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'The farm was that bad the landlord said I could take it rent free for a year'

Westons Farm, West Sussex, was brought back to life when first generation farmer David Exwood took it on almost 30 years ago.

 

He tells Olivia Midgley how he built up both the business and the environment which surrounds it.

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Derelict farm turned around by first gen farmer

AS a first generation farmer, David Exwood is proof that resourcefulness, determination and a passion for farming can get you a long way.

 

It was a childhood spent on his parents’ smallholding in Sussex that sparked David’s interest in agriculture and as teenager he realised he wanted to carve out a career in the sector.

 

After his A Levels he took a harvest job in Herefordshire before moving to the US to work on farms in Ohio and Florida and the combine gangs in the Mid-West.

 

Fresh back from the States and aged just 20, David was presented with an opportunity to farm in his own right.

 

“This farm was up for grabs and no one wanted it,” he says.

 

“It had been derelict for two years, there was not a single water trough or a fence on it.

 

“In fact it was that bad that the landlord said I could take it rent free for a year. I paid only £300 for the second year.

 

“I couldn’t really turn it down. People must have thought I was mad but I saw the potential and I was excited about it. It was a good farm but it had just been badly neglected.”

 

Westons Farm’s landlord, Christ’s Hospital, is a charitable boarding school with a high proportion of pupils coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

It had bought the 1,800 acre estate within the Sussex Weald in the 1890s from a dairy farmer who had gone bankrupt due to bovine TB.

 

“It is a truly unique site and steeped in history,” says David.

 

“I see it as a real privilege to farm here.”

 

He was offered 170 acres on a life tenancy and set about transforming the holding.

 

“Within three years we were growing some really good crops,” he says.

 

“I’ve always had a plan and the determination to get on and I think if you have the drive and ambition you will always get there in the end.”


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Soil

 

The in-hand arable operation grows half first wheats broken with oilseed rape, winter oats and spring beans.

 

The cattle operation is based around a grass rotation of two years of winter barley and four years of grass.

 

Maize silage and grass can move between the two rotations to help with blackgrass control.

 

“Mixed farming gives us the ability to adapt to any problem,” says David, who uses poultry manure from a local farm, cattle manure and sewage cake to boost organic matter and soil fertility.

 

“The soil is the bank of the farm and the more you put into it the more you get out of it.

 

“Organic matter and soil fertility are key because farming is a long game. Even if you have land on a short-term agreement you should aim to farm it for the long term.”

 

Nurturing the land has been a focal point for David since he arrived on the farm, situated just outside Horsham, in 1989 and he is sure it is an approach which has paid dividends.

 

“The end product has to be better when you farm in this way,” he adds.

 

“And it futureproofs the farm for future generations.

 

“We have made a conscious decision to use less inputs. We are not insecticide free but we are very close,” says David.

 

“I think that is the direction of travel we need to be going in.

 

“We need to look at how we can cope without pesticides and where we cannot deal with problems, then we need Government funding for research into technologies which can help us deal with them.”

 

Keen to take over the farm one day is David’s eldest son Tom, 24, who works alongside three other full- time staff.

 

His brother Fred, 21, enjoys helping with harvest in between studying maths at Bath University.

 

David and his wife Lucinda have also just welcomed a new arrival into the family, baby Sophie.

 

It has been a busy few months for the family, with David juggling the day to day running of the farm with his chairmanship of the NFU’s South East region.

 

Christ’s Hospital has recently bought 1,000 acres of land locally, which has been added to the tenancy , and has just completed construction of a new 2,000 tonne grain store.

 

But it does not stop there.

Shop

The award winning farm shop, which has gained a solid reputation since it opened its doors in 2003, is about to be rebuilt to provide more space and a better customer experience.

 

David adds: “The shop is central to our business model and ensures we are profitable.

 

“For us the shop is all about having a really good story. It centres on provenance and quality.”

 

With Brexit on the horizon and uncertainty around trade, the shop provides Westons with a secure market.

 

“Everything we farm could change in two months’ time which I know for some people is a truly terrifying prospect but I don’t think change is anything to be afraid of.

