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Improving diversity to bring stability

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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A new generation brings new energy to a Norfolk estate, as Judith Tooth reports.

After 10 years working for Knight Frank’s country department and then running its agricultural investments team, Tom Raynham has returned to the family estate.

“The experience certainly helped give me a broader view of farming businesses,” says Tom, who, last April, became chief executive of the Raynham Estate.

“We can’t just rely on farming revenue anymore to keep us viable: farming is under all sorts of different pressures and if we can improve the diversity of the business it will make us much more stable in what is an unstable market.”

Historically, farming has been very much the focus on the estate, with Tom’s most famous antecedent, ‘Turnip’ Townshend, introducing the Norfolk four course rotation in the early 1700s. More recently, though, diversifying the business has come to the fore, and it began with a bold project that set the tone for further ideas and investments.

“One of the last things my grandfather did before he died in 2010 was to buy back RAF West Raynham,” says Tom. “We entered into a deal with a solar developer, and now have one of the largest solar farms in the country, with 91ha of solar panels producing just under 50mw power.”

Another renewable energy project came on stream a year ago: an AD plant using entirely home-grown feedstock and producing up to 550 cubic metres of gas per hour for the national grid.

The gas, injected directly into the gas main that runs through the farm, is produced from 20,000t sugar beet pulp – returned from British Sugar after supplying the same amount of sugar beet harvested, and 8000t whole crop rye. Chicken manure from two broiler units on the estate, one of which is next to the AD plant, is soon to be added, too.

Digestate from the plant will be made available to crops across most of the estate via a new ring main, potentially displacing up to 70 per cent of the cost of bought-in fertiliser.

Rye is grown in preference to maize: it can be established easily with existing equipment and without heavy applications of muck; it’s harvested in July rather than autumn, avoiding potential soil damage and run-off, and, currently grown on a semi-permanent block of 200ha with a blackgrass burden, it provides a good opportunity for weed control.

Sugar beet is grown on 250ha and for the past three years has been harvested in a shared scheme with Salle Farms at Reepham, with the Holkham Estate joining last year. The move has cut lifting costs significantly and allowed investment in more modern machinery.

“It’s crucial to cultivate on the same day the crop is lifted to avoid the land getting wet and harder to work,” says farm manager, Duncan Blyth, who joined the estate six years ago. “We often drill on the same day, too.”

Duncan has brought a very different and more modern approach to the estate. Growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape, spring beans and grass leys for silage, as well as rye and sugar beet, he has introduced GPS-led tractors, yield mapping and harvesting, soil mapping and variable application of fertiliser.

Tyres and tracks

Significant investments have been made in tyres and tracks to protect soils. Rather than baling all straw, most is now chopped. Summer catch crops and winter cover crops of radish have been introduced, the first to provide a means of biofumigation to help control free-living nematodes in the following oilseed rape crop, the second as a green fertiliser. Sheep have been grazing some of the radish over winter on a trial basis, and this may be expanded into a further livestock enterprise.

“With the AD plant, the broiler units and a suckler herd of cattle we have available a lot of manure and organic matter for the farm,” says Duncan. “Our model of arable farming aims to maximise the use of this resource to improve soils and yields over a long timescale.”

Major change

A major change came three years ago with the closure of the dairy herd: “Part of the problem was where the dairy was sited, directly behind some 18th century listed former stables,” says Tom. “For it to continue it would have needed to expand, and that would have meant a new dairy.

“The investment needed just wasn’t viable. But I would always like to see livestock on the estate – we have a good amount of permanent grassland to use – and so we plan to expand the suckler herd of Aberdeen Angus that was set up after the dairy closed, from the 110 cows we have now to around 200 cows, and in time move it to the old airfield so that we can put the old stables to new use.”

The stables are one of three groups of traditional farm buildings on the estate, together with a four-acre walled garden, that are earmarked for diversification, with ideas for accommodation, leisure and entertainment, commercial offices and retail development in mind.

Renovation

Several residential properties are also in the process of, or awaiting, renovation. With most of the local pubs and shops closed, and reasonably good access – the estate straddles the Swaffham to Fakenham road – there is a lot of potential for creating new enterprises and providing new opportunities for enhancing local communities.

One improvement already in place is a dedicated fibre optic cable, installed in a private deal with Air Broadband. As well as providing 95mb download and upload speed for the estate – a huge improvement on the previous system which struggled to provide 1mb – there is an option to buy more bandwidth if and when needed, and the potential to offer more high-tech office facilities within the proposed developments on the estate. The investment also gives households in neighbouring villages the possibility of signing up with Air Broadband.

The River Wensum runs for six miles through the 2000ha estate and is a ‘whole river’ site of special scientific interest. During the past three years the estate has been involved in a joint river restoration project with the Environment Agency, Norfolk Rivers internal drainage board and Norfolk Rivers Trust to improve its habitat value. In one part, where the river runs through woodland, the river has been diverted to its former course, complete with meanders.

Thinning and felling

The 280ha of woodland across the whole estate is being looked at much more actively, with a 20-year plan getting underway, involving a lot of thinning, and some clear felling and replanting. As long as the costs of management are covered by grants and sales of timber, it’s a good investment for the future, says Tom.

There are five members of staff on the arable land, a stockman, a mechanic in the estate workshop, six staff in the broiler units and two in the office working alongside Tom and Duncan.

“Farming is our core business,” says Tom, “but the AD plant and the solar farm help to broaden our business base, and the enterprises are all interconnected, which I think is really important. We hope to broaden our contracting arm next and are looking for additional land to take on.

“There’s so much to get to grips with here, it’s very exciting to be the next generation taking this on. I have a fantastic team of employees and staff within the estate, making it a lot easier to diversify and grow the business.”

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