Contact person:

Tom Fairfax


LIVING LAB 7: United Kingdom

Mindrum Farm

Managed by Tom Fairfax

General information

Mindrum is a mixed organic farm in the Cheviot foothills of north Northumberland. The main productive enterprise is sheep. They have 1000 ewes (mainly Suffolk Mules) and sell organic lamb into a number of market sectors. They also have a closed herd of about 100 Shorthorn, Angus and Simmental cross suckler cows. They are carving about 90 sucklers and will fill to about 100 -110 over the next few years.

They shifted to a “biology-led agroecological operating model” in 2019, completing organic conversion in 2022. When they converted to organic, they weren’t sure how much stock the ground could support, but they have found that the stock are feeding better than they were expecting and they are now driving livestock numbers back to the point of balance on the farm. They use the cattle and sheep as ecosystem engineers, creating conditions for the rotational arable operations (providing natural fertility and ensuring a healthy range of soils across the farm).

They grow some barley and oats to feed stock but mainly grow wheat, some of which is sold to Wildfarmed (while not processed as organic, their regenerative approach is consistent with the mindset at Wildfarmed).

When Tom’s father arrived at the farm in 1955, there were no woods at all, and he established some shelterbelts. While Mindrum has always been on Tom’s radar, it had never historically been a sustainable business model. Tom previously had a military career (involved in information risk consultancy). A strategic review was carried out of the farm in 1997, after which they went into a 5-year classic share farming model and Tom was responsible for the stewardship schemes. The agri-environmental side and the forestry is what he has since become particularly interested in.

The forestry business model he inherited was thinning trees every 10 years; the thinnings would pay for themselves, and there would be a standing crop of timber at the end. But the market moved on, and they have since headed into amenity woodland and are working at building understories, carrying out woodland clearance etc. They now view agroforestry very much as a soil conditioning tool (there is a spectrum of diverse soils on the farm; some very sandy and some quite stoney ground), an environmental engineering tool, and as a nutrient tool. Stock are often observed browsing trees.

There are a number of different woods and agroforestry providing shelter and wood for various purposes; ranging from ancient and veteran trees to more modern planting, boundaries and hedges (with 49 ha of shelterbelts). Many of the shelterbelts have been planted since 1960, many hedges are older, and about 1 km of veteran treelines are several hundred years old. All the fields have got hedgerows around them, they are part of the patchwork. A lot of the veteran trees are boundary trees. Some ashes are 200 – 250 years old and are understood in some cases to be the second or third veteran tree on the same rootstock. They are introducing ‘in field’ trees in a range of configurations in appropriate permanent pasture fields, to create wood meadows. The livestock being able to browse rather than just graze creates environmental and health and welfare benefits.

General farming approach


  • Operational integration – total complete integration across the whole spectrum. Thinking all the time about the context of what they are trying to achieve, following an ‘intelligence model.’

  • Establishing an overall browsing matrix over the farm so that permanent, temporary grazing and a range of woodland and margin planting all work together.

  • Trees are viewed very much as being part of the infrastructure at Mindrum, providing shelter, wood for a variety of purposes, browsing for livestock, and enhancing soil health and fertility. There is also a biomass operation, with some of their own thinnings replacing a significant amount of fossil fuel, the remainder is left to support biodiversity.
  • Using agroforestry very much as a soil conditioning tool, an environmental engineering tool, and as a nutrient tool – focusing on browsing. Potentially mitigating enteric emissions through tree browse and improving animal health and welfare.
  • Having woodland sufficiently robust to survive grazing or browsing while it’s establishing.
  • Getting livestock numbers back to a point of balance on the farm.
  • Having a primarily pasture fed system. Last year (2023), rather than harvesting expensive and late cereals to feed to the stock, they grew their own polycrops cereals and forbes and grasses, improving gross margins.
  • Using the livestock as ecosystem engineers – they are trying to use the cattle and sheep to create favourable conditions for the arable operations, which is also more cost effective.
  • Increasing biodiversity generally on the farm and farming sympathetically taking previous management and history and topographic features such as floodplains into account (old maps can be very informative).
  • Farming in a way that is sensitive to ecological engineering.
  • Preserving target species on the farm such as grey partridges.



  • With permanent grazing and ‘savanna planting,’ one of Tom’s big challenges is how to establish trees in an actively grazed field / permanent pasture to the state that they can survive browsing. Northumberland County Council have provided some funding for in-field tree guards. They are putting in just under 300 tree guards (Cactus Tree Guards). The theory is that after the tree has established, the guard can be removed, and the cows can be allowed to browse it. They are trying to establish at less than 40 stems per ha maximum, so there is no canopy. As well as browse being provided, there is also better grass around trees and improved soil biological community.

  • Tom cites Government intervention as being undoubtedly one of their biggest challenges. There are places they want to plant trees where they have been unable to. Tom believes that Defra have a system which has been designed to work through a conventional paradigm, which is systemic and has an unnecessarily complicated framework.

  • Unlearning… Making the paradigm shift between a conventional mindset and an agroecological mindset, there is much that Tom has felt he has had to unlearn. He also believes there is a disconnect between the agroecology and forestry doctrines.

  • In relation to the soils at Mindrum, there is soil with lots of calcium and magnesium and a low calcium magnesium ratio. Soil pH is generally between 6 and 7. Lime hasn’t been applied for 5 years but they may apply some rock dust and calcium sulphate in some areas.

Research goals

Behind all the ongoing agroforestry developments on the farm, one of Tom’s main intentions is to “engage the interlocking natural systems” through gaining insights into what parts of the farm would have looked like or used to be managed as and understanding how to marry that with the current production system. He believes that it leads to both profitable sustainability and sustainable profitability.

