• Sponsored by Natural England
  • WINNER: Nicholas Watts, Vine House Farm, Lincolnshire

A holiday to Argentina convinced Nicholas Watts to try growing sunflowers and selling the seeds as bird food. “We brought some sunflowers back and the birds liked the seeds so much we decided to start growing them ourselves,” he explains.

That was in the 1970s. More than 30 years on, sales are still booming. The birdseed business will turn over £2m in 2009 and is an integral part of the farm – some 850ha around the fenland village of Deeping St Nicholas, Lincolnshire.

It’s a far cry from 1966 when Nicholas started farming with just 160ha. “I would have been farming a far larger area now if a lot of my energy had not been directed towards enhancing my farm environmentally,” he says.

Cropping includes a mixture of organic and conventional combinable crops and vegetables, including peas, beans and sweetcorn. But birdseed and farmland birds themselves remain the cornerstone around which the business is built.

“I’ve always been interested in wildlife,” he says. “In fact, all my hobbies are here on the farm, including ornithology and photography. But everything we do here is down to science, not because it looks pretty.”

Dyke banks are cut every other year rather than annually and pesticide use is kept to a minimum. Woodland has been planted and a single hedge runs across the whole farm, providing a valuable wildlife corridor.

“To increase bird numbers, you have to increase the number of insects and to do that you have to increase plant diversity. Organic farming is the only way I know of being paid for having weeds in your crops.”

Lapwing numbers have increased from two pairs to nine pairs within the past decade. The tree sparrow population has soared from 20 pairs to 200 and barn owl numbers have quadrupled.

Customers and the general public are invited to attend farm walks and open days so they can see the farm and wildlife it supports. In addition, the farm has been used as a case study in two geography text books used in schools across the country.

A major local business, Vine House Farm employs some 14 staff, making it the biggest firm in the area. But it remains very much a family affair, with Nicholas’ wife, three daughters and son-in-law all working in the business.

“Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to see all my daughters coming back to the farm because there wasn’t enough work. But that’s all changed. My aim is to see this as a good business for all the family and I hope I’ve achieved that.”

Nicholas-Watts-main

FARM FACTS

  • 850ha
  • Arable, birdseed and organic vegetables
  • 14 employees
  • Three wind turbines

WHAT MAKES HIM A WINNER?

  • Profitable farming while promoting wildlife
  • Passionate ambassador for agriculture
  • MBE for services to farming and conservation
  • Strong links with local community

SPONSOR’S VIEW

  • The high standard of entries made selecting an overall winner enjoyable but extremely difficult. The three finalists are all a credit to British agriculture but the enthusiasm, dedication and expertise shown by Nicholas Watts to farming and the environment ensure he is a worthy winner. Peter Allen, Natural England

INDEPENDENT JUDGE

  • Nicholas Watts has worked hard to create an outstanding family business. He has shown that profitable farming can go hand-in-hand with environmentally responsible practices – his passion shines through in everything he does. Caroline Drummond