Turning organic has brought a better quality of life - as well as increased profits - for the inaugural Scottish Agriculture Awards Sustainable Farm of the Year, the Mitchell Family at Whitriggs Farm, near Hawick.

It is no exaggeration to say that Stuart Mitchell, who is still only 30 years old but has run the family farm for five years, has an old head on young shoulders.

The Scottish Farmer: Stuart Mitchell at home at Whitriggs, where they have 150 suckler cattle Stuart Mitchell at home at Whitriggs, where they have 150 suckler cattle

When he was a young lad he was absolutely “tractor mad,” as was his father and grandfather before him, but now it’s his name on the cheque book he has adopted a more back-to-basics approach to farming 442-hectare Whitriggs, near Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

“When it’s you who is paying for shiny new pieces of equipment, it gives you a different perspective,” smiles Stuart.

The Scottish Farmer: The Mitchell family at home at Whitriggs The Mitchell family at home at Whitriggs

“Everything we do on the farm now is questioned. Does it earn its place? Could it be done in a more sustainable way?”

Being crowned this year’s Sustainable Farm of the Year feels like industry validation for the Mitchells at Whitriggs, and Stuart is quick to praise his parents, Robert and Lesley, for having the foresight to tackle the perennially tricky subject of succession early.

“The awards ceremony was a very special evening; especially having the whole team there with me,” says Stuart.

The Scottish Farmer: Cattle out grazing Cattle out grazing

“If a farmer’s son or daughter is years off taking over the farm and not really getting paid, then you can understand that driving around with the latest machinery is a kind of compensation for that,” says Stuart.

“Whereas I am fully responsible for the financial decisions and have to accept the consequences.”

One of Stuart’s first major decisions - apart from following an organic path - was replacing the farm’s 1000 Lleyn ewes with 330 red deer.

The Scottish Farmer: 150-head of suckler cattle, bred three-ways with Shorthorn, Angus and Hereford blood, are mob grazed through the summer150-head of suckler cattle, bred three-ways with Shorthorn, Angus and Hereford blood, are mob grazed through the summer

“The sheep had a high level of maedi visna disease and rather than keep fighting it we made the move over to deer,” explains Stuart, who came home to the farm after completing a degree in agriculture at the university in Edinburgh.

“Swapping sheep for deer was a massive jump and took considerable planning, both financial and practical, with things like fencing and handling facilities. Again, I think being young gave me the enthusiasm to push the farm forward in a new direction.”

The farm runs 330 breeding females, with those not being kept within the herd going directly for venison.

The Scottish Farmer: The family chose to make the move from sheep, into deer The family chose to make the move from sheep, into deer

“The deer are naturally from Scotland - this is the habitat they are meant to be in - and because they are in the landscape they hail from they thrive,” explains Stuart.

“So once the infrastructure for them was in place the actual hands-on work involved is very minimal - not even a fraction of what we needed to put in (for lower returns) with the sheep.”

150 head of suckler cattle, bred three-ways with Shorthorn, Angus, and Hereford blood, are mob grazed through the summer. Whereas cattle on the farm were previously kept in four or five bulling groups, the new system means they can be split simply two ways into cows and heifers.

RELATED NEWS | Whitriggs Farm Bags Sustainable Farm of the Year 2023

“Because they’re not eating among fresh dung - being moved onto new pasture every day - their worm burden is kept to a minimum. It’s about three months before they are back grazing to the same spot, by which time, with no host on that strip of land, any parasites are long dead.”

“Outwinter bale grazing has been an absolute game changer,” enthuses Stuart. “It used to take us four hours each day to feed the cattle inside. Now it takes us 30 minutes to unroll the bales and move fences, and at the same time we can be checking them over.”

All the mature cows are wintered outside, with heifers until February and calves kept out until mid-January. This keeps greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum, avoiding the labour, machinery, diesel, and other input costs associated with winter housing. 50 hectares are down to arable crops, split between winter oats and spring barley. These are sold off farms to local mills and other organic farms as all their livestock are only fed on pasture/forage.

The Scottish Farmer: Running his family farm for the last five years has thrown Stuart some challengesRunning his family farm for the last five years has thrown Stuart some challenges (Image: web)

“I told the judges for the awards that you can’t look at sustainable farming solely from an environmental point of view,” says Stuart.

“It’s all inter-connected. There is no point in following certain farming paths or methods for the benefit of the environment if they are not sustainable for the next generation. Farmers' futures and livelihoods depend on working with the environment - but doing so in a sustainable way. How I do this is to question everything. Sometimes, as farmers, we do something a certain way because we always have. If you go right back to absolute basics and question why you need a certain piece of machinery or chemical then you can find a path to farming more sustainably. It’s all about working with nature, not against it.”

Stuart is married to Kate, who juggles helping on the farm with bringing up the couple’s two year-old daughter Eilidh.

“The winter before she was born there was probably only a handful of days when I was finished work before five o’clock at night,” says Stuart.

“Since then, there have been no more than three days when I’ve ended up working later than five during the winter. There are no two ways about it, we have a better quality of life now than when we were farming conventionally. The sheepdog certainly does as well!”

What the judges had to say?

"The judges were impressed with their focus on the business strategy and their drive to be profitable without subsidy, something they are already succeeding with. However, they have also managed to combine this with farming in a way that is hugely beneficial for nature and wildlife and reduces their input costs dramatically. They have made huge changes in their business to do this, replacing sheep with red deer and changing their cattle system, all while converting to an organic farming system.

"They share much of their work and are incredibly entrepreneurial, for example, making their own bale unroller for feeding cows on the hill and are now selling these to help others do the same. They host numerous on-farm visits with farmers and student groups to share their work and use it to help improve what they do. It is a real team effort, while Stuart is now head of the business, he works closely with his parents, Lesley and Robert, and wife, Kate. There is a clear team effort and spirit, where they all bring different skills to the table."