Start date: 3rd July 2017
End date: 4th July 2017
Venue: Nocton Estate and Belvoir Estate & Castle
The 2017 Master's Summer Outing
This year's WCF Summer Outing involved two very special days of contrast and challenge in the Master's home county of Lincolnshire. The first day saw us visit one of the sites of what must be the fastest growing agricultural enterprise in the country -Beeswax Dyson Farming. And in complete contrast, on day two we visited a landed estate that can trace its history all the way back to the Norman conquest - Belvoir Estate and Castle. Both enterprises exhibiting the kind of dynamism and determination to succeed that will be essential for every agricultural enterprise over the next few years - but each in its own unique and very admirable way.
Day One - Beeswax Dyson Farming - Nocton Estate
Our visit started just after lunch, on a bright and sunny Monday, in the grounds of the Nocton Estate, which is situated to the east of Lincoln, close to the village of Metheringham. We were warmly greeted by a whole host of Beeswax Dyson staff, each smartly attired in a liveried gillet to help us identify them, provided with a welcome pack and a very welcome cup of tea and cake.
The Master introduced our host, Richard Willamson, Managing Director of Beeswax Dyson Farming, who told us a little about the remarkable growth of the Beeswax Dyson farm enterprise and its aims and ambitions and introduced us the the talented young team that runs it.
The estate, he told us, has grown from no acres to over 33,000 acres in just four short years. It now farms at 6 locations in Lincolnshire, as well as in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. And the ambition is to continue to invest and grow. Mr Williamson was at pains to point out that the famous entrepreneur at the heart of this enormous undertaking - Sir James Dyson, is no absentee landlord, he is actively involved in the business and it is his vision and ethic that drives every decision the business takes.
The vision is long term, multi-generational and forward looking and is captured in a quote from Sir James - "Our family has a 100-year ambition to sustain and regenerate essential farmlands across the country."
Whilst the approach is long term, it is also hard headed and driven by a business logic that strives for profit and asset growth through good management. And in the team we met, it is clear this ambition is in good hands - the whole team are young, driven and has each clearly bought into the Beeswax Dyson vision, vocabulary and sense of purpose.
There was great deal of interest in Mr Williamson's approach to BREXIT - he said he felt that the one thing that was certain, was that post-BREXIT, farm subsidy would both change and fall significantly. And he went on to say us that Beeswax Dyson had decided that they couldn't just sit and wait to see what the new regime would look like, they needed to make decision and get on with running the business now - so they had taken a view on likely outcomes and developed their strategy around these assumptions.
His final piece of advice, echoed what we have heard from other key speakers recently - it was; don't ever be a price taker, be a price maker. Not easy in farming, but to do it, his advice was to look for a market where you can set the price and grow specifically for that market, rather than one where you are at the mercy of the buyer.
After the introduction we were introduced to our guides on what was to be a three part tour of developments at Nocton. Mr Williamson himself led the tour of there farmyard and the new investment in grain drying and storage. James Thompson, Head of Farming at Beeswax Dyson took charge of a tour of some of the farming enterprises and Ben Wills, Head of Property the tours of some of the farms properties. The party was efficiently divided into three more-or-less equal groups by dint of coloured ribbons attached to our welcome packs. And once divided we set of in three different directions to see what Norton could teach us.
The Farm Buildings and Development
Starting a giant farming enterprise like Beeswax Dyson certainly has its challenges. But it has some advantages too. When Nocton Estate was bought and made the centre piece of the new operation it had no real facilities. So the company had to put them in from scratch - but at least you get to choose where, and what is built. And the Dyson way is do it once and do it right! Built as they affectionately describe it in the business to 'The Beeswax Dyson standard'. So these grain stores and dryers were the envy of the whole party - in a great location for the business; with a new access road designed specifically to minimise impact ion the local community; with power from the company's own anaerobic digester. And of course, at the moment, brand spanking new and looking pristine.
The Farming enterprise
Our guide for the farming element of our visit was James Thompson. Knowledgable, straight talking and clearly committed to developing a top class farming business for Beeswax Dyson. He told us that two thirds of the company's 33,000 acres are in Lincolnshire, the rest is split 4500 in Oxfordshire and approximately 8,000 in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
The whole operation is centrally run and coordinated so James has responsibility across the entire acreage. It is a mixed livestock and arable operation, with in addition two anaerobic digesters (one 2MW the other 3MW, together enough to meet the energy needs of 10,000 houses), fed by energy crops (barley, maize, rye and grass) grown on the farms and organic waste.
