10 November 2001

Wetlands win over wheat

Wheat fields have been replaced by a wetland reserve and an ESA on Austen Rightons Oxfordshire farm. He explains why

SOME of you may remember me. I last wrote for Crops regularly four years ago. Then I was farming 200ha (500 acres) with an additional 148ha on contract. The problems I wrote about then appear to have changed little today – resistant blackgrass, rejected grain loads, rising costs and falling incomes.

Thankfully I am now removed from those problems. In 1997 the owner sold the contracted land and 104ha was purchased by the RSPB in order to create a wetland reserve.

That left us with 200ha in 1998 – not enough to maintain a viable arable business.

So my wife Emma and I looked to diversify. Old cowsheds were full of junk and not contributing in any financial way to the business. We applied to our local authority for consent to convert these buildings into residential use. As anyone who has had experience with planners will testify, it is a long and often contentious battle. It took many alterations, resubmissions, and lessons in diplomacy to achieve the consents. After 12 months we gained planning permission for four holiday-use cottages.

It was now a case of working out how the cottage project could be funded. I did not think that it was prudent to borrow all the money particularly when arable fortunes were clearly on the wane.

I knew that the RSPB wished to expand their acreage and one block of ours seemed the logical add-on to what they had already acquired. In September 1998 I sold them 48ha and maintained a farm business tenancy for a further 12 months. Ironically we still held the shooting rights during that year.

The cottages were started in that September and finished in April 1999. But would a modern working arable farm be a town dwellers dream of a countryside holiday? The sound of a grain drier roaring all night or the sight of a 24m sprayer releasing bright green vapour being driven by a man attired like a nuclear scientist was unlikely to be as appealing as moo cows and baa sheep.

  My options were to farm 152ha of wheat worth just £70/t, sell the machinery and use contractors or totally contract it out for rent. Fortunately another option arrived – the Upper Thames Tributary Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme (ESA). The payments for achieving the highest tier at £435/ha seemed a far greater return than any of the alternatives I could consider – and it meant I could retain control of the business.

So, in autumn 1999 the whole farm was sown with a wetland grass mix and entered into the ESA. As part of the original drainage the land had been embanked to prevent water entering; the trapped water cannot escape unless it is pumped off. This means that water can be stored on the farm for longer than ever before and create an ideal environment for wading birds, which is the whole purpose of the scheme.

The agreement lasts for 10 years and there are many provisions for grant-aided works such as stock fencing, ditch creation, and general features that encourage wildlife.

In February 2000 I had a dispersal sale. The weeks leading up to the big day were fraught. You spend days tidying up the farm because you dont want people to think that you have gone bust. You spend hours looking for the logbook for the baler. A book, incidentally, that you put away safely in 1978, when it was delivered, and havent seen since. You give up on the chance of ever locating the wretched thing, so return to valeting your main tractor only to find it, and a stale pork pie under the seat.

On the big day you wonder if anyone will show up, will that power harrow have held its value? The dealer who sold it to me assured me it would.

It all turned out well and as always there were some disappointments and some surprises. But overall I was pleased with the sale, although a touch sad to see items of gleaming metal disappear off the farm.

The holiday cottages have been running for two years and our proximity to Oxford has meant a lot of business tourism as well as true holiday-makers, which has been a godsend considering the recent disasters that have affected rural businesses.

The farm is now managed in a way to encourage waders such as snipe, redshank, curlew and lapwing back to the area to breed. In a very short time the environment has changed dramatically and is achieving the objectives of the scheme.

Do I miss arable farming? Yes, in many ways I do. I regret the satisfaction of producing good crops. But unfortunately the economics were stacked against me and profitability had to come from somewhere. The new ventures have been more flexible and have created an opportunity to pursue different avenues of income, which I would never have done while confined to the solitude of a tractor.