Selling encyclopedias door-to-door isn’t the most obvious apprenticeship for running a 400ha (1000-acre) estate in East Dean, Beachy Head, West Sussex.
But for 34-year old Charlie Davies-Gilbert this was an introduction to an 8-year spell in the City that prepared him for the rigours of life without subsidies on the home farm.
In his first year at Lloyds Underwriters he grew the insurance business from 90,000 to 240,000.
“It gave me a lot of confidence in dealing globally and in big numbers,” he says.
He then decided to return to agriculture and take an MBA in Farm Management at Cirencester.
“The estate has always been my first love but 1000 acres just wasn’t enough to support two families,” he says.
His dissertation at Cirencester was on farm shops and he spent a year visiting as many businesses as he could – everything from a 100,000 turnover to 12m.
“It really opened my eyes to the importance of having a business objective and building a strategy around it.”
During his time at Cirencester he came back to the farm to study and it was then that his father Jimmy passed over the reins to his son.
His dissertation on farm shops taught him too that ‘the retail sector is a shark tank – they have to get bigger and bigger to remain financially successful.’
He dipped a toe in the farm shop waters by launching a farmers’ market in East Dean, having cajoled many local farmers and traders to take part.
“It was the first farmers’ market to have a crche,” he boasts.
The crche was a little ahead of its time, but the market continues to thrive with 350 people visiting each week.
The experience has given him the confidence to build a farm and gift shop which will open in 2007.
Meanwhile the farm accounts revealed that too much time and resource was spent on the least profitable areas of the business – namely the cropping.
Should the estate follow the farm shop rule and get bigger?
With Downland on the east and west of the farm, sea to the south and very small farms in the north he felt this wasn’t an option, so he focussed instead on the resources already available.
The most valuable one being location.
“Millions of visitors pass through this farm every year to get to Beachy Head, which presents a great opportunity for the estate,” he says.
He started by getting involved in the government-backed Access Management Grant Scheme.
“People no longer want land to simply provide food.
They want access and space where they can enjoy picnics, walks, and appreciate wildlife – all of which means changing our farm policy.”
Charlie has been working closely with the Sussex Downs Conservation Board and hopes to build more wildlife opportunities on the Pevensey Marshes which are part of the estate.
Further developments are taking place at the existing Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, which has more than 40 different breeds of rare sheep as well as rabbits, goats and pigs.
In July it introduced sheep milking, cheese making and shearing and further down the line a farm shop and mock Saxon settlement is planned.
The estate also owns a pub – the Tiger Inn – and Charlie is now building three new cottages for renting next autumn.
He put the arable acres which once grew wheat, barley and oilseed rape into grass under the organic conversion scheme.
The plan is to produce organic beef, sheep and pigs under the Beachyhead brand which he registered last year.
He is also exploring the possibility of growing organic barley for a local brewer.
Beachyhead now has its own website (www.beachyhead.org.uk) which captures all the developments on the estate so far – the sheep centre, the inn and a wedding business that his father runs at his home, Birling Manor.
Charlie’s hunt for different types of land use doesn’t stop at the obvious: “My mother bumped into an American who spent all his holidays in the UK metal detecting.
So I searched the internet and approached a group who take their British history very seriously – recording and researching everything they find,” he says.
“We charge 10 a day per person and they are usually here for 10 days.”
To the delight of the council, the US visitors have found six historic settlements on the estate and this has been the inspiration for Charlie to put plans in for the mock Saxon settlement at the sheep centre.
With metal detecting, leasing an ice-cream site for tired walkers and the prospect of mountain boarding in the future at the Gilbert Estate, will it ever produce crops in the way that his father and previous generations of Gilberts did?
“I do regard myself as a land manager, but one of the most important factors of my success in years to come will be that the farm is growing food.
The organic livestock and cropping business, I hope, will be the hub of the Beachyhead business with environmental and tourist businesses attached.”