Farm swaps food crops for grassland and glamping to sustain its future
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020
From intensive arable cropping to organic grasslands and glamping, a Norfolk farm has undergone a radical transformation in the last two years to protect itself from economic uncertainty and to preserve its natural assets.
Two years ago, Norfolk farmer Andy Thornton took a long, hard look at his farm business – and realised it would not be viable in 10 years’ time.
His soils were deteriorating after years of intensive irrigated vegetable production, and the impending loss of EU subsidies meant he would struggle to make money from cereals or sugar beet.
So, after recognising the need for fundamental change, he took a “leap into the unknown” to radically transform his farm, which has now put aside traditional food crops in favour of growing conservation features, a glamping enterprise, and miscanthus “elephant grass” for green energy production.
Although Mr Thornton said he had been considering the impact of farming without subsidies ever since the EU referendum of 2016, the turning point came in 2018 when his Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme came to an end at Manor Farm in Shropham, near Attleborough.
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That prompted a complete review of the 300ha farm in order to survive before the arrival of ELMS, the government’s environmental land management scheme due to be rolled out in 2024 to replace the support payments being phased out after Brexit.
Having already sold all the farm’s machinery to reduce fixed costs, a new five-year Mid Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement was started in 2019 which will generate guaranteed income from organic grassland, wildflower meadows and fallow land. The farm has also invested in a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle for conservation grazing and the future production of organic grass-fed beef.
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“It was time to give the soil a rest,” said Mr Thornton. “Aside from planning for the absence of subsidies, ultimately we wanted to reduce our impact on the environment and become more sustainable.
“In the future, without subsidy, I would not make money out of sugar beet. I wouldn’t make money out of cereals. You feel like you’ve got to be proactive because without that subsidy there are some serious holes in most people’s budgets on a farm. No-one know where it is going at the moment.
“At the same time we were looking at the farm, where we were going to be in 10 years’ time. I could see it wasn’t going to be viable. The soils were going to be absolutely trashed if we were to continue down this road I could just see it getting more disease problems, more soil structure problems. So when the end of HLS came along we thought: What can we do? I have always had an interest in conservation. Now the majority of the farm is down to a Mid-Tier scheme, with a lot of grass, flowers and fallow.
“By going organic it is creating fertility into the soil if we do go back to growing crops on that land. We also did 14km of fencing as capital work, so we can now use livestock in the rotation in future which is going to be very important.
“It is a five-year agreement, so it is a guaranteed income. We can let the Brexit dust settle, and ELMS will hopefully have some direction then.”
Mr Thornton said anxieties over the farm’s future took a toll on his mental health, prompting him to seek the help of Norfolk-based charity YANA (You Are Not Alone).
“I’ll be quite honest, I got quite depressed at the end of last year,” he said. “You do question yourself sometimes.
“I think a lot of farmers ought to be honest with themselves and take a really serious look at where they are going to be in five years’ time when the subsidy has dropped away. There is a lot of change ahead, but that change will create innovation and opportunities and, you would like to think, a more dynamic agricultural industry in this country.”
Other diversifications launched in 2019 include the planting of 23 hectares of miscanthus, on contract with Terravesta, which is supplied to the biomass power plant at nearby Snetterton.
Mr Thornton said although there was a sizeable initial outlay for the towering crop it requires minimal inputs, is resilient to the weather, and brought another long-term guaranteed income which could also offer carbon capture benefits.
“The decision to plant miscanthus is about future-proofing the farm business, and it’s a crop which is profitable regardless of subsidy,” he added.
Also in 2019, the farm launched a glamping business called Wild With Nature, based around its picturesque former gravel pit lakes. Although tourism income fell away during the coronavirus lockdown bookings have since returned and there is hope it could be well-placed for any future “staycation” boom.
Although Mr Thornton is growing maize, wheat and sugar beet elsewhere as part of his contracting business, there are now no food crops on his home farm. But he said it was vital that the government supported food growers on the most productive land.
“Food should be grown in areas of the country with good land which have the potential to produce efficiently,” he said. “But at the same time on the more marginal land like ours there is a great opportunity to do stuff for wildlife and biodiversity. There should be corridors to link those areas of conservation together, but don’t force people on good land to plant it with trees or flowers.”