farming
The crisis seems to be softening  - so where do we go from here…  

 

For the past fifty years or more agriculture has been the main source of revenue and employment on the Knepp Estate with dairy and arable farming being the main enterprises. But recently, faced with the current farming crisis, we have had to make some very difficult and sad decisions.    

Over the past eight years we have gone from farming most of the Estate in hand to seeking the partnership of an outside contractor, and by 2005 we found ourselves in a position whereby simply farming at all was losing us money.  How did all this come about?

Land Use and Subsidies

Knepp is based on marginal land – grade 4 or 3 at best.  With its base of heavy boulder clay it has never been good for agriculture. Between the two world wars, farming was so unproductive that over half the Knepp land was abandoned.  The land actually became a burden and Sir Merrick Burrell sold half of it, privately subsidising the Home Farm just to keep it going.

Then came the Second World War, the isolation of Britain from the rest of Europe and a desperate need to produce food.  Every useful piece of land across the country was ploughed up and farmed as part of the war effort. At Knepp all available land – including old water meadows and the park right up to the castle door – was given over to farming.

In the post-war era we entered into a system underpinned by farming subsidies, which was the only way that farming at Knepp could be profitable. But as we entered the global economy, the whole subsidy system was overhauled and we began to operate in an open market which meant that for Knepp, once again, intensive farming became untenable.

Dairy Farming

In September 2000 we sold our three dairy herds and our dairymen were made redundant.  The decision was desperately sad but it was made for sound economic reasons and since then the dairy industry has continued to decline.

Arable Farming

Apart from its poor soil, Knepp has had to contend with a further disadvantage throughout its agricultural life – the size of its fields.  Because of their love of hunting, the Burrells preferred not to remove their hedges, ditches and copses as so many other farms did.  While this was unquestionably advantageous for wildlife, it enormously restricted the efficiency of farming.  The average field size at Knepp is under 10 acres.

This meant that Knepp was unable to take advantage of the economies of scale provided by big fields and big machinery that may have allowed some of our neighbours to eke out a profit even in difficult times. In a last ditch attempt to continue arable farming we decided to go into partnership with a neighbouring contract farmer – but even then, faced with crashing wheat prices in 2002, the enterprise proved unsustainable.  2007 saw a rally in commodity prices, but an estate our size cannot simply jump in and out of arable production, and the decision was made to fallow much of the land while we worked on a less volatile long term solution.

Diversification

Faced with these increasing challenges over the past 15 years the estate invested heavily in subsidiary businesses designed to add value to its primary outputs and reduce our dependency on agriculture, the most important of which was a dairy products unit making yoghurt and ice cream. 

This type of diversification was encouraged through Defra’s Rural Enterprise Scheme, however our own experience was that the estate was too big to be effective in the cottage industry market, and too small to compete with the specialist industries.   Ultimately the dairy products unit was sold to a much larger company.

One aspect of diversification, however, that can be profitable is the conversion of farm buildings.  (see Redundant farm buildings)

An Ecological Alternative

In 2001 we entered into an agreement with Defra under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme to restore the old listed park immediately around the house.  Financially it was no more attractive to us than our existing farming system but the psychological benefits proved enormous and took us quite by surprise.  From having been surrounded by land that was being exhaustively farmed, we found ourselves living in the middle of an area that was being allowed to do its own thing.  There was a great feeling of ease and space and lack of stress.  Now that we were no longer spraying herbicides and insecticides on monocrops we began to notice a marked increase in wildlife, such as birds, insects, wildflowers and grasses (see Baseline Survey). 

The park was stocked with a variety of traditional grazing animals in order to manage the grassland and further encourage diversification of the sward.  It was lovely to be able to look out on numbers of animals peacefully wandering by, with freedom to roam where they pleased.  (see Historic Park Restoration).  Production continues and as our herd sizes increase over time, so will the viability of each enterprise.

With the advent of ‘single farm payments’ in 2004 – whereby subsidies are given for occupation rather than production of the land - an ecological alternative to farming began to seem a viable and extremely attractive way forward for Knepp.

We increased the area under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme to 750 acres south of the A272 running down to Dial Post, and entered a further 750 acres north of the A272 into a new scheme.

In 2009 we took this idea further and included other parts of Knepp and moved all of the schemes into a new Higher Level Scheme    (see Knepp Wildland Project)

Conclusion

Over a ten year period it become clear that conventional agriculture, for us, rapidly become a liability.  This was a terrifying conclusion - if we were having problems, how were smaller farmers coping; and those farmers who have no property to supplement their income?  The implications for the British countryside is/was enormous.

Ironically, though, it seems the collapse in farming opened up exciting opportunities for environmental restoration and for implementing less intensive ways of livestock rearing.  Projects such as ours will certainly change the conventional agricultural look of the land but they will give an enormous boost to wildlife and offer some of our rarer species of flora and fauna a much needed chance to survive - and hopefully bring a lot of pleasure and interest to local communities in the process.

Fish Ranching

For many years we have been ranching primarily carp on the Knepp lake. If you would like to know more click here.

 

 

 

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Bucks to Doe ratio is kept to roughly 50 / 50

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The late Peter Miller orchestrating TB testing of the Longhorn herds

 

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Castrating a young bulls

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Oaks like this one on Swallows Farm are no longer under threat from ploughing too close to its roots

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This is four year old  grassland after having had wild flower seeds added as part of the arable reversion project

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Grass snake just prior to moulting its skin - found near one of the many little ponds on the farm

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Redundant dairy building providing space for light industrial tenants

 

Ponies, cattle, deer and pigs roam freely within a 1500 acre boundary fence

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60 kilometres of fencing has been taken out.

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12 foot strainer being knocked in on Pondtail Farm.