FW Awards 2009: Countryside Farmer of the Year finalist – Guy Smith

Most farmers are used to battling the elements, but Essex grower Guy Smith is in a unique situation: he farms the driest place in Britain.

Annual rainfall averages just 500mm (19.5 inches) at Wigboro Wick Farm, St Osyth, although precipitation can vary tremendously. Last year’s wet summer meant the farm received almost 50% more rain than usual. But it has been as low as 350mm (13.7 inches).

“As we farm the driest farm in Britain I am a great believer in making the most of our natural, climatic advantages – and that means for us dry harvests where good quality can be achieved,” says Mr Smith.

The mixed farm grows mainly commodity crops but specialises in top-quality milling wheat and malting barley. Some crops are grown to specific contract criteria and most aim to secure good premiums.

Mr Smith seeks to achieve this while maximising the farm’s environmental benefits and reconnecting the local community with agriculture through initiatives that highlight the connection between food and agriculture.

“We are developing ‘Skylark’ flour to bake the ‘skylark loaf’ – bread made from wheat grown in fields of milling wheat and linseed both grown with sympathetic management for ground nesting birds such as the skylark.”

The beauty of the idea is its simplicity, says Mr Smith. Wheat will be supplied by 20 local growers, all of whom will receive a premium. And a small independent miller will take care of the retail marketing.

“Farm assurance schemes often lack the marketing budget to explain to the consumer what they are and to get the farming message across. But we hope shoppers will be able to see immediately that by buying our flour they will be helping skylarks.”

Some 3000 people live in St Osyth. But the parish attracts a further 20,000 visitors during the holiday period – a significant market that brings its own opportunities as well as threats to the farm business, which has doubled its landholding in 20 years.

Being a key local business has seen the farm provide the venue for barn dances, fostering wildlife and hosting school visits. But it has also seen Mr Smith forced to clear up fly-tipping at his own expense and liaise with police over illegal hare-coursing.

“What we do has an impact on that community and we are sensitive to that in how we go about managing the area under our stewardship. As a farming business we are aware that we can affect the quality of life of others.”

The 430ha holding is all farmed in-hand. It includes fishing lakes and a nine-hole golf park. “We all recognise farming and land management are, in the main, long-term challenges,” says Mr Smith of his employees.

“I have a good team of well-motivated staff around me, some who have worked alongside me for over 30 years, and we work, as one, to achieve our business and environmental goals.”

Honoured with a doctorate from Essex University for services to improving understanding about agriculture in the community, Mr Smith takes his environmental responsibilities equally seriously.

The farm embraces a number of habitats. It encompasses coastal salt-marsh and naturally regenerated ungrazed tussocky grassland which requires only light management, such as topping once a year.

But most of the wildlife features are entirely managed. They include hedges, ditches, ponds and woodland – as well as farmed areas which have pre-historic marks protected by non-cultivation or non-inversion cultivation.

“At the heart of our environmental management is a programme of measuring and monitoring various key indicators,” says Mr Smith, whose brother-in-law Clive Atkin is a keen conservationist with a particular interest in moths.

The farm is criss-crossed with about 30km of strategically managed 6-12m field margins, which have tail-corn broadcast along them during to provide bird feed during the “hungry gap” of January-April.

Uncropped margins with spring-sown wild bird seed plants are placed adjoining residential neighbouring properties allowing for pesticide buffers. Information boards provide information to ramblers about farm activities and conservation work.

Farm facts:

  • 430ha mixed farm
  • Cereals grown for premium
  • Farm shop sells local produce
  • All fuel-use monitored

Three achievements

  • Planted 15,000 hogs fennel plugs
  • No-spray zones next to rural homes
  • Permissive public access to farm paths

What the judges liked:

  • An excellent communicator who successfully promotes the environmental contribution made by farmers to the general public.