Details of other research they are involved in on the farm, ranging from deploying IPM practices, min till and using biofertiliser, to grazing winter cereals, fecal egg counting, and brix testing, can be found on their website.

The production / management framework that has evolved on the farm is drawing from a lot of different disciplines and doctrines but is focused on producing a model that fits this particular context. Tom firmly believes that the advancement of agroecology and agriculture generally lies in contextual relevance. In a complex responsive system, there isn’t a right answer. Sharing challenges and potential solutions with other people, finding out what they’re doing and taking it forward collectively is very important and is the main reason he cites for wanting to be involved in the Living Lab. One person may have a different interpretation to another, either contextually or because of their experience, and it means that a richer information space is created. He also believes that when there is a complex environment, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to achieve and why, because that will then allow you to change your plan if the situation changes, but it is also important to understand what needs to be prioritised over everything else.

Design of the agroforestry system

There are about 2 ha in 4 blocks of ‘wood meadows’ (at under 40 stems a hectare). The wood meadow planting is partly dictated by the ground which it is being planted into, species have to be compatible. In the wake of storm Arwen (which hit the UK in 2021), some of the woodland-led wood meadows are being gradually opened up to livestock. This mainly applies to mixed woodlands and includes mainly native species.

There are 49 ha (120 acres) of mixed woodland shelterbelts linked by walls, hedges, and veteran treelines to which stock have access. The hedges and treelines are largely mixed hedging species i.e. ash, cherry, thorn and crab apple (they collect alot of hedgerow seeds from their own stock). There are numerous hawthorns and blackthorns growing in the margins particularly. About 324 ha (800 acres) of both permanent and rotational grazing fields have access to browsing in the margins. Tom is increasingly planting willow (mainly Salix caprea, goat willow) and a viminalis hybrid), for animal nutrition. He spends time sitting on the ground watching, not just the agricultural stock, but other wildlife such as roe deer, hares, etc. observing what they are eating. He finds it interesting and instructive to observe how the different breeds self-select. In fields with gorse for example, Shorthorns are often observed eating it.

For the pasture-led agroforestry, Tom has a 0.4 ha (1-acre) test plot in place which has a combination of willows, hazels, rowan and dogrose. He is trying to establish various layers. This plot is widely spaced (10 – 25 m) in 3 m clumps, which are being established under thorn crowns. When these areas eventually become thickets, the plan is to let the stock in and observe how they engineer.

‘In field’ trees are being introduced in a range of configurations in various permanent pasture fields. Tom is embarking on a project to put in 260 in-field trees in 5 different blocks. They are being established within Cactus Tree Guards at a rate of no more than 60 trees per ha, and are mainly willows (as above) hazel, and a range of native broadleaves planted at no less than 15 m spacing, with the aim of providing browsing but no canopy. 

Tom is also experimenting with willow blocks in livestock fields, which will be planted in 10 m strips along existing permanent electric fences along a permanent paddock grazing experiment.

He has found birch trees and the roots they put in the ground to be really useful. They have also planted some species such as hazels and mulberries believing them to be good for supplying nutrients. Tom is interested in the theory that tannins from tree browse can help mitigate enteric emissions and believes willows and hazel to be very good for that.

Since changing from what was essentially a rye grass-heavy system, the management paradigm changed. Tom knows that he must have so much ground for a particular enterprise, in order to produce and deliver that enterprise, but within that, he’s very much looking at different contexts; where they are on the farm, where they are in the life cycle of a bit of ground from a productive agriculture point of view (effectively a 10 year decision cycle) and where from a woodland point of view (anything between 10 and 600 years, depending…)..


Tom uses a range of regenerative tools and frameworks, including “on-farm microscopy” to monitor soil and animal health and inform management decisions and identify interventions that will support the ecosystem. Various lenses are deployed, ranging from microscopy, species monitoring, and animal behavioural monitoring to biochemical assessments (soil, livestock and plants).

Using various lenses gives what he refers to as “actionable, relevant and timely intelligence.” He believes understanding what he is trying to do in context is all important and deploys what from a different doctrine would be called the intelligence cycle or model – he believes it to be a really good way to find answers. For him, it provides a simple framework to manage complex decisions.

But he also believes that listening and looking at what is living on /in the ground and what it’s doing can tell you alot. There are many lenses. Soil microbiology is a lense, reading weeds is a lense… After entering an office, house or institution, within 30 seconds it is possible to have a good feel of what can be found in there, and it is the same in a field.

He cites one of the most important challenges as being understanding what information it is that he needs. What information is useful to collect? He has engaged with guidance offered by initiatives such as Soilmentor and the Soil Association Exchange as part of his endeavours to monitor soil health.

As they change the conditions on the ground on the farm, going into a regenerative model, or deploying an organic system, or deploying agroforestry, the “rules of the game” change as the environment evolves, and different things become important. There is little point in looking at the fungal bacterial ratio when you’re transitioning from a ‘conventional’ system, but once you’re two thirds of the way through the process, then it becomes instructive… The process of understanding what needs to be known and done is as important as the monitoring, along with also working out when what has been monitored is no longer optimal.


Mindrum, Northumberland, TD12 4QN

2 ha (5 acres) grazed woodland - still in transition (farm holding / size is 465 ha (1150 acres), 49 ha (120 acres) of mixed woodland shelterbelts

Silvopastoral, Woodland grazing/wood pasture (in transition)

Mixed farming system (sheep, cattle, arable)

Mixed age of the plot – ranging from less than 5 years to 1960s and veteran

Inter-row/In-row distance: No rows, 15 m tree spacing

Width of tree strips: 5 m

<60 trees/ha

Cereals, grass

Beef cattle, sheep

Freely draining slightly acid loamy soil
A light sandy loam, pH generally between 6 and 7