ARABLE, ESSEX: Robert has been farming cereal crops on the Essex/Hertfordshire border since taking on a tenancy with his wife Diana in 1980. After Diana sadly died in 2015, two of their children, Bryony and Archie, returned to the farm to establish another, now increasingly important, strand of the business - running wedding and corporate events spaces inside restored farm buildings which use the farm as a scenic backdrop.
Diversifying into events management might seem like an inevitability to Robert given the tricky nature of the farm’s soil, known as Windsor series London clay. (It’s what London bricks are made from. Some of his fields were previously claypits and are named as such: Burnt Field and Brick Mead.) The soil was never ploughed until the 1941/42 ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during the Second World War. Though modern techniques allow him to continue to manage the land, Robert is finding it harder and harder to establish crops, and yields are falling.
He is an advocate of balancing both modern technological methods and traditional respect for soils and the environment, and does this by practising LEAF’s (Linking Environment And Farming) farm management methods. This means attention to detail with appropriate and efficient use of inputs (such as man-made fertilisers and pesticides), while adopting innovations and technologies that boost productivity and protect resources.
However, Robert’s business can’t always afford to invest in the newest technology so he co-operates with other local growers to improve efficiencies. The most significant venture in this respect has been his membership of Camgrain – a farmer-owned grain storage co-operative. Not only has this given Robert a sense of pride but access to Camgrain’s facilities has enabled him to achieve his philosophy of concentrating on high quality crops for human consumption, instead of simply maximising yield. So he is now able to grow specific varieties of wheat for bread and breakfast cereals, barley for brewing, and oats, also for the breakfast cereal market.
To increase the farm’s biodiversity, Robert has recently used government grants to increase his herbal leys and wild flower areas and bird feeding plots on 445 acres (180 hectares). This will reduce his cropped area by nearly a third.
Robert is also a qualified agronomist (crop doctor) and member of the BASIS professional register – an independent organisation that works across the land management and food production sectors to raise standards through auditing schemes and qualifications.
Robert considers himself an environmentalist and is proud of the achievements he's made on his holding, especially as it has such little natural capital. He has worked with the London Naturalist Society to monitor wildlife on the farm and does his utmost to use insecticides only rarely and to encourage bird species through sustainable practices.
Robert believes that farmers are not a breed apart, but members of society just like everyone else. They too are interested in health care, social care and other broader issues - they just happen to make a living out of farming.
Member of LEAF, BASIS, Camgrain, NFU, Tenant Farms Association, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group.
National newspapers, local and national radio.