Rick Davies hit the national headlines earlier this year when he sprayed a marriage proposal into a crop of wheat so his girlfriend could see it from a plane.
He had won a flight on a propeller- driven aircraft and ‘wanted to make the most of it’, so set about carefully spraying ‘Di, will you marry me’ into the crop using a quad bike sprayer and total herbicide.
Although Rick had been agonising over the best way in which to propose for some time, it is this notion of making the most out of something which seems to have led to the Davies family’s success.
Rick, who admits the Buckinghamshire farm has undergone a ‘complete transformation’ in the last few decades, says: “I think we have always looked to maximise what we can do here.
The farm, which is situated in Clifton Reynes, Olney, a market town in Milton Keynes, will be the setting for Rick and Dianna’s wedding next year.
“Thankfully she did say yes,” Rick adds. “I came up with the idea when we were spraying wheat with fungicide.
Luckily desiccation was quick, taking just six days. I am glad Di accepted the proposal, otherwise I would have had to look at it for the rest of the season.”
"The place is practically unrecognisable from what it was when dad came back to the farm"
- Rick Davies
The family, originally from Wales, moved to Buckinghamshire when Rick’s greatgrandfather bought Home Farm in 1926.
Rick’s father Mike took over in 1973 and in 1987 bought nearby Newton Lodge Farm. The family retained the Home Farm farmland, but over the next few years, steadily sold off some of the farm buildings.
This allowed them to invest in the new farm. Although cropping at Newton Lodge has stayed more or less the same, the family has dabbled in several diversifications, including pigs, free-range eggs and arable contracting, over the last 30 years.
“The place is practically unrecognisable from what it was when dad came back to the farm,” says Rick.
“Diversification has always been a big part of the business and that went hand-in-hand with the change in the whole farm layout.
“When dad came out of the pig business he converted the old pigsties into 13 small offices for business start-ups. It is this extra income which enabled us to spread risk.
“Diversification has always been important to us because when grain prices are low, like they are at the moment, it is the other enterprises which keep us viable.”
The installation of a 40kWh rooftop solar array, which exports most of the electricity to the grid has also been another valuable income stream.
Dad Mike kept pigs in batches of 1,200 per annum for 18 years, selling direct to an abattoir in Northampton.
He says: “It was all hand feed and hand clean-out and that just was not sustainable in the longterm.
“It was in the 1980s when there was a lot of swine flu about and too many issues with disease.
"There was just no money in the business any more so we shut them down.”
One major diversification which will undoubtedly stay for the long haul though, is eldest son George’s turf business.
George came back to the farm in 2000 after graduating from university and following a twoyear stint at farm business consultants Andersons.
Mike adds: “He came home and we looked at some new ventures like essential oil and lavender.
“Then we went to a conference and George met a man who wanted to expand his turf business.
"He started with him in a franchise model and set up on his own in 2002.
"It took off quite quickly.
“He does about 850,000sq.m a year plus topsoil and bark and runs five lorries and two depots, plus 10 staff.”
Disease pressure from septoria, yellow rust and fusarium is a constant battle, but Rick says a comprehensive spray programme has worked well.
“We are pretty robust on fungicide with a five-spray programme.
“We would much rather prevent disease rather than fire-fight it.
"We have built up a programme which is very effective.”
Overall plant health is a big focus for the father and son.
Rick says: “We use a lot of sulphur-based fungicide which we swear by.
"To get high protein in the milling wheat it requires a lot of sulphur, manganese, magnesium, copper and zinc.
“Dad uses a tonic of minerals and vitamins, such as seaweed extract to keep plants healthy for as long as possible. We want to optimise plant health.
"We work closely with our agronomist Nick Arrowsmith.”
George Davies Turf supplies to domestic and commercial properties and holds contracts with local authorities, landscaping companies and golf courses.
Mike adds: “As the business got busy I ended up helping him out like dad’s do.
"Ironically, he was supposed to come to help me on the farm.
“We used contractors for harvest in 2004 to 2012 and then that all changed when Rick came back to the farm.”
