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Farm focus: Innovation sparks change for Nottinghamshire arable farm

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An arable co-operative was once the main focus at Home Farm but now new innovative enterprises are the centre of the business. Chloe Palmer meets David Rose to learn about how this change of direction has unlocked the future potential of the farm.

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At first glance, Home Farm might appear as any other farming business in Nottingham-shire. Characterised by large fields interspersed with hedges and small woodland blocks, the rotation comprises wheat and rape with forage crops. But a closer look reveals many stark differences, not least because David Rose is making rapid progress towards his plan of placing his environmental initiatives at the centre of what he does.

 

Back in 1995, David formed Farmeco, a farming co-operative which soon grew to 2,428 hectares (6,000 acres) employing three men by 2000. Around this time, David set-up a web-based farmers’ market which grew rapidly but then as costs spiralled, it became increasingly unviable.

 

Even by this stage, David was having doubts about whether the business was taking him in a direction which would fulfil his own aspirations.

 

He says: “I secured a Nuffield Scholarship in 2001 and this allowed me to visit places such as the US, Australia and Europe to research my topic to learn how farmers and the food industry were forming closer links between consumers and producers.”

Turning point

The scholarship proved to be a turning point for David after realising how he could start to improve areas within his business.

 

“I realised we were losing attention to detail and the farm was suffering. Nuffield allowed me to stand back from my business and decide what I really wanted to do - I think periodically we should all take a step away and think about what is really important to us.”

 

David admits in the early days he chased the concept of big is beautiful rather than achieving the right balance. Two years spent in London working for the charity Sustain, which seeks to secure better quality, locally-sourced food for the city, helped him to see a future for his own farm.

 

“Agriculture has to be about more than just making money - we are working hard for a small return so there has to be some other social and environmental rewards from it,” he says.

 

An involvement with Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) first developed from David’s wish to attain accreditation and therefore an increased margin for on-farm produce. But he soon realised the wider benefits of the environmental benchmarking process.

 

“When I undertake a Leaf audit, I self-evaluate the farm’s performance and consider every aspect of our environmental operations. I think consumers will demand higher environmental standards from farmers in the future and we are trying to get ahead of the game.”

 

David’s involvement with Leaf also persuaded him to move towards a mixed farming system and so he gradually increased the area of forage crops by 20ha (50 acres) across the holding.

 

“We have established areas of species-rich grassland and also grow spring beans, oats, stubble turnips and mustard as a green manure, as well as the wheat and oilseed rape. We have already noticed an improvement in the soil structure on those fields which form part of the rotation.”

Lamb

With the advent of the rotational approach came a flock of Easycare sheep, which must stack up economically as an enterprise in their own right, David says.

 

“We sell the lamb through a box scheme with the remainder sold fat at Newark market. We have now switched to the Charollais as our terminal sire because we found Easycare sheep did not find favour with the buyers.”

 

The sheep also play a part in the educational work at Home Farm. David employs four apprentices who come from deprived backgrounds and hosts visits for children with learning difficulties as part of his involvement with running a care farm.

 

He says: “The sheep fit in well with the children and adults who visit and work on the farm because they can help with some of the tasks such as routine injections and gain a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from doing this sort of work.”

 

Mark Clucas, an apprentice who has been working for David for two years is now entirely responsible for the sheep flock and has recently been awarded the Nottinghamshire Farmer Apprentice of the Year.

 

To allow expansion of the Care farm provision at Home Farm, David completed his ‘Ecocentre’ in 2011 which is designed and constructed to the highest environmental standards from straw bales.

 

As well as providing a meeting and educational room, a kitchen has also been included in the complex. Here, David runs ‘Seed to Sandwich’ days, where participants learn how to bake bread from the basic ingredients produced at Home Farm.

 

This winter, David has established an agro-forestry scheme across a 7ha (17-acre) field. Different varieties of sweet eating and cider apples have been planted into the mustard crop in rows 24 metres (78ft) apart.

 

“Agro-forestry is a good way of achieving more from the same area of land without compromising the environment. We are going to compare the cereal yields from the monoculture field with the one with rows of trees. We will weigh the total amounts of both crops and see which performs best.”

Soil focus

David believes the trees will also improve the resilience of the soils to drought and flooding because as the rooting system develops, the fissures created will allow water, air and nutrients to move more easily through the profile.

 

He says: “For years we have been feeding the plant but not the soil. When fertiliser prices rocketed, we cut back on phosphate and potash applications so our indices dropped. Now we are trying to put something back into the soil.”

 

David also has a plan for the fruits when they begin to ripen. “The first apples should be ready to harvest in the next three years, and within five years I hope we will have a reasonable crop,” says David, who has already bought a cider press which will provide another activity for visitors.

 

He has also developed links with Belvoir Fruit Farms which will take some of the apples for juicing.

 

A Higher Level Stewardship Scheme has provided income to part-fund many of David’s projects, including nature trails, the arable reversion to species-rich grassland, the hedgerow restoration and the fencing and the mobile sheep race, which has facilitated the rotational grazing with sheep.

 

Integrating the arable enterprise into the plan so it could continue to contribute to the bottom line without sapping too much of David’s energies and attention was another challenge.

 

“We have gone from a business which takes on contracting work for other farmers to one which employs another farm to do our arable work for us.”

 

David says he has retained control of the strategic direction of the arable business. “The day-to-day management of the crop is down to our neighbour Richard Ogden and his two sons. We have monthly meetings to decide the strategy for the coming months and so that I can be sure the farm is being operated according to my principles.”

Responsibility

David says he is ‘very lucky to be a farmer’ but believes his good fortune brings responsibilities with it.

 

“Within farming we can be very insular. We should be trying to reach out to communities to involve them in what we do. For me, sustainability encompasses financial and environmental factors, but also social wellbeing. It is up to us to be innovative and search for those avenues which will give us the returns we want.”

Looking to focus on the farm

He is now looking to focus on what the farm can provide to improve the health of disabled and disadvantaged members of society. “The challenge now is to provide evidence to the Government the work we are doing on care farms improves the health and wellbeing of those with depression and anxiety, or people with a physical disability or who are obese.”

 

David is convinced by the evidence provided by his own farm and has drawn satisfaction from seeing the real difference made to the lives of so many people.

 

“Because I see the opportunity of what we can achieve to improve the health of the more disadvantaged members of society, it is my next crusade. The challenge for me now is to make the healthcare and educational aspect of the business sustainable for the future.”

2013 at the Farm Eco Centre in numbers

  • 2,870 attendees to date
  • 88 health-based days
  • 60 education-based days
  • 56 horticultural therapy-based days

This work has reached:

  • 370 older people   
  • 505 people with learning disabilities  
  • 680 schoolchildren
  • 128 ex-soldiers and their families
  • Farm Eco supports 10 work experience placements and four apprenticeships

Farm facts

  • Home Farm extends to 263 hectares (650 acres) of which about 202ha (500 acres) is tenanted, half on a Farm Business Tenancy the other half on a full agricultural tenancy
  • 100ha (247 acres) milling wheat, 100ha (247 acres) oilseed rape, 40ha (100 acres) grass and agro-forestry and 20ha (50 acres) of spring cropping comprising beans and oats; woodland makes up the remaining area of which 6ha (14 acres) is new planting
  • 200 ewes, mainly Easycare with some Easycare/Charolais crosses
  • Two sows and eight weaners
  • 100 hens belonging to Jonno Lee, a former serviceman who now runs the poultry enterprise at Home Farm
  • The farm has been in a Higher Level Agreement for seven years
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