Techniques to improve soil fertility pioneered more than 300 years ago have been adopted by Norfolk’s champion farm business, a farmers' club heard.

Viscount Raynham, Thomas Townshend, who returned to run the family’s 5,000-acre Raynham Estate, near Fakenham, in 2016, was guest of honour at the 75th anniversary dinner of Holt and District Farmers' Club.

He said his ancestor, Charles Townshend, was a pioneer of the agricultural revolution from the early 1700s, and his enthusiasm for growing root crops earned him the nickname “Turnip Townshend”.

As ambassador to Holland between 1709 and 1711, he saw that Flemish farmers grew roots to feed livestock, producing more manure to boost soil fertility and crop yields. In 1716, he encouraged tenants to “marl” their fields by spreading chalk to boost fertility and, most unusually, he granted long leases of up to 15 years.

Today, the Raynham Estate – winner of Norfolk County Farm Business Competition last year - has halved artificial fertiliser use since Viscount Raynham became chief executive.

Manure from a new beef suckler herd is spread on the land and an AD (anaerobic digestion) plant generates electricity and digestate fertiliser, he said.

In addition, 1,000 acres of cover crops, including radish and turnips, are grown. These policies have reduced nutrient losses, improved soil structure, organic matter, fertility and quality, he added.

He had found records in the estate’s archives revealing that a Townshend ancestor had a farm at Rudham in 1121 AD during the reign of Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror.

By the 14th century, land was added at South Raynham, and again in the 15th century. He found a document granting a tenancy in 1574.

Viscount Raynham outlined a survival strategy for hard-pressed family farms. He said farmers must embrace new technologies from crop gene editing, artificial intelligence and, crucially, data. Four leading Norfolk farm enterprises including Raynham and Holkham are sharing data from farm operations to generate significant efficiencies and drive down costs.

As family farm businesses faced ever greater challenges, he argued that collaborating, sharing and pooling data would help many to survive and thrive in the future.

Former club chairman Peter Perry-Warnes, who is now a “turnip” enthusiast on his arable enterprises in north Norfolk, thanked the speaker on behalf of about 120 members and guests.