Farming estates provide fascinating insights into models of land management and the destinations for this year’s Farmers Club Summer Tour were no exception. Lockinge in Oxfordshire exemplified an ultra-traditional approach to maximising an estate’s varied assets, while fast growing Ramsbury in Wiltshire showcased a breadth of diversifications integrated with the core farming.
Ramsbury Estate, formed in the 1700s, spanned ‘just’ 3000 acres when it was bought by the Swedish owner of a thriving fashion retailer in 1997. Subsequent acquisitions, including several major neighbouring estates, and most notably the Crown Estate’s 8,000 acre Wiltshire Estate has taken it to 19,400 acres, of which 7,000 acres is farmed in-hand.
The home estate is predominantly arable: wheat, barley, oats, rape and beans. Moisture retentive clay over chalk produces good yields in dry years, with Vaderstad reduced-pass cultivations helping contain production costs. But weak commodity prices and rising blackgrass are a worry. “In 2004 we started looking at things other than producing primary crops at the behest of the global market,” explained estate manager Alastair Ewing.
The owner takes a keen interest, bringing astute business acumen to operations and investment decisions. “My eyes were really opened when we were bought by a businessman,” reflected Mr Ewing. “I think the whole industry is going to need to go through the same. They might think they are at the behest of the global market already, but it’s going to be even more so in the coming years, after what happened with the Brexit vote.”
Brewing beer from estate barley malted at nearby Warminster Maltings was Ramsbury’s first step. Steam for the process comes from a boiler fuelled with estate wood chip, all part of an inter-connected web of enterprises geared to maximise estate returns. The brewery has been ‘hugely successful’, with payback in three years, greatly helped by Gordon Brown’s progressive craft beer duty, helping low volume micro-breweries compete with economy-of-scale industrial brewers.
In 2008 a distillery was added, using home-grown wheat to produce 43% ABV vodka. The gleaming stainless steel, glass and copper plant produces Gold award winning cold filtered spirit. Intriguingly, huge flavour differences have between noted between wheat varieties, with Horatio outperforming Resolution. Field name, variety, and the date of planting, harvesting and distilling, are all detailed on the chunky bottles, chosen to reflect the product’s rustic roots.
Provenance underpins all Ramsbury retail products, including cold-pressed rape oil and estate-smoked game and fish. “Compared with the big players we can only sell our products by doing something different – we can’t compete on price really. So we need a story behind whatever product we grow to get the consumer to buy our product not anybody else’s.” Produce is sold through farm shops, on-line and a rented pub and hotel.
Unsurprisingly, with a location near the M4 motorway in classic rolling English countryside, with 2500 acres of woodland, shooting has blossomed. Ramsbury is one of the country’s top shoots, with 40,000 pheasant and 35,000 partridge supporting 50 days of shooting, grossing £550,000/year. “Clients come from urban England, New York, Texas, Europe – it’s a great way of distributing wealth into the local economy, with much of that sum spent within 15 miles of the estate,” Mr Ewing commented.
Recent years have seen a significant investment in a 14,000t grain store and drier, with a further 6,000t flat-store nearby. It’s one area where collaboration with tenant farmers may increase. But other major developments are on hold, pending Brexit clarity. “I think the biggest loser will be Brussels. Brexit will mean other member states fight back, stripping away layers of Brussels bureaucracy. It’s a hugely uncertain time,” Mr Ewing said.
Established in the 1850s Lockinge Estate passed from Lord and Lady Wantage to current owner Thomas Loyd’s branch of the family three generations ago. But traditional beneficence towards the local community remains very much alive, as evidenced by a thriving network of local businesses and a model of community engagement.
Traditionally the 6,500 acres either side of the Ridgeway supported a mixed farming estate, with dairy, pigs and crops. But the in-hand farming started to move out to tenants in the 1980s. “The fun had gone out of it,” reflected Thomas. “We were increasingly using contractors, and it became obvious that 15 year FBTs, once they were proven, made more sense. We’ve been very fortunate to attract a dream-team of tenants, allowing us to focus on making the most of a wide range of buildings across a Victorian estate, which had been left in very good heart.”
The home farm buildings, developed to retain their original features, but fully equipped for modern business, house a diverse range of enterprises – from radar detection, through marketing, to pottery and furniture making. “We are very careful to spread risk across sectors, so we aren’t too dependent on any one industry,” noted Julian Sayers of managing agent Adkin.
Very open consultation has facilitated planning applications, with working groups looking at housing, business and leisure to create a masterplan, which has won considerable favour with the local Vale of the White Horse planners. It has allowed building in open countryside, where it is part of the well-thought-out, and well-bought-into plan, which stresses the need for profit to sustain development.
Tenant relationships are cherished and nurtured. David Christensen, one of the UK’s premier dairy farmers, recently took a block of land on a 20 year FBT to launch a second grass-based milking herd. “There were a number of factors that inspired us, but investing during a downturn is something other industries do, so why not farming?”
Dairy manager Chris Whitford was a key reason. A dairying enthusiast who came to the sector from a non-farming family in Northern Ireland, he studied at Harper Adams, milking twice a day the whole time he was there. “I love making milk from grass,” he enthuses. Giving him the chance to flourish made sense and managing the spring calving herd is his opportunity.
The ‘mongrel’ herd of black and white Holstein Friesian, cross Scandinavian Red, cross Brown Swiss drew attention. “I’ve never understood why dairying stays pure, missing out on hybrid vigour, when every other sector benefits from it,” Mr Christensen commented.
A strong sense of partnership with the estate trustees means a major building investment is imminent, to house the dairy, but in a building that could have other uses, to retain flexibility. “It shows how a landlord with a long-term view, a visionary tenant and an enthusiastic and committed manager can come together to create fresh opportunities in the industry,” noted Mr Sayers. “But it does require teamwork for it to work.”
Land sales are not out of the question. Last year one of the major let farms was sold, probably hitting the peak of the market. The decision reflected the reality that rental return on capital invested was less than 1%. It has allowed debts to be cleared and under-pinned further investment.
Creative property management applies to the estate’s 150 houses, which are actively managed to avoid the dormitory village trap experienced so much nearby. Currently 56 of the brown and cream liveried houses sit within the Village Charitable Housing Trust, with affordable rents (½ to 2/3 of open rent) offered in “necessitous circumstances” – where there is a need to live locally, such as for local employment.
The result is a thriving local community, with over 250 jobs linked to the estate. That is almost back full circle to the 300 employed by Lord and Lady Wantage. They would be proud indeed.