‘Not in the business of hobby farming…’
Harry Bucknall looks round two of the 53 county farms owned by Dorset County Council
Published in December ’13
The instructions to find Provost Farm could not have been clearer, and the last line read: ‘Do not have breakfast before you arrive.’ To drive through the gates is like entering some other arcadia, following your nose as the scent of bacon freshly grilling on the barbecue delivers you to the back door.
Provost Farm, Luke and Louise Trowbridge’s 300-acre dairy holding with a pig unit, is on the face of it nothing remarkable given that Dorset is predominantly rural; however, in this case it happens to be a county farm owned by Dorset County Council, which in turn forms part of the wider national estate of some 300,000 acres across England and Wales.
Council land-owning in Dorset dates back over a century to 1911, when a farm was purchased near Marnhull in a bid to stem the exodus of people leaving the countryside to seek their fortunes in the city, but it was after the Great War that the need for council-owned farms grew in importance. In 1918, the British Army stood at almost four million under arms; David Lloyd George promised that the soldiery, after four years of hard fighting at terrible cost, would return to ‘a land fit for heroes’. Within a year of the Armistice, the military had been reduced to 900,000 and the government had a duty of care to find work for the significant number of now unemployed and, at times, vocally discontent former soldiers who had served their country with pride. The fear was that if these men weren’t cared for, Bolshevism and riots might break out on the streets as it had in Russia.
Today, with 53 tenant farmers, Dorset County Council owns the largest tenanted estate in the county and, with over 6500 acres of land, is also one of the top ten landowners, the majority of its properties ranging from 50 to 200 acres. The council’s agricultural portfolio is not some historical left-over from yesteryear but very much a success story of today, especially in the light of the recent economic downturn which saw swingeing cuts to local authority budgets, many of whom were forced to dispose of land in the short term to make up the loss. Add to that the low price of milk plus the frightening recent statistic that six dairy farms a month were closing across the region, and Dorset county farms become a cause worthy of celebration. The smallest authority in the South West, the county is considered to have the best estate.
Twelve years ago this was not the case. A review exposed that the portfolio consisted of a lot of very small farms that had shown no particular improvement in the last thirty years and would require significant investment in the near future to make them viable assets. Enter Councillor Hilary Cox, the council’s Cabinet member for the environment, a farmer’s wife and the driving force behind the latter-day success of the county estate. It was thanks to her strongly held view that ‘if you have got something, you manage it to the best of your ability’, that it was decided, with full cross-party support, to put the estate in order rather than dispose of it.
The deal was simple. The land needed to be run commercially and, as on any private estate, the operation had to be self-funding. The size of the holdings were increased to make them viable businesses and the infrastructure modernised – if you have a good farm, you get good rent and attract good tenants. Taking advantage of a rising property market, capital was raised by selling farmhouses and the portfolio was consolidated from 84 farms to 53, including the return of leased land, while buildings and fixed assets were all improved. Thanks to Hilary’s vision, not only is the estate sustainable in the long term, but the county farms now produce £500,000 a year in revenue for the council.
According to Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn, county farms are ‘absolutely vital in providing that first step on the ladder’. While there are, not surprisingly, strict criteria based on five years’ minimum experience, including three at a college or educational institution, in order to apply for a county farm, selection is open across the county to tenants from all walks of life and not just farming backgrounds. The usual route is to begin with a starter farm on a fixed-term tenancy of ten to twenty years, with most tenants moving up the scale well before.
Once such couple – Matthew and Phillippa Perrett – have run a dairy herd of 85 Friesian Holstein cows on the 103-acre Rew Head Farm in Buckland Newton since 2010. Trained at Kingston Maurward College, Matthew’s grandfather started as a tenant farmer in Okeford Fitzpaine just after World War 2; his family now owns a farm at nearby Hazelbury Bryan. After managing a dairy herd at Winfrith, Matthew decided to realise his lifelong ambition of farming in his own right.
Rew Head is very much a team operation with Matthew the management and Philippa, a former vet, the office. ‘We were very lucky to get this first time round. The interview process was daunting and we put a lot of preparation work into it,’ Matthew says over a cup of coffee. ‘And from the moment we moved in, Dorset County Council have been so supportive of us.’ This is a direct reference to the estate’s careful stewardship under the watchful eye of land agent Ben Lancaster in Dorchester: ‘As long as they can see something is of benefit, then they are more than amenable.’
Philippa continues: ‘But before we went ahead, we had to prove to ourselves first that the figures stacked up. We researched it very thoroughly.’ She went on to explain how the couple applied for EU grants and to the bank, at the height of the recession in 2009, to fund the enormous outlay to purchase their then 70-cow herd, a tractor and a milking parlour. For the business-minded couple, Rew Head is very much a stepping stone, just as it was previously for Luke and Louise Trowbridge, who moved out as the Perrets moved in.
Unlike Matthew, Luke Trowbridge, whose family has been farming for the last three generations near Margaret Marsh, had to wait two years and many applications after gaining his National Certificate in Agriculture at 23 before securing his first farm. Ten years later, with an added 100 acres of leased land, and a dairy herd of 250 cows, Provost Farm is the largest and most successful of the county farms, offering employment to two others in addition. The property has just had a new slurry pit built at a cost of £175,000 to accommodate the increased herd size. In 2012, the farm produced 1.7 million litres of milk; this year the target is 2 million. Luke, ambitious and with a keen eye for business, takes responsibility for husbandry of the land equally seriously, planting copses of oak, beech, ash and alder while creating a pond with the active involvement of Dorset Wildlife Trust and local schools.
But the ‘pig unit’ is perhaps Provost Farm’s worst-kept secret; the brainchild of Luke’s vivacious wife, Louise, after the couple bought their four boys a Berkshire pig each four years ago, the property is now the home to the Uncommon Pig.
‘After we slaughtered them, we suddenly found we had a lot of meat on our hands and not much room to store it,’ Louise laughs, ‘so we started to ring round and, well, it kind of grew from there.’ Indeed, as a result of their initial success, the Trowbridges started their organic free-range Berkshire pig operation which is now a significant sideline to the dairy business, supplying restaurants and supermarkets throughout the South West and as far as London with award-winning roasting joints, bacon, sausages, pancetta and ham. In 2012, the Uncommon Pig was one of ten local food producers selected to meet the Queen at the Dorset Food Fair in Sherborne during Her Majesty’s visit to the town to mark the Diamond Jubilee.
As demand has increased so Louise, who has a passion for ‘real food, properly produced’, has expanded the business, the majority of which is conducted online now as part of the Dorset Farmer (www.thedorsetfarmer.com), where customers can buy not only up to half a pig but also cheddar cheeses and even ‘share of a beast’: 21-day hung beef from the farm butchered at another award-winning establishment in nearby Holnest, the Blackmore Vale Butchery (www.bmv-butchery.co.uk).
The last word goes to Ben Lancaster, as he chewed on one of Louise’s fresh bacon sandwiches: ‘From opportunity for those starting out, to jobs, education projects, milk production and local produce, the county benefits in so many rich and diverse ways from the estate. It is entirely self-financing, any profit it makes goes back into the community for the benefit of Dorset.’