Linking consumer and producer was the goal for actor Delaval Astley when he took over the management of his family’s Astley estate in North Norfolk. Clemmie Gleeson spoke to Delaval and his new farm manager Luke Rodway about how developing each section of the farm properly is key to its success.
In his first career as a voice actor, Delaval Astley’s first line as Cameron Fraser in The Archers was, ‘so, this is organic farming’?
Fast forward more than two decades and he finds himself at the forefront of organic agriculture himself, heading up Grange Farm, a 404-hectare (1,000-acre) mixed farm which is part of Astley Estate, as well as a retail and catering businesses to add value to the farm’s produce.
Delaval was raised on the estate but returning to take over its management wasn’t originally in his plan.
He took over management in 1998 and soon started making changes accordingly.
This included renting out a bigger proportion of the farm to tenants, but the most drastic change was the organic conversion. He started the process in 2001 and eventually all became certified.
But Delaval was also keen to sell the farm’s produce direct to the public.
“I wanted to restore the links and connections between producers and customers,” he says.
In the summer of 2003 he set up a basic roadside vegetable stall at Letheringsett, Holt.
“I just started with a box of vegetables, a fold-up chair and a pile of books,” he says.
He realised there was enormous potential for a farm shop, and a large, unused barn on the side of the busy A148 a few miles from Holt on the way towards Fakenham was the obvious location.
There were difficulties winning Highways approval but eventually planning permission was granted and he started to use the barn as a basic shop called Back to the Garden.
Later it was developed and converted further, gained certification from the Soil Association and a cafe was added at one end of the building.
Now it is an impressive sight offering a wide range of fresh produce as well as grocery items, a well-stocked meat counter and a delicatessen. The cafe has also been expanded and is now a bustling restaurant which can host events including weddings and parties.
Of the estate’s total 2,023 hectares (5,000 acres), about one-fifth of the area is organic and farmed in-hand.
Last year saw the arrival of new farm manager Luke Rodway too, after Luke had been managing one of the tenant farms on the estate for four years and was looking for his next step up.
Delaval says: “The farm is roughly split 60:40 arable to permanent grassland.
“There is also tenanted non-organic land, a number of estate properties and about 324ha of woodland.”
The farm’s Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme will come to an end at the end of this year and will be replaced by Countryside Stewardship.
The HLS scheme included pollen and nectar mix plots, winter feed for birds, six-metre margins around all arable fields and hedge management.
Woodland is a mixture of ancient and modern with large areas of former Forestry Commission land which has recently been added to the portfolio.
“We will gradually be converting the Forestry Commission land to broad-leaved woodland and have also recently introduced woodland pigs,” says Delaval.
The pig enterprise is a partnership with two local farmers. The herd is small to start with, but if all goes well they intend to grow it to supply the shop with free-range pork.
Elsewhere on-farm is a herd of 60 Aberdeen-Angus cross suckler cows plus followers and Angus sire.
Luke says: “The Angus suits the land well.
“We are however thinking about adding a slower maturing traditional breed to graze on the rougher areas, maybe Highland or White Park.”
The beef system is simple, with the cows outdoors for as long as possible and housed only during the coldest months in straw-bedded barns.
Calves are born in spring and summer and are grass fed, apart from some home-grown oats and silage during winter, says Luke.
Carcase weights are typically about 350kg and all beef goes through the shop.
The sheep flock stands at 350 ewes and will possibly be increased to 500 to cover more of the grassland, and the ewes are an important part of the organic system, moving over the grassland area and helping control weeds and worms.
The ewes are predominantly mules put to a Texel ram. There are a few Suffolk crosses in the flock, but Luke prefers the Mules which are less heavy on management.
Shearling ewe replacements are bought-in each year and splitting lambing into two groups gives the shop a good supply of lamb.
Early lambs are turned out on to stubble turnips before heading to grass in spring and reach a carcase weight of 18-22kg in 12-16 weeks.
Poultry was also an important early addition to the farm.
Delaval says: “I knew I wanted to produce chicken which tastes like it did when I was a child.”
The farm now raises 5,500 table birds per year.
Luke says: “The system is very labour intensive.
“The birds arrive as day olds. The first week they are kept in potato boxes before moving to a shed and then to the main sheds outside.”
Once outside, each batch of 450 birds has its own movable shed and can free range over a large area.
They are fed an organic ration with no fishmeal because Delaval strongly believes this can affect the taste of the finished bird.
They are slaughtered on-site at about 12 weeks of age and dry plucked by hand before being sold in the shop.
Delaval says: “Because of the high labour requirements, they are relatively expensive.”
The shop’s customers however seem happy to pay up to £20 for an oven-ready bird, of which he is proud.
“Last year we were finalists in the Great British Food Awards with our organic chicken and we have previously won a gold award in the Soil Association’s poultry section.”
Sadly, the chickens have also been highly prized with local thieves.
Luke says: “Several times we had 50 or so birds taken just as they were ready to be slaughtered.
“Each time it would be almost a week’s supply for the shop gone.”
But after fitting some new security measures, the problem has thankfully stopped.
They also produce about 120 Christmas turkeys and a small number of geese.
In time, Luke and Delaval also plan to start producing table ducks and are looking to increase chicken and lamb production as they are planning to start selling at farmers’ markets in London.
They have a pitch booked at the Primrose Hill market which will be the team’s debut in the London market scene, chosen for its location and demographic.
Delaval says: “It’s a good residential area. We wanted to supply a market where it is primarily families locally.
“We are hoping to expand to other London markets in autumn this year or next.
“London is about three hours from here in a van, but I think it will be a good opportunity for us.”
Luke adds: “We hope it may also open the door to other potential markets such as wholesalers.
Renewable energy is also an interest and the farm has a field of solar panels producing about 150kW of electricity per year.
“It powers the grain dryer and the surplus is sold to the grid,” says Luke.
The estate also has two woodchip boilers, for which it produces 300 tonnes of woodchip to heat Delaval’s house, the farm shop and the restaurant.
Like all businesses, the main challenges for Grange Farm include uncertainty with the unknowns of Brexit, but also the continued need to build up fertility and control weeds.
“Docks and thistles are a particular problem on the arable land,” says Luke.
“Thistles, stinging nettles and rushes are also a considerable management problem on the permanent pasture. But we are getting better with our rotations and finding what works best.”
Delaval has no doubts organic conversion was the right thing to do for the estate and is happy to be able to give local people the chance to buy locally produced food.
“I am 100 per cent pleased with that,” he says. “And it is gratifying for everyone involved in the production as well.”