Thomas & David McVeigh
AGROECOLOGICAL, EAST ANGLIA: Tom grew up at Kenton Hall, a 450-acre (174-hectare) farm in East Anglia which his father David farmed conventionally with a rotation of wheat, and oilseed rape. Tom did not see a future for himself as a farmer, so after university he moved to London to embark on a career working in market intelligence.
But in 2020, when the Government published its Environmental Land Management Scheme, Tom changed his mind and decided to give farming a go. “The new policy changed my outlook on farming and its potential,” says Tom. “Agriculture is undergoing its greatest change in a century and I wanted to be part of it. Farming felt like an exciting space to be in.”
In 2022 Tom took over responsibility for the farm from his father. To increase its biodiversity he wanted to move from monoculture to permaculture and polyculture (growing many crops). So as part of the Government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme, Tom trialled an experimental farming system on one 30-acre field, incorporating strip farming (different crops in rows), agroforestry and min-till (cultivating land using mechanical methods other than ploughing, to reduce soil disturbance). The results were compared to those obtained from monoculture fields. Eventually, Tom plans to grow nine different crops, and a total of 36 different varieties. Crops will include wheat, barley, beans, borage, walnuts, hazelnuts, canary seed and mixed grasses and cover crops (grown to enrich the soil). His aim is to use nature to combat pests and diseases and to increase productivity, rather than relying on herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
Despite being on prime arable land, Tom keeps livestock too – 30 longhorn cattle, and eight Gloucester old spot pigs which forage in woodland. The meat is sold direct from the farm and through local butchers.
The farm is one of the few left in East Anglia to still keep livestock, but Tom believes the permanent pasture that his cattle graze on offers far more scope for biodiversity. “The aim for farmers in my generation is to try to mimic nature,” he says. “As nature has animals in its ecosystems it’s important that farms do too.”
Tom enjoys the challenges of farming, and the diverse skills it requires. “Now is without doubt the most exciting time in the last a hundred years to be a farmer. As a business, farming is so much broader than just growing crops. You need both hard and soft skills. Farmers face such a wide range of challenges, both physical and intellectual, that overcoming them offers a sense of fulfilment that I don’t believe you’d get in any other industry. Many industries drive efficiency through reducing job roles into specific functions and that inevitably leads to a sense of repetition. My job never feels repetitive.”
For Tom, the hardest thing about farming is the isolation. “Being young and living on the mid Suffolk coast is not always stimulating,” he says. “Farming is a wonderful lifestyle in so many ways but I worry it is an inherently isolating one. By nature, we live in sparsely populated areas. As there are many more opportunities in the city, few people of my age stay here. That has an impact on the hobbies which are available to us and the ways in which we socialise. It’s hard to have a fulfilling social life in the countryside, so to do that I have to commute to urban areas.”
David has now assumed the role of an adviser leaving the day to day running of the enterprises to Tom and his two sisters. “I felt with changing policies and new technologies it needed someone enthusiastic to keep an eye on all the opportunities and funding schemes that are becoming available. I am lucky that my children have different skills. Bringing together the different viewpoints in a positive way certainly makes for better decision making whatever the subject.” As well as advising, David gets enjoyment from helping with the small pedigree cattle herd, building projects and looking after his grandchildren.
Tom believes that a mix of livestock and arable is the way ahead if farms are to be resilient in the future. “I think farmers should farm in a way that mimics nature or at least includes nature in their decisions. Resilient farms are the result of harmony between the two. Nature has animals in it so surely farms need them too. It isn’t just the mineral exchange from feed to manure but in a wider context of habitat. My farm is on prime arable land in east Anglia. Most farms around us have got rid of their livestock, but sadly that means also getting rid of habitats and of circular opportunities within farming.”
Member National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association, Land Workers Alliance
BBC Radio4 Farming Today