Farm

“Our lambs graze the hillsides which can’t be cultivated and these areas of permanent pasture are great carbon sequestration sinks (something that absorbs more carbon from the  atmosphere than it releases).

“Grass-fed lamb is arguably one of the most sustainable forms of modern-day agriculture and also has great benefits to the wildlife and flora which use the South Downs as their habitat.

“The landscape is very diverse and there is a huge amount of different species, but without sheep the scrubland would return and the eco system would be very different.”

Will grew up on the farm before going to university to study agri-business and the environment.

He then worked in meat processing, dealing with big supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, and saw the demand for good quality, traceable, grass-fed lamb.

He said: “Dealing with retailers was an interesting experience. It was very commercial and cut-throat, but gave me a good sense of how to run a business.

“I noticed that with Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, slightly more affluent customers were buying lamb and beef that had a higher price tag than chicken or pork.

“People were buying less meat but of a higher quality and they were also interested in what region it came from, its story.”

Will added: “There is a massive focus on humans doing their bit for climate change and the environment and one element has been to eat less meat.

“We can’t disagree with the fact we should eat less meat, but the meat we do eat should be better quality with the highest welfare standards and have the environment in mind.”

Lower Farm has 600 breeding ewes producing more than 1,000 lambs a year. The majority of meat goes on to the shelves of Sainsbury’s and Aldi, but some is made available direct to the public. Meonside Meats sells it in batches, reducing transport emissions.

All the farm’s lamb is registered to the Red Tractor food chain assurance scheme and it gets audited annually to ensure it has high animal welfare standards and a good environmental ethos.

The Red Tractor logo is only found on British food and drink products that have been certified to rigorous standards from farm to pack. It means food has been responsibly sourced, safely produced and comes from crops and animals that have been well cared for.

Will said: “We have a responsibility to make sure we are good farmers. The Red Tractor is widely recognised and is the single biggest stamp that UK farms can have to say they are doing things properly.”

The farm also has 350 beef cattle, with contracts to supply meat to McDonald’s and Budgens. Meanwhile, goats also arrived at Lower Farm for the first time last April.

They began with 15 kids, introduced a further 18 and are about to add 20 more. These are bought in from a trusted breeder.

The first kids grazed on steep, scrubby hillsides and ate a mix of grass, blackthorn and brambles that sheep and cattle wouldn’t touch. Then they came inside when the weather worsened and were fattened on hay from the farm. Now the meat is for sale.

Credit: Meonside Farm

Will said: “We sell the goat meat direct to the public, but some also goes to local pubs and butchers.”

He admitted that farming can be a tough business these days and that many farmers are left with no choice but to diversify and find new income streams.

“For a long time food production was heavily subsidised, but that has changed. We do still get some subsidy for looking after the environment, but there is very little money to be made out of food production.

“In the next few years it could become more of a struggle and people will go out of business. That’s why diversifying is key.”

Lower Farm hosts 35 school tours each year, while it also operates a campsite set in a rolling chalk hill valley on the banks of the River Meon. It opens on May 26 for this season, with restricted dates available to keep the valley as natural as possible.

Guests can get away from it all and see a working family farm while being close to East Meon and the South Downs Way. And, not surprisingly, one of the extras available to campers is a box of fresh meat to cook on the barbecue.

Will believes there is a growing interest in farming and farm life and is keen to educate and inform people. The farm has been on Facebook and Instagram for a while, but now he also posts on TikTok under @Meonside_farm.

He said: “The world is so digital now. We only started doing TikTok a year ago and already have 5,000 followers. It’s fun to do regular videos and we’ve had some good feedback.

“Look at how many people have watched Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime. People who might not have access to farms want to know what goes on there.”

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