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Farmers mean business and have won awards to prove it!

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FarmBusiness Awards2011

An online dating and farming recruitment site, waste recycled for championship golf course aggregate and clever foresight on irrigation all caught the judges eyes, despite some testing times for the industry this year, in the annual Farm Business Competition run by the Suffolk Agricultural Association.

The winners were announced last week over a presentation lunch at the winning large farm, Hawstead Place Farm near Bury St Edmunds run by father and son Christopher and Rupert Brown.

The competition is judged by farmers from outside the region and this year the judges came from the Peterborough area. Awards are presented to the top three in each of three categories small (upto 200 hectares), medium (200- 399) and large (over 400), as well as for the best arable crop, best livestock enterprise and conservation project in each category. Once again the event was sponsored by the AMC and Robinson and Hall estate agents.

“Family Teamwork is the key to our winning the SAA Large Farms Competition for the second year running,” says Christopher Brown of John Brown & Sons.  I now provide the grey hair and Rupert, my son, the youth and enthusiasm to manage our rural business.

About 12 years ago, Rupert joined the Hawstead, Bury St Edmunds, based farm business after a career as a land agent with Savills, following in the footsteps of many generations of Brown that had farmed in the area prior to 1971. But it was his father Christopher who begun and grew the core of todays business. Beginning with a 290ha tenancy with a national pension fund as a young farmer, he expanded to 1900ha of Farm Management Agreements and other Short Term Tenancy arrangements and in the early nineties Christopher took the opportunity to purchase the Tenancy.

During the next decade he also acquired several small neighbouring farms, so by 2004 he owned the current 900ha ring fenced unit at Hawstead, which is traditionally cropped for the area, with wheat, oil seed rape and sugar beet, and that clearly impressed the judges.

But this is just one side of what has today developed into a series of rural businesses, where arable cropping now accounts for about 40 per cent of the business, which can be attributed to the Browns flexibility, forward thinking and business management skills.

The parallel side of the business, the diversification which has enabled the farming acquisitions, began in 1984 with the purchase of a 150ha farm in South Norfolk originally acquired to grow vegetables.

Following many failed attempts to crop the fragile peat over gravel river valley deposits on Water Mill Farm, Northwold, Christopher realised there were deposits of sand, gravel and topsoil that could be extracted from the land and so began the soil-screening activity.

More than 20 years later, this business continues to produce loam, peat and root-zone materials which are used nationally by the golf course, landscaping, sports fields and leisure industries.  In fact if you play golf on many of the major courses you are likely to be standing on a bit of earth from Suffolk!

Theses were new markets in their time, but the Browns were quick to identify the need for the types of loam they could extract, screen and supply. Today, three men are employed to load-shovels and screens to meet current demands from four different sites in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.  

The business has developed further into waste-recycling by taking soil from vegetable processing factories, screening and mixing to produce loam and root-zones to satisfy our markets, says Christopher.  The soil screening has continued to be successful. If anyone has soil we receive a call. We convert a waste product into a useable one – and most people are standing on something that we have built the business on, he said.

Their ingenuity was recently recognised by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) who granted an award for the creation of more than 80ha. of wetlands, lakes and conservation areas, the by-product of the soil screening activity. 

Over the years, it is the success of the soil screening business that has enabled them to acquire other land and farms, one was Hawstead Place. Set in a stunning parkland landscape, it comprises a moated mediaeval barn that has been converted into a venue for wedding receptions, parties and conferences for 200. It has an adjacent holiday home as well as other let houses and cottages, plus fishing – carp and trout, and there are plans to plant further woodland.

It was seventh time lucky for Nigel Rolph of L W Rolph & Son, Grove Farm, Ufford, whos foresight to invest in a mile long irrigation pipeline linking two farms together, combined with excellent crop management and production, finally won the eye and mind of the judges in the medium farm category.

The Judges said, The investment in irrigation must be a sound move because of climate changes and the potential of adding value to land and utilisation of the water Abstraction licence.

The farm is truly a family affair with Nigel managing the farm in partnership with his parents, Lorna and Leslie, his wife, Tricia, helping with the record keeping and paperwork and one full time employee, Stuart Beecroft. It comprises 158 hectares of wheat, 48 of barley, 44 of sugar beet, as well as, oilseed rape and field beans. Irrigated land is also rented out for potatoes. Nigel felt it was essential to increase their acreage of irrigated land so constructed the pipe between Manor Farm, Little Bealings and Seckford Hall Farm. This is the pipelines first season and obviously not installed before time.

For Nigel, it is the discipline of running an efficient and well-documented business that gives him the impetus to keep entering. A competition like this makes you look at the business and question what you are doing. It helps you reflect on what you are doing well and to make changes if needed. It is also good to hear and see other ideas from farmers, judges and stewards in the competition.

As farmers we must observe the changes in climate and understand how to respond. We need to understand why some crops and varieties have withstood the drought a lot better than others. If we dont learn and adapt, we will struggle, he said.

This all fits with Nigels roles as a Member on the Suffolk Technical Committee run by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany The Arable Group – NIAB-TAG, and the STAR Project, a technical group advising on sustainability trials in arable rotations, based at Otley and sponsored by the Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust. We are looking at rotations and cultivation types and how they affect crop yield; all research that is vital to the future strength of arable farming he said.

That is all a far cry from the beginnings of the farm business when Nigels grandfather and father, gave up their Suffolk County Council smallholding in 1958 and moved to Ufford to the former 180 acre St Audreys Hospital farm.

In the 1960s Foxborrow Farm came up for rent and was subsequently bought by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) for its Education Centre. Today, Nigel enjoys good relations with the SWT. He supports the environmental and conservation work, is actively involved in the education programme including Crop to Shop , an initiative to teach where and how food is grown, sponsored by the Chadacre Trust. He helps educate the SWT volunteers, visiting children and other members of the community about modern farming.

Nigel began working on the farm in 1988 following a degree in Agricultural Engineering. Since then he has continued to expand the acreage through renting and buying land and now 20 years later it is about 900 acres.

To help his effectiveness Nigel has gained qualifications in agronomy and is BASIS and FACTS qualified. Having these qualifications helps with the understanding of all the decisions that need to be made in growing high quality crops, he said.

Diversification into internet-based farming businesses coupled with his conservation and local community commitment changed the fortunes of small farm winner Nigel Merriam of H.K Merriam & Son of ThornhamMagna.

As the family farm acquired in 1947 slowly introduced mechanisation and saw the demise of permanent staff, Nigel, the second generation at Starhouse Farm, realised that he really needed extra help, but only during harvest from July to October.

His regular worker had retired; there was not enough work to retain a fulltime staff member, but having employed a New Zealander for two harvests he saw an opportunity to diversify into recruitment by using the internet. Knowing that farmers are not always the most computer literate he took on a business partner with recruitment experience, Catherine Buchanan to help run an online recruitment agency for temporary agricultural workers.

He soon discovered the business was taking off, as at under 100 to place an advertisement for a month, cheaper than one week in the national farming press, both seasonal and permanent jobs were soon being posted. He also realised that the Internet is a global business and everyday is harvest, or lambing for someone on a farm somewhere. At various times of year, while demand was high for one sector and low for another, and agricultural students across the world wanted experience of farming in other countries and sectors.

As we went to press, Nigel had 50 live current jobs and 400 CVs posted looking for employment in agriculture. Incidentally both the judges for this category and one of the stewards had used the service successfullyto recruit harvest help.

During Catherines conversations she soon realised that farmers liked to chat. Farming is an isolated business and she identified the potential for, an online dating agency which carries 6000 profiles at any one time and has had to be affiliated to another online dating service to avoid draining resources.

We attend a couple of agricultural shows and it is great when people thank us for getting them a job or finding them a new employee, said Nigel. Occasionally people will come to our stand and say I met my wife on partners4farmers I just want to say thanks.

Nigel came into the farm in 1974, but fully took over the running in 1987. He farms 320 acres, growing wheat, winter barley, sugar beet, oil seed rape and also contract farms another 180 on neighbouring farms, but his other main passion is conservation.

The farm sits between Thornham Magna with its heavy clay soil on top of the hill while there is lighter soil in the valley at the Wickham Skeith end, bringing its own challenges.

Nigel has restored and regenerated hedges, planted a dozen small woods and restored six ponds.With these conservation and environmental improvements he has seen the return of wildlife of all types. Credited with Entry Level Stewardship he has created buffer zones along the neighbouring woodland for pest control as well as wildflower grass strips to encourage new habitation.

The farm is an example of conservation and innovation running hand in hand, both with definite direction, said the judges.




Class 1 – Farms up to 200 hectares



1st Prize and the F W Barker Perpetual Challenge Cup and Tankard

H K Merriam & Son, Starhouse Farm, Thornham Magna


2nd Prize Valley Farm, Wickham Market

3rd Prize Fletcher & Dunt, Park Farm, Charsfield



Special Awards


Best Arable Crop J C Pirkis & Son, Keens Farm, Debach (Vision Oilseed Rape)

Best Livestock Enterprise PD & GS Mortimer, Fir Tree Farm, Metfield

Conservation H K Merriam & Son, Starhouse Farm, Thornham Magna



Class 2 – Farms of 200-399 hectares


1st Prize and the Cranworth Perpetual Challenge Cup and Tankard

L W Rolph & Son, Grove Farm, Ufford


2nd Prize Ash Farm Partners, Ash Farm, All Saints, Halesworth

3rd Prize Porters Farm (Walpole) Ltd, Walpole, Halesworth


Special Awards


Best Arable Crop J R Grimsey Farms, Raydon Hall, Orford (Beluga Seed Wheat)

Best Livestock Enterprise Ash Farm Partners, Ash Farm, All Saints, Halesworth

Conservation Porters Farm (Walpole) Ltd, Walpole, Halesworth



Class 3 – Farms of 400 hectares and over


1st Prize and the King George VI Memorial Challenge Cup

John Brown & Sons, Hawstead, Bury St Edmunds


2nd Prize R H Forrest & Co, Stonham Aspall, Stowmarket

3rd Prize Wantisden Hall Farms, Wantisden, Woodbridge


Special Awards


Best Arable Crop A W Mortier (Farms) Ltd, Alderton, Woodbridge (Parsnips)

Best Livestock Enterprise R H Forrest & Co, Stonham Aspal, Stowmarket

Conservation E J Barker & Sons, Westhorpe, Stowmarket

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