The new Master of the Worshipful Company of Farmers had never been on a farm until the age of 23. Alan Stennett reports.
Farm business specialist Philip Wynn, the founder of Aubourn Farming and ‘an inspiration to agriculture’ according to Baroness Hazel Byford, was born and brought up in London. He took a geography degree at Durham, but met Joe Henson, then setting up the Cotswold Farm Park, while on holiday in Gloucestershire. Joe offered him a job, and convinced him that a farming career would be better than teaching.
Mr Wynn says: “I was just lucky, I was in the right place at an exciting time – the farm was changing, and Joe was one of the people who made a big difference in my life – he initiated my farming career”.
After a year on the farm, he studied farm business management at the Royal Agricultural College. He worked in dairy farming during the holidays, then a series of jobs added young stock management and arable production in Berkshire, followed by ‘tough clay land’ arable production on 200ha (500 acres) in Sussex, where he also bought and reared calves for export to Italy.
In the late 1970s, he moved to just north of London to ‘turn around’ a 300-cow Jersey dairy and London clay arable estate.
“It was the first farm out of London, and we were fully aware then of the problems of farming close to built-up areas. Fly tipping, broken fences and people letting animals out – on one occasion a lot of young stock escaped and were found outside Woolworths in Potters Bar High Street.”
In 1983 he moved to Lincolnshire to manage the 485ha (1,200-acre) Aubourn Estate for Sir Henry Nevile. Sir Henry put him onto the Worshipful Company of Farmers management course at Wye College and Mr Wynn became a Member of the Company shortly afterwards.
With the agreement of Sir Henry, he set up Aubourn Farming in 1986 as a separate company based at Aubourn.
The establishment of an agronomy advisory service independent of product supply was seen by Mr Wynn as essential, and Aubourn developed into two major national operations, with five consultancy offices around the country and agronomy bases in Norfolk and the Midlands as well as Lincolnshire.
“It was a period of big changes when farmers were questioning where their businesses were going, and what was the best structure for the future, and we were providing a lot of guidance on that and things like diversification – a big issue at the time.”
Land agent Savills bought into the business and took it over completely in 2004. After working as their head of agriculture he left in 2006 to set up Wynn Business Partnerships where he developed a portfolio of food and farming businesses.
“It had been very enjoyable, but my heart was really in added value agricultural production,” he says.
He recently retired after eight years as chairman of the Green Pea Company, supplying vining peas to Birds Eye, but is still chairman of Humber Grain and a director of pet foods company Fold Hill Foods and James Dyson’s 12,146ha (30,000-acre) Beeswax Dyson Farming, which he describes as ‘a really interesting project’.
A long-standing interest in vegetable production led to an embedded role as financial and strategic adviser for a Nottinghamshire fresh produce business growing and packing 200,000 tonnes of carrots, parsnips and leeks for major retailers as well as potatoes for crisping.
The only requirement set by the Nevile family when he branched out into wider management was that he would continue to look after the family interests, which he still does.
The estate, now trading under the resurrected name of Aubourn Farming, farms about 2,429ha (6,000 acres), including a number of long-standing contract agreements. About 2227ha (5,500 acres) are arable, growing wheat, oilseed rape, spring barley, spring beans and over 810ha (2,000 acres) of sugar beet, which are harvested with a jointly-owned Holmer harvester, the sixth they have owned over the past 40 years. Grassland and woodland cover a further 202ha (500 acres), and Mr Wynn also manages the 485ha (1,200-acre) Hungerton Estate near Grantham.
He maintains a strong environmental interest. Aubourn was the first Leaf demonstration farm in Lincolnshire and projects there include wildlife corridors, tree planting, wetland areas and encouraging small-scale graziers to use grassland adjacent to local villages.
“I have always believed good commercial farming and good environmental management can go hand in hand, and I believe the Aubourn Estate has proved that can be done,” he says.
He is a firm believer in ‘spreading the word’ about his approach and the Aubourn Estate won both the agricultural and overall categories of the Lincolnshire Environmental awards in 2011.
Educational and charitable work is very important. He served as a Trustee of the Lincolnshire Rural Support Network, and is director of mentoring for the Henry Plumb Foundation. He regards mentoring as vital to an industry where numbers are falling and solitary working is increasingly the norm.
“There are two ends to mentoring – one is inspiring and guiding young people, but the other is helping people already in the industry who are quite isolated, but need a sounding board to test new ideas – as an industry it is something we really need to develop.”
After a long involvement with the Worshipful Company of Farmers, he agreed, in 2012, to put his name forward as the Master, which he became in October, after serving as junior and senior warden for the previous two years.
He sees his role as a leader in developing the organisation, and particularly its core activity of inspiring, encouraging and developing excellence in the management of UK agriculture and the promotion of that excellence to the City of London.
As Master he recently took part in the Lord Mayor’s Parade in London, heading a contingent including a pea viner and 12 young farmers, some dressed as peas. Despite poor weather on the day he welcomed the ’big opportunity to promote British food and British farming’ to a receptive public.
“I am really touched by the engagement of people with the Farmers Company; it is so warm, so we were really keen it should be great display this year.”
Speaking at a dinner in Mr Wynn’s honour, hosted by Lincolnshire Worshipful Company Members and course alumni, Baroness Hazel Byford praised his wide business influence.
“He is an inspiration to agriculture, who has led the industry so well, and is highly respected in farming and other sectors”.
Although Mr Wynn has never farmed in his own right he says he has always treated the farms he has managed as if they were his own. He knows he will have to be less ‘hands on’ at Aubourn during his period as Master, but is confident his ‘great team’ will be quite capable of looking after things.
He is concerned about the future of farming and unhappy with the vote to leave the EU, which he believes means farming will receive inherently less financial support, but says we must accept the situation.
“Although I worry about certain sectors, such as lamb and vegetables, I am sure there will be opportunities and we have to make the best of them.”