 

“Like all businesses, we are looking at our strengths and our weaknesses and we will play to our strengths.

 

“We farm in an affluent area, where people want to live but they do not want to farm, so that presents an opportunity for us. They also want to buy high quality, local produce with a good environmental, high welfare story behind it, and that is our market.”

 

All the meat sold in the shop is produced on the farm or supplied locally.

 

Large White cross Landrace weaners are bought in at a few weeks old and reared to about 90kg.

The farm also runs a flock of 50 Suffolk Mules which are put to home bred Charolais rams, with the lamb being sold through the shop.

 

The sheep enterprise was started in the late 90s by David and his first wife Caroline.

 

Caroline sadly passed away in 1999, when Tom and Fred were very young, but David remained determined to continue building their vision.

 

Ewes lamb outside in early April and graze all year round.

 

“They are easy to keep and are a good grazing tool,” says David.

 

“It’s nice to have the variety on the farm. It also means there is never a dull moment.”

Beef

 

The 40-strong suckler beef herd is made up of Sussex cattle which are put to the farm’s own polled bull, with a view to all animals eventually being polled.

 

David set up the herd in 2002, buying five Sussex heifers from a local dispersal sale.

 

He has built it up over the years using his own replacements.

 

The herd winters inside.

 

After calving in spring, cattle go outside and are grazed on a rotational system around the farm.

 

“They are very striking cattle and people love to see them,” says David.

 

Animals are fattened to reach a carcase weight of between 270kg-300kg which David says is the optimum weight for both the local abattoir, butcher and the shop’s customers.

 

“They have great marbling and they taste very good,” he adds.

 

The farm sits in the low risk area (LRA) and is on a four-year bovine TB testing regime.

 

However, biosecurity is something David keeps at the forefront of his mind.

 

“We are lucky in that the wildlife in our area is free of disease, however we are extremely careful and mindful of disease risk,” he says.

 

“We only buy cattle locally and everything leaves the farm fat. Even though we are in the LRA we treat it as if were in the high risk area.

 

The farm also finishes 240 male calves brought in from a local dairy farm at two weeks old.

 

They are a three-way cross between Friesian, Norwegian Red and Fleckveigh calved in a tight autumn pattern.

 

Calves are reared on milk machines and weaned at six weeks.

 

“They come in September and are turned out to grass in late March and are grazed all summer,” says David.

 

“In the winter they come inside and by the following summer they are finished.”

 

The farm targets a 300kg O+3 carcass and achieves a premium for routinely producing animals close to that target.

 

“We weigh them regularly and they do not fall more than 20kg out of spec so we don’t miss the premium,” he adds. “It’s really important to give your customer, whoever they are, what they want.”

 

Cattle are fed on a ration of grass silage, maize silage, rolled barley, rapemeal and minerals.

 

David says: “In the summer they graze the water meadows which is some of our most naturally productive land. After it floods in winter, the growth rates in summer are excellent.

 

“The meadows are surrounded by the arable land which provides a thriving habitat for wildlife.”

 

David believes agriculture and the environment naturally go hand in hand, but disagrees with major rewilding projects which take vast amounts of land out of production.

 

He says: “We have a lot of trees and an abundance of wildlife here that we are very proud of – snakes, nightingales, lapwings, turtle doves, yellow hammers, skylarks and a wonderful flock of gold finches, but we also produce a large amount of food from the land as well.

 

“We have built up a lot of natural capital on the farm and profitable farming is the backdrop to all that.”

 

Farm facts

  • Grain is sold to about six different traders and direct end users, including Frontier, Bartholomews, Saxon, United Oilseeds
  • The farm spans 2,500 acres, with another 300acres of woodland on the estate
  • 1,800 acres of arable
  • Crops grown are: spring beans, wheat, oilseed rape, winter oats, winter barley and forage maize for the cows
  • Yields average 10-11T/ha wheat, 4-4.5t/ha OSR, 7.5t/ha oats
  • 50 kW of solar panels which provide electricity for the farm and shop
  • Manages Christ Hospital’s 9-acre solar park which provides most of the school’s electricity
  • Recent Open farm Sunday event attracted 1,000 visitors
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