Suffolk estate looks to new ventures as key BPS subsidy phased out
- Credit: Denise Bradley
Andrew Blenkiron probably couldn’t have picked a more tumultuous moment to become the new chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
Gas and fuel prices were already hitting the roof, pig farmers were in crisis, and the UK farming industry was deep in the throes of its greatest upheaval since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
Then the day after the NFU conference in Birmingham ended on February 23 and he was officially installed, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing uproar in world commodity markets.
Andrew has been director of the 11,000-acre Euston Estate, near Thetford, for the past 11 years and this year may be one of his toughest.
Like most farm businesses he is having to grapple with the loss of the industry’s linchpin government subsidy, the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), as it is phased out in favour of a new post-Brexit system supporting environmental work on farms rather than food production.
This is already having deep implications for the estate, which costs about £3.5m to run and employs 22 people. The loss of BPS will leave a half million pound hole in the farm budget – and he, like other farmers, has been working out ways to fill it. Euston’s electricity bill alone is about £120k – and as prices rocket, Andrew is expecting to be paying 37% more.
One of the ways he is tackling the challenges is through diversification. The estate already has a 13MW solar farm at Honington providing electricity for up to 6,000 homes. Another 220-acre 50MW plot has planning permission at Rymer Farm, Fakenham Magna, and is due to be installed in October this year, with another similarly-sized operation in the pipeline as permission is sought. A further 40 acres by the solar operation will be used specifically to provide nesting sites for stone curlews.
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Under the deal, the solar contractor pays a rent, and sheep from the estate graze around and beneath the panels.
A Paulownia plantation is also planned. The aim is to plant around 120k of the fast-growing non-native trees over about 490 acres in a deal with Carbon Plantations Ltd, which has gained regulatory approval for the project from the Forestry Commission. The trees seize three to four times more carbon than native varieties and grow six times faster, explains Andrew. They also provide good timber, which can be harvested on a 10-yearly cycle.
The plantation areas – filled with sterile hybrids to ensure they do not become invasive – will be screened by nature areas and native trees. Once established, the sites will also probably be grazed by sheep.
“It’s a 35-year project with the opportunity to extend it for another 35 years,” explains Andrew. “We should get six harvest from them before the root stock becomes depleted.”
Andrew’s boss is the 12th Duke of Grafton, now aged 43, who inherited the title at the age of 32.
The estate is already home to a complex array of activities and businesses which interlink – and the solar and timber operations are the latest to join the jigsaw which Andrew must oversee.
A 2.5MW anaerobic digestion plant – producing gas to fuel more than 5,000 homes – has now been in operation for about five years and there is also a growing events arm, which will host three music festivals on the estate this year.
Andrew’s “hobby” is a prize-winning Red Poll cattle operation which makes up the estate’s “holy trinity” of Suffolk breeds with Lady Euston’s Suffolk Punch horses and a flock of Suffolk Sheep.
The estate is home to sizeable arable and vegetable operations. It grows wheat, barley and sugar beet while other contractors produce free-range pigs, poultry, potatoes, carrots and parsnips.
One of the farming team’s biggest headaches on the estate’s light land is water management – making its irrigation and reservoir network essential to ensure crop survival.
Wildlife abounds with five separate Higher Level Stewardship in place and four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The February 2022 storms wreaked havoc, felling about 200 of its many trees, says Andrew.
The estate land stretches across five different parish councils – which means he interacts with all of them – a job he greatly enjoys. The estate is currently working with West Suffolk Council to extend its network of permissive footpaths.
With so many challenges ahead, Andrew believes the work of the NFU will be pivotal, and he is urging more farmers to join up to strengthen its position with government at a time when big change is under way.
“We do know there’s a number of people who are not members who we feel should be members because arguably they are benefiting from the work the NFU does,” he says.
The rising cost of nitrogen fertiliser, along with fuel and electricity, are posing major challenges to the estate and to other farm business, he adds.
“Farmers need to work better together. I think Suffolk farmers are quite good at that,” he says. But a sharp pivot to hi-tech solutions to solve their problems is neither affordable nor practical for most farm enterprises, and he cannot “go out and buy a robotic tractor”, he points out.
“Using technology on farms is getting better but making it user-friendly is a big challenge,” he admits.
He says he wants to ensure that farmers can see a way through the challenges they are currently faced with – including being undermined by cheap imports grown to a lower standard. “We all know government needs to keep the food cost-effective and affordable – but we need to compete on a level playing field,” he says.
He is “very much” looking forward to his two-year term as NFU branch chairman. “There’s plenty to be optimistic about,” he says, including “an increasing population all needing to be fed and all needing good quality food”.
There were also lots of opportunities to integrate the 25-year Environmental Plan, the Environment Act and the Agriculture Act, he says. “Unfortunately, there’s going to be lots of turmoil associated with it.”