Sowing the seeds of progress

Our Operations Director, Richard Turney spoke to the Brixworth Bulletin back in September 2013 about how farming has changed over the years. Here is the article written by Jennifer Fitzgerald that was published at the time. It shows that while we are custodians of the land for future generations, things never stand still in farming!

Sowing the seeds of progress

One of the aspects most of us appreciate about living in and around Brixworth is our ease of access to some beautiful countryside. Yet most of us know very little about what goes on there. You may be surprised to find out!

First of all, size matters. Most of our local farmers have joined forces to farm their arable land together. The Brixworth Farming Company was set up in 2000 to achieve greater efficiencies, given the rising costs of production. Its key players are Richard Turney of Park Farm, who farms most of the fields directly around the village, Tom Saunders of Manor Farm in Hanging Houghton and Charles Matts of Creaton. BFC has since doubled in size and now manages a total of 6000 acres, sharing staff, machinery and expertise with farms in Cottesbrooke, Guilsborough and Althorp.

Crops grown are mainly wheat, oil seed rape and high-protein field beans (used for both human and animal consumption). BFC has experimented with linseed, poppies (grown on contract for pharmaceutical companies) and the biofuel elephant grass, but these have not been so successful.

Cattle are not popular these days. According to Turney, at least twelve farms in this area used to be dairy farms. The Turneys used to keep 150 cows, and the Saunders had about 200 cattle and 500 breeding ewes. Both farms have now stopped livestock farming as much bigger herds are needed to be economically viable. They are also aware that their village neighbours may not appreciate the noise and smell. Saunders says: “Livestock numbers throughout the country are going down all the time, it is very physical work, you have towork long hours and get no holidays”.

Nevertheless, some farm animals are still kept locally. Turney uses his spare buildings and grassland to raise several hundred young calves for a relative’s dairy farm in Dorset. John Smith keeps sheep in the fields behind Mercedes AMG and Justin Hulme looks after a few Galloway cattle and sheep on his grassland down by the reservoir. The nature of farming has changed beyond recognition since Richard Turney’s grandfather arrived here in 1920 and even since Saunder’s father started farming here thirty years later. Today, farmers are highly reliant on technology, which demands a higher level of skills – particularly in IT. For example, satellite systems are used to direct the application of fertilisers and plant nutrients by indicating the different amounts of substances needed in different parts of the fields. This means very expensive chemicals are used much more cost effectively. Another example of new technology introduced in recent years is the use of sexed semen for artificial insemination. Now it is possible to produce only female calves for dairy herds.

Increasing mechanisation has resulted in far fewer staff. Turney’s father used to employ 32 eople at Park Farm. Now there are only two full-time employees supported by temporary workers. This has severed a natural connection with the local community; once upon a time many Brixworth youngsters used to help out on Park Farm at some point. Today, most people in the village have lost their understanding and appreciation of the agricultural way of life.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, when traders turned their attention to “soft” commodities, the market for foodstuffs has become global. Prices can fluctuate wildly and even if there is a poor local harvest, they can still fall. Turney says: “Sometimes it is only because of the EU support we receive that we can provide a consistent supply of food and keep food prices low.” Indeed, while we have been enjoying much better weather this summer, our local farmers are still suffering from the consequences of last year’s difficult autumn and hard winter, which produced a lot of slugs and waterlogging. Ten percent of this year’s crop had to be planted in the spring, which has meant a delayed harvest.Environmental protection is also high on the list of concerns of farmers today.

BFC subscribes to various government schemes, and deliberately leaves grass margins of up to six metres around the fields to benefit wildlife. Farmers are expected to provide access for the general public – this gives us the “permissive path” to the south of Froxhill Crescent. We can help maintain this by keeping to the footpaths, keeping dogs under control, and disposing of our litter correctly. Farmers have one request for all of us: be patient with them when they are driving their impressive machinery around the local roads. They know that they hold drivers up so they try to move their equipment as early in the morning as possible. As Saunders says: “Please understand – we want to get to our destination as quickly as you do!” Like everybody else, Brixworth’s farmers have to make a living. And they are involved in the essential task of producing food for us all. Unlike the rest of us, their working hours, and the times they move their machinery around, are dependent upon the weather!

Jennifer Fitzgerald