The AD plants not only provide power for the estate and to generate lucrative feed-in tariffs from the National Grid, they also play a critical role in land and resource management by allowing Beeswax Dyson to implement a sustainable crop rotation programme to maintain soil fertility and structure and control Blackgrass and other weeds. As a by-product they also provide organic matter to spread back on the land.
For the Dyson family reputation is everything and for this reason they aren't comfortable with either pig or poultry operations and there are none of these in the group. Reputational considerations also affect the way they transport the farm's output between the field and processing, storage or consumption facilities. Once accomplished by tractor and trailer, they now use a fleet of trucks that experience has shown have less of an impact on their neighbours.
James told us that the company is taking a long term view, investing now in infrastructure, drainage and facilities to hopefully reap a reward in future. They are committed to introducing the latest technology wherever they can see an opportunity, which means currently they are into variable rate spraying, wherever it makes economic sense, drone technology, band spraying and Stripcat technology.
It was very encouraging to hear James say, in answer to a question from one of the Livery, that he thought that the Worshipful Company of Farmers, ACABM course was the best thing he has ever done and that it has more impact on the way he runs the farming business than anything else.
The Property Enterprise
The third string to the Company's bow is their property portfolio. When the various farms were bought they discovered that much of the property was in pretty poor shape. So once again investment is taking place and of course this too is to 'The Dyson Standard'. It was the task of Ben Wills to take us round some of the property developments on the Nocton Estate.
One pretty substantial farmhouse is currently being converted into the new headquarters for the Beeswax Dyson staff. Ben made the point that although this conversion was expensive, with rents low in Lincolnshire it was the best use of the property for the company.
With a rent role now of approximately £1m the aim is to double this in the next few years - with a mix of high end and affordable housing. But as Ben was keen to point out whenever they renovate a property - wherever it falls in the market - they still always apply 'The Dyson Standard' to it - so whoever rents it gets the same quality.
Day One wrap-up and thank you
Once all three groups had completed their three part tours we reconvened in the barn we initially met in and Junior Warden Rosie Carne took on the task of thanking Richard Williams and his team for providing such an informative and enjoyable day. She did it in a very clever way taking the individual letters of Beeswax Dyson and using them to prompt individual thoughts about the day. Adding a few thoughts for the letters WCF at the end for good measure.
Whilst I can't replicate her individual points - they came too thick and fast for me to record. I can summarise by saying that they echoed the thoughts of the whole Company, in saying that the visit had been incredibly well organised, ran to the strictest timetable without fault and that the enthusiasm, professionalism and obvious quality of all the tour guides and the rest of the Beeswax Dyson staff had been obvious for all to see.
Evening Event Day One - Stubton Hall
With over 120 attending the evening function and most travelling some distance total accommodation was at a premium. We managed to completely fill Stubton Hall and Belton Park was chosen as the back up venue. The Clerk provided a bus for those at Belton Park to get back to Stubton for the dinner.
The weather, which had been getting gradually better and better all day, was superb in the evening which meant that pre-dinner music and drinks on the terrance overlooking a wonderful view down through the gardens was a joy. The whole Company got the chance to mingle and chat in the warm evening sun before sitting down to dinner in the Orangery.
When the Master stood up to welcome guests and the Beeswax Dyson team who joined us for dinner, he made the point that this would be the last major function of his year in office. How time flies, it seems, at least to me, only a matter of weeks since we welcomed him at his installation.
The Master welcomed us all to Lincolnshire a county he has been farming in now for over 35 years. It is he said ~ farming and food county, and one with special links to the Worshipful Company of Farmers. There are more WCF Liverymen in Lincolnshire than in any other county. He thanked Beeswax Dyson again for their excellent hospitality during the day and welcomed his principle guests Mr Mark Aitchison, Managing Director of Frontier Agriculture and Group Captain Al Marshall, Station Commander at our affiliated airforce base RAF Waddington.
Speaking about the visit planned for the next day the Master made the point that this would not be our first visit to Belvoir Castle but that we had not been there since 2004 - he promised us massive change under the leadership of the Duchess of Rutland and an exciting day ahead.
There is also a very well established link between the county and the RAF and the Master told us that in WWII it played host to over 200 separate airfields. Today it will soon see the opening of the new memorial to RAF Bomber Command and of course it is the county where RAF Waddington sits. Which gave the Master the opportunity to hand over to Station Commander Group Captain Al Marshall.
Group Captain Marshall thanked us for our hospitality and for our on-going support of RAF Waddington. He delivered the excellent news that RAF Waddington not only now has once more a full functioning runway again but that operationally it was extremely busy with five aircraft types now operating out of the base - the future he said looked bright. He also revealed the surprising fact that Waddington as an airfield is in fact older than the RAF itself. The RAF will be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year while Waddington was able to celebrate this last year.
Liveryman Peter Clery was the Master's guest speaker. Peter, as a one time owner of the Nocton Estate, and recently the author of a new book called The Monastic Estate that charts the history of the ownership and use of land in England, was eminently well qualified to talk about land values from an historic perspective. His talk took us all the way back to the Norman Conquest and traced the relationship between the value of land and the value of the output - perhaps not surprisingly its hard to justify land values we see today in that way. And indeed there have been times when it was just not financially sensible to hold land - which is why so many of the old estates where broken up.
But before you do anything too hasty bear in mind Peter said that rents in the Middle Ages where about 1 old penny per acre - today they are £60. So it seems if you can hang onto to it long enough it does seem to be worth it!
Day Two - The Belvoir Estate
Belvoir Castle crowns a prominent hill in Leicestershire. In the simpler landscape of the period immediately after the Norman Conquest, when the first castle was builIt, it must have been a truly commanding position. Even today the castle can be seen from many miles away. But that doesn't mean finding the route to its gates is easy. So it was that Liverymen arrived in dribs and drabs from the two overnight venues as each made their way via convoluted byways to the magnificent drive that winds through the castle grounds to the carriage entrance.
The Master had arranged a very full programme for day two. Once again in three parts. We were afforded wonderful private access to the estate, the gardens and the castle itself.
The castle that stands at Belvoir today is the fourth to be built own the site. Designed by James Wyatt it was built in the early 1800s for the 5th Duke and Duchess of Rutland and is today one of there finest examples of Regency architecture anywhere in the world.
We assembled in the magnificent Guardroom - the grand entrance to Belvoir Castle, with its walls adorned with military treasures and regimental flags that reflect the history of militias and armies associated with the family's near 100 year history on the site.
We were warmly greeted by the Duchess and her Estate Manager Mr Phil Burtt. The Duchess welcomed us to her to what she pointed out was a family home and talked a little about the role she saw for the family in restoring Belvoir to its former glories. Our tours were to take in the three key elements of the estate and the castle itself, the wonderfully restored Capability Brown designed gardens and the some key aspects of the 17,000 acre estate.
The Castle Tour
It is hard to sum up in a few paragraphs the magnificence of the castle. So I won't try, except to say that if you were not amongst us on the day, then I recommend that you try to get to Belvoir to see for yourself. We were expertly guided from one wonderful room to another. Each with its own slice of history attached.
Treasures, historic paintings and exceptional items of furniture seemed to be in every corner, nook and cranny. It was hard to know where to look and what to focus on.
The Estate Tour
As with the castle there was simply too much to see on the Belvoir Estate for our short tour to do any more than scratch the surface. Our guide for this leg of the Belvoir adventure was Estate Manager Phil Burtt. Clearly as passionate about the restoration and reconstruction of the estate as the Duchess.
It was impossible not to make comparisons with the previous day's tour at Norton. The history of the two estates could not be more different. The decisions on the best form of income generation was also completely different. But there were commonalities. The drive to be the very best, the attention to detail and the hard headed attitude to what makes good financial sense were similar. And the quality of the management and its attention to detail seemed similar too.
We saw works to restore the spectacular parkland views constructed by Capability Brown - learnt that the original drawings he made had been discovered only recently and that they were being used to guide the return of the site to its former glories and were able to witness the original genius of the designer in the recreated scenery he envisioned and had built for the family.
We were also able to visit the breeding pens, for what must be one of the largest and most professionally runs shoots anywhere in the world. Mr Burtt, himself an exceptional shot, has used the natural contours and scenery at Belvoir to create a pheasant, partridge and duck shoot to challenge the very best shots from around the world. The shoots reputation means that demand is at an all time high and the operation to service the shoot is on an almost industrial scale.
The Garden Tour
There third leg of our Grand Belvoir - the gardens, was led by head gardener Nikki Applewