Jake Freestone fought off competition from 80 other applicants when he was appointed farm manager at Overbury, on the Gloucestershire/Worcestershire border. And he’s never looked back.
“My remit was to maintain and improve the farm’s performance, and integrate the farm into the estate better – after all, the farmed environment is the estate’s shop window and we have 35km of footpaths and bridleways on the estate – and to engage with the public and promote locally produced food.”
Overbury Farms operates as a tenant of the Overbury Estate, a few miles from Evesham. The Overbury Estate is held in a trust for the Holland-Martin family, who have been in continuous occupation at Overbury for 270 years.
Excellent presentation is a hallmark of Jake’s management style. All Overbury tractors – regardless of manufacturer’s livery – are sprayed green with red wheels, reflecting the Holland-Martin family’s horseracing silks. “This is more worthwhile than many might think. For example our hedgecutting tractor cost £900 to repaint, but that has been repaid handsomely in new contracting clients, because people can see the standard of our work and know it’s Overbury.
“We were awarded the LEAF marque in 2001 for our lamb and we want to take that passion for local food further. The aim is to create a LEAF marque flour from Overbury wheat sold through local outlets in tandem with British Food Fortnight and, hopefully, Waitrose.”
Jake’s vision for a local food enterprise has brought a renewed focus to the sheep business and has driven a significant improvement in the flock itself as well as targeting a market for its lamb. A thousand Mule ewes are put to Suffolk, Charollais and Texel rams to give a lambing percentage at scanning of 185%, and the farm sells lamb through the May Hill Sheep Group to Sainsbury’s.
“Our deadweights have got better through attention to detail and we’ve retagged the whole flock with electronic identification equipment. It’s a significant investment but one that was going to come anyway – so it’s better that I do it myself on my terms.”
But Jake realises that among the tools a good manager has is the ability to tap into other people’s skills where needed. “It’s easy on a farm to become insular, and contained within what you’re doing. You’ve got to bring in other people to benefit from their expertise.”
Although ring-fenced, soils at Overbury are anything but easy to manage, with low-lying sandy gravels rising to land at the 1000ft Bredon Hill Fort. Soils range from very light, erosion-prone sands to traditional Cotswold brash as the ground climbs. But despite this huge variation, Jake is not a man to miss an opportunity. “Some of the fields on the very top are let to pea growers for hand picking. We drill them in 4ha blocks, and when peas are unsuitable for harvesting everywhere else the crops up there will be just right.”
Better land is let for vegetable growing with the balance in the farm’s cereal rotation. But the legacy of years of post-war gravel extraction means soil improvement is a priority for Jake. “We’re bringing in poultry litter and mushroom compost as a soil conditioner and trying hard to get organic matter back.”
One of Jake’s biggest achievements has been the modernisation of the arable business. Cultivations are now based around a Vaderstad Carier rather than ploughing and power-harrowing, as part of Jake’s overhaul for the farming process. Establishment costs have been successfully fought down while yields have steadily increased.
But the jewel in Jake’s crown has to be his conservation management, and it’s clear that this is something Jake is passionate about. Alongside the extensive margins and beetle banks, Jake can reel off a list of species he’s worked hard to encourage, including turtle doves, skylarks, lapwings and barn owls.
His five-year plan is based around the farm’s new Higher Level Stewardship scheme and maximising its biodiversity income. “I’m keen to explore how we can tap into large companies’ corporate and social responsibility objectives – perhaps through tree-planting.”
Jake’s management of Overbury reaches out to the public in many ways – including Open Farm Sunday – with more than 1000 visitors to Overbury this year already. You can also read his own online blog here.
• Type of enterprise: Arable with land let for potatoes, field vegetables and hand-picked peas. 1000 Mule ewes and 250 Mule-Texel ewe lambs
• Entry Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship
• Farm size: 1551ha, rising from 100ft to 1000ft above sea level
THE JUDGES LIKED
• Strong technical expertise
• Willingness to experiment
• Agri-environment integration