The Global Farm Metric with Becky Holden of Holden Farm Dairy (Hafod)

What if all farmhouse cheesemakers measured sustainability in the same way? Could they track improvements on their farm, year after year? Could they compare notes with other farmers across the country – or the world? Could customers choose their cheese based on its true impact on the planet?  

The Global Farm Metric is a holistic sustainability measurement framework. It measures climate impact, yes, but also water quality, animal welfare, social impact, and economic viability. It’s built so that farmers can record accurate, relevant information about their operation – and share that information with customers, conservationists, and other farmers.  

Neal’s Yard Dairy is supporting a group of farmhouse cheesemakers as they test the Global Farm Metric. We asked Becky Holden, one of the farmer-cheesemakers participating in the trial, to tell us her thoughts so far. [Editor’s note: Becky’s husband, Patrick Holden, is part of the team who developed the Global Farm Metric.] 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Tell me about yourself and your farming. 

We are Holden Farm Dairy based in West Wales. We’re farming 300 acres, of which 135 acres is owned and the rest rented, mostly around our hill between the Irish Sea and the Cambrian Mountains, in a “less favoured area” with all the challenges and opportunities that brings.   

It's my husband Patrick's 51st year farming here. He arrived as a bright and naive communard in 1973, when he was only 22, wanting to go back to the land and farm in harmony with nature, according to the principles of self-sufficiency and the circular economy.  

Fast forward 50 years and we're still farming in much the way we did then. It's a very traditional mixed livestock system: using the land and what it can provide to sustain the plant life, animal life, and human life on the hill.  


A man moves blocks of white curds in a large vat
Hafod in the making


When we took full ownership of the farm in 2003, we realised that the existing model, which was selling our milk to an organic milk cooperative, wasn't going to keep the farm viable. We would need to add value to the milk, so we decided to make cheese. [Ed. note: The result is Hafod, a rich, supple Cheddar.] 

Just as our farming is very traditional, our cheese recipe is aligned with the traditional cheese making of the turn of the [20th] century. Hafod is an expression of our milk, which is an expression of the health of our animals, which is an expression of the diversity of the plants, which are themselves  an expression of the unique ecosystem of this hill and its soils. We haven't used nitrogen fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides on this farm for over 50 years.  

We're trusting the plants that want to grow here; trusting that they will provide the health and the nutrition for the cows. Trusting the cows, which are a native breed and suited to this landscape. Trusting their milk. And then trusting fabulous cheese makers to take that magical raw ingredient and transform it sensitively. 

That was such a fascinating narrative. 50 years of farming! 

I think what's so interesting about farming and cheesemaking is that, particularly now, there's a sort of scientific affirmation of ancestral wisdom.  

Intuitively, we know that what wants to grow in a hedgerow will benefit the hedgerow, will benefit a cow if it browses the hedgerow, will benefit the whole ecosystem that's in that hedgerow, will benefit the soil below ground.  

There's something very affirming about 50 years of observation, experience, and that deep, deep interaction in a landscape which is hopefully reflected in the cheese. 

How did the Global Farm Metric come to be? 

Patrick’s work with the Sustainable Food Trust has been around understanding things like the true cost of cheap food. Where might the hidden pounds of that cheap food lie? It might be in pollution, degradation of land, water, or air; degradation of health, arguably, with the way food production has gone in an ultra-processed direction. It might be in the shadow acres of imported inputs. 

From that basis of true cost accounting, they looked at the fact that you need to be able to measure the various aspects of sustainability.  

Tell me more about the Global Farm Metric. 

I have done other sustainability measuring audits that preceded the Global Farm Metric, and they've all had their strengths and their weaknesses. But the Global Farm Metric is seeking to harmonise all of those various different ways of qualifying and quantifying our impact – not just our impact on carbon.  

Obviously, there are now many carbon measuring tools. And the problem with looking at one particular aspect, like carbon, is that you might miss another impact that you're having, which might be on biodiversity or water. If you seek only to address your carbon impact, you may have unintended consequences somewhere else.  


Cows graze at Holden Farm

Measuring sustainability in a harmonised way should result in a level measuring playing field and common language. In accounting, for example, you might be sat doing the year's accounts anywhere in the world, but you're using the same metrics. That means  you could look at somebody's accounts on another side of the world or down the road from you and you would know that the same framework has been used.  

In terms of labelling and the stories behind our food, if the same things are being measured in the same way, you can't hide behind greenwash by saying one aspect of your farming is where you want it to be.  

I've done other sustainability audits in various forms over the years as they've evolved. They’ve tended to be one snapshot in time, and I haven’t refreshed the data a year later because the tool has moved on or changed or doesn't exist anymore. And then you just stop using them and looking at them and they're no longer useful. What would be important for me is that annual reflection of how the whole farm is impacting these various areas, whether it be community, air, water, or biodiversity. 

The other thing I think that is very useful with this is that I love the idea of sharing information. For example, a conservation organisation or a university could come to me and say, “I'd like to gather some data about your farm for some work we're doing on pollinators.” They can use the openly accessible Global Farm Metric data as well as or instead of having to come and collect more data.  

How did you get started with the Global Farm Metric? 

I had a little go at it when it was in its first iteration. I'm now having another go, along with the other farmers within the Neal’s Yard Dairy trial. 

What did you notice on your first go? 

It is onerous, but any audit is onerous, and any audit has to be prepared for. You know that you're going to be putting in a few hours of pulling together data. If you're a small family farm, which is what we are, it can be difficult to find the time. 

But in some ways, the small family farms have got the advantage, in that usually one or two people are all over everything. You can be as familiar with the finances as you are with the stock numbers as you are with the veterinary data as you are with the cropping information.  

With the Global Farm Metric, there are some practical outside tasks to do. That can be tricky to fit in, too. For example, there are soil assessments as part of the soil outcome measuring. Even though I have the app on my phone [Soil Mentor] for doing visual evaluations of soil structure and various soil health tests, like earthworm counts, I very rarely do it so it's good to have to do it. Having this tool to complete forces me to go and do some of the things that I would like to do but never do.  

The same goes for the water quality. There are some water quality tests to do which are a little bit daunting, because it's a question of sweeping water samples and then trying to identify some of the invertebrates and small critters that are in the water under a microscope. If you haven't done anything like that since school, that can feel a bit daunting.  

But it's a good exercise to do. It's a very good opportunity to tune into the micro as well as the macro on your farm. 

What would you say to a farmer who is just beginning to pay more attention to sustainability? Would you tell them that the Global Farm Metric is a good way to begin that journey? 

In this part of West Wales there aren't many big rich estates. These are mostly small family farms, some of them hanging on by their fingertips. I would want something like this to be an enabling tool rather than a stick to beat them with.  

If you can tell a farmer, “look, you've already got this amount of hedgerows and this is what it's doing for you in terms of carbon sequestration,” you can make them feel confident about the natural capital that they've already got.  

If you start from a place of enablement and a place of confidence building, then they'll want to do more, see more, understand more. Rather than saying “you need to be doing this, you should be doing this.” 


Hill views at Holden Farm

It might mean that in the first few years, it has to be done with help. Many small farmers are only just beginning to go digital and may need guidance or assistance ideally funded from experts. You can’t throw too much at a farmer who's just beginning to learn spreadsheets or digital bookkeeping  — you have to go gently.  

I think it has to be an enabling tool rather than a judging tool. 

Are there things that you're particularly excited to find out from the Global Farm Metric trial?  

I trust our farming system. I trust the way we've been looking after this land for the last 50 years and I trust that it provides delicious, nutritious food. But I am interested in tuning in to the detail and the micro — having a better understanding of the variety, quantity and quality of farmed and natural biodiversity. That happens when you go out and try, for example, to identify lichens or freshwater invertebrates two of the biodiversity indicators in the Global Farm Metric. 

How can Neal's Yard Dairy be a partner in all of this?  

I think it's brilliant and brave of Neal's Yard Dairy to be exploring this. 

Cheese makers are all so different, and their way of getting their milk can be very different. We're not all farmhouse cheesemakers. Some of us are buying our milk in and that brings other complications. How does a cheesemaker ask its supply farm to do something like this?  

I can also see its importance from a front of house perspective. Obviously, I'm up on this hill and I hardly ever see anybody who buys our cheese, which is why I'm so grateful to the cheesemongers who tell our story for us.  

Customers are asking lots of questions now, like whether dairy is good for the environment, what the farming is like, and what its impacts are. We have to be ready to respond. 

As a farmer, I should always keep our door open and be ready to welcome anyone who's interested in our farming. We need to be able to say: this is how we farm, this is what we do, this is how we look after our calves, this is what our cows are eating.  

The Global Farm Metric is a way of communicating our farming more widely. 

Is there anything that I didn't ask you that you think people should know? 

It feels hard to find the time and give [the Global Farm Metric] the energy that it needs. 

I would love it to become something that gives confidence to farmers that are currently just about hanging on in terms of their financial viability, their sustainability, and all of the things that can seem very frightening when you're tired and you've been farming and not making any money for a long time. 

I would hope this can be a way for them to feel confident and empowered. Somebody like me, for example, has been faffing around, trying to collect and collate data and use whatever tools are out there, for a long time. But I know that there are some lovely older farmers around here who will find all of this very difficult and I don't want them to be left behind.  

This has to be made accessible for all farms, not just the ones that have got the inclination, time or money to pull this data together and crunch the numbers and then stand proudly — or not so proudly — in front of the final report. 

Are you a farmhouse cheesemaker who would like to learn more about the Global Farm Metric? Contact us here