After completing his degree in agriculture and business management at Newcastle University, Rick worked on a fruit farm for seven months before travelling to New Zealand, where he worked on a dairy farm and then to Australia where he worked for a cotton producer.
On his return from travelling he worked as a trainee manager at Velcourt, Lincolnshire, before becoming a farm manager on a 1,821-hectare (4,500-acre) estate in Louth from 2007 to 2012.
Rick returned to the family farm in June 2012, which coincided with him joining Syngenta as an area manager, where he worked for two years.
“I felt I had learned a lot from working away and I was keen to grow the operation at home,” says Rick.
“We started by taking all the farm back in-hand and re-equipping ourselves.
“We wanted to maximise what we could do.”
The pair bought a 24-metre Avadex spreader and began building up contract customers.
Rick says: “We did 900ha this autumn for other people. It is easy extra income and something I enjoy because it gets me out on-farm.”
Rick and his father grow malting barley, milling wheat and oilseed rape over 404ha (1,000 acres).
This year they grew barley for Budweiser.
“After the first summer in 2012 we wanted to move into a direct drilling system, low input establishment,” says Rick.
“We were plough-based for cereals and we contracted the oilseed rape on a Claydon system.
We bought a Claydon drill in 2013 and in that year we put in 50 acres of wheat and all the rape.
“We had to get in a completely different mindset because we were used to everything being neat and tidy and it all looked such a mess.
“Last year we ploughed twothirds of the wheat and this year a third.
Hopefully next year we will direct drill the lot. “It has worked because it has eased us in slowly.”
Rick says the results have been pleasing so far.
He adds: “There are time and money savings but you have to go on yields. So far they have been very good.
“We are on light ground here, it is one of the driest areas in the country.
The Claydon works well in dry conditions so it works well on our farm. It is excellent for moisture-retention.”
Grain has been supplied to Heygates Mills, in Northampton, for 20 years.
“We deal direct with the mill,” adds Rick.
“We know exactly what they want and they are close enough, so if we get any rejections we know what they are doing with it.
"If they don’t get grade 1 milling it gets downgraded and goes for feed, but we have never had that.”
He says the farm has seen some ‘heavy’ investment in the last two years. As well as the new equipment and machinery, they completed construction of a 2,500-tonne grain shed just in time for this year’s harvest.
“We have been short of storage for years so we had to sell oilseed rape at harvest and 30 per cent of our wheat.
"Now we have the facilities to store everything,” says Rick.
“Ironically this year we have sold everything so we could pay for the shed.
"We finished building the new shed this August and it was full within 10 days.”
Although the main focus is on arable, Rick recently bought 14 Red Poll steers for finishing.
“I like the idea of having some cattle to use the grass on-farm.
We bought them from a farm in Newport Pagnell because the farmer was running out of grass.
“My aim is to get up to 30 next year. We will slaughter the first two for ourselves – one will be for our wedding next July.”
Longer term, Rick would like to sell the beef both locally and over the internet.
Two local butchers are already interested in stocking the beef.
He adds: “If we get organised enough ideally I would like to sell online. We will buy-in at six months and sell some locally because people like to have that provenance.
“I think local pubs and restaurants would be interested.”
The farm has always been associated with livestock.
As well as the pig business, Rick’s mother Christine kept 2,500 freerange hens from 1980 to 1995 and delivered the eggs locally.
Rick says: “Mum did it all herself and did it very well. We used to come back from school and do the grading ourselves and she would go and deliver the eggs the next day.”
Rick is currently considering introducing more stock onto the farm.
“I have been looking into freerange chickens or pigs,” he adds.
“It would be good to have another income stream and because we are on a light soil with low organic matter, the livestock would help improve the soil structure.”
Looking to the future, Rick says he would like to eventually increase the size of the farm.
“In my generation it has gone from a 180-acre family farm supporting three families and employing four people, to a 1,000- acre farm with just me and my dad, and really, it is not big enough.
“We would like to expand without bringing anyone else in because we like to do it all ourselves,” he adds.
“It would be good to get to the point where we would have to employ someone but it could be difficult finding someone who buys into it all.”