PETER GREIG, FOUNDER OF PIPERS FARM
After becoming disillusioned with the food industry working on an industrial chicken farm in the 1980s, Peter and Henri Greig founded Pipers Farm near Cullompton in Devon with the objective of producing wholesome natural food that was grown sustainably and with respect for nature. Over the past 26 years Peter and Henri have never wavered from their vision and now work with a network of small local farms who share their passion for real food. Their animals are all grown at a natural pace, antibiotic free, and roam the idyllic Devon countryside feasting on a diet of 100% natural grass, which is a system that produces some of the finest meat in the country. I speak to Peter about the story behind Pipers Farm, his food philosophy, the broken global food system and his interest in the Slow Food Movement.
Peter met his wife Henri during the third week of university and they have been together ever since. After completing their agriculture degrees, they worked for a range of traditional farms in New Zealand and the Yorkshire dales. It was during this time that they began to develop a deep empathy for farming in close proximity to nature. “We were inspired by the simplicity of the systems and the very comfortable relationship with the natural landscape,” Peter recalls.
After the farm they were working on in Yorkshire was sold, Peter moved back to the small family farm he had been brought up on in Kent. However, it was unrecognisable from the typical mixed West Kent family farm he had known as boy. A trip to the United States had inspired his father to transform the farm into an industrial chicken farming operation. The very strong relationship between the natural landscape and farming system that Peter had experienced working in New Zealand and Yorkshire had become embedded in his psyche so it did not take long for him to realise that he would not be able to work on a farm with a system that was the complete antithesis to his philosophy. “The warning bells were ringing very loud that this system was shocking. We felt industrial livestock production completely excluded nature, was entirely unsustainable, and completely wrong on every level. It was my firm belief that if any of the consumers that were buying our chickens from a well-known High Street store were to stand where I was standing every day they might very well never eat chicken again in their lives, such was the physical spectacle. The system was also entirely dependent on antibiotics, which was an absolute shock to us. We determined from that moment on to only produce food that we were happy and confident to feed to our small children,” Peter explains.
Peter and Henri started making plans to buy their own farm that would have two underlying objectives; firstly, it would produce food that they would have total confidence in feeding to their children and selling to consumers. Secondly, they would work with a network of local small farms to help them raise animals to their standards. When Peter was a young boy, all of his neighbours were small family farms, however when he returned home that infrastructure of family farming had gone. “We thought about where the infrastructure of the family farm would most likely still be intact in the UK and realised that was on the best land,” he says. So Peter and Henri spent the winter travelling far and wide, with their two young sons in the back seats, looking at farms on the outskirts of the cathedral towns of Exeter and Worcester as they felt that not only was the land great for farming, the area also offered an excellent quality of life. “In the end we settled on Pipers Farm; it was the cheapest one available and did not have any fancy infrastructure with it. In fact, there was nothing here, it was a clean sheet of paper in every respect. But we were in a wonderful landscape, surrounded by a fantastic network of family farms,” Peter says.
While Peter shares a similar ethos to the organic movement and counts Helen Browning, Chief Executive Officer of the Soil Association, as a good friend, Pipers Farm is not certified as organic. “We have enormous respect for the founding fathers of the organic movement and the early followers of it, it was totally inspirational. However, we were concerned in the late 1980s that the word would become hijacked by the big players in the globalised food chain and it might become difficult for consumers to understand exactly what it stood for, so we thought it much better to not use it,” Peter explains. “The current day standards of organic certification bodies are not necessarily driven by the absolute objective of eating quality, but for us it is not negotiable, everything we do focuses on the eating sensation. Henri and I worked on every detail of the growing of the animal so when we were putting it into the pan we were testing the template of exactly how we were going to produce each species based on decisions entirely directed towards eating quality. It is that level of attention to detail across everything we sell that I believe sets us apart from standards that might be sufficient to have soil association certification,” he adds.
Peter feels confident that the way he grows his animals mean they have a better level of nutrition than the equivalent animal produced in an industrial system. “We are currently looking to develop a project with a professor of nutrition who specifically works with elite athletes. We are hoping that before long he will be able to measure precisely the nutritional components of our meat as opposed to meat out of an industrial system,” he tells me.
Many of the individuals involved in the food industry that I have spoken to firmly believe that the current global food system does not work. Peter also subscribes to this view. “The wider consuming public have completely lost respect for food and the globalised food industry is driven by a small number of giant corporations who are setting an agenda which is not in the interest of either feeding a growing population on the planet or sustaining nourishing systems which are the best way to feed the planet. It is totally broken, unsustainable, and dysfunctional. Nothing about the industrialised and globalised food system particularly encourages me to believe it is going in the right direction,” Peter exclaims.
Peter has drawn a lot of inspiration for his methods from continental Europe. For instance, he is a passionate supporter of the Slow Food Movement, an organisation that was founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 that strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming in harmony with nature. “We have a lot of empathy with the Slow Food Movement. In a way we believe it mirrors precisely what Pipers Farm stands for, it is about the whole tapestry; good food is about landscape, it is about animals, it is about people, it is about community, it is about the pleasure of eating and sharing a meal with others. All of these are things that are talked about by Carlo Petrini and we absolutely believe in all of those. His philosophy is very inspirational,” Peter says.
Peter has also been hugely inspired by French farming. “I visited the Paris show in 1988 and French farmers were sitting in an enormous food hall, spending three hours eating their lunch under banners explaining where they came from, clearly understanding that their rasion d’etre was to produce food that brought them pleasure. In the same year I went to the Royal Show, the biggest one in this country, and the food hall was tiny and nobody was sitting down to eat, everybody was eating dreadful looking ham sandwiches on the move. I was thoroughly underwhelmed by one and inspired by the other. I walked the streets of Paris and saw wonderful butcher shops on every corner almost and the food laid out looked mouth-watering while the traditional English butcher shop did not inspire me at all in the same way. They were almost a relic of the past. So I taught myself the continental style of butchery,” Peter explains.
In many ways Peter feels he is living his dream running Pipers Farms. “Devon is the most wonderful place in the world; the landscape has this wonderful deep red Devon soil that matches the colour of our Red Ruby cattle which is breath-taking and we are so close to the moors and the sea. Our boys love our ethos, which we are very lucky to have as parents, and it is so rewarding when our customers compliment us on our produce and we inspire young farmers to come back to Devon,” he says. However, Peter is also quick to point out that building Pipers Farm from scratch has not been an easy life, to the contrary it has been a long hard slog. “If you look over the last thirty years from when we first started, for most of that time it has felt like we have been sailing into a headwind. I am very lucky that I have had an incredible mate in Henri by my side, who has been there for me through thick and thin,” he says. There is no doubt that the winds are starting to change and people are becoming more interested in where their food comes from, which, in large part, is because of the tireless work and passion of farmers like Peter and Henri Greig.