FW Awards 2009: Countryside Farmer of the Year finalist – Nicholas Watts

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 1978. 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 (2100 acres) around the fenland village of Deeping St Nicholas, Lincolnshire.

It’s a far cry from 1966 when Mr Watts 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.

“We farm in the Fens, at an average of 1.5m above sea level,” says Mr Watts. “We have no hills or valleys, nearly all the fields are rectangular and when I started farming every acre was in cropping.”

Having taken on the farm, Mr Watts researched every crop, cultivation method and spray to ascertain their effects on wildlife. He then adapted his farming techniques to enhance wildlife habitats and reduce the more damaging machinery operations.

“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.”

Environmental measures include the sowing of wildflower meadows. Attention to detail is paramount, such as taking the outside nozzles off the boom to avoid spraying field margins when desiccating rape.

As a result, 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 pairs over a similar period and barn owl numbers have quadrupled.

With three 2MW wind turbines, the farm produces more energy than it uses. A boiler fed on waste wood heats the house in winter and a swimming pool in summer. “We’ve not heated the house with any oil since 1980,” says Mr Watts.

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 Mr Watts’ wife, three daughters and son in law all working in the business.

“We keep as much trading local as we can and employ local people for our permanent jobs. All of the six men working on the farm have worked for me for over 28 years and all their fathers have worked for me or my father.

In five years, Mr Watts believes he will be in the background but continuing to protect and improve the biodiversity and environmental value of the farm with the next generation continuing to expand 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.”

Farm facts:

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

Three achievements

  • MBE for services to farming and conservation
  • Integration of farming and wildlife
  • Strong local links

What the judges liked:

  • An outstanding family business that shows farming and the environment can go hand-in-hand while supporting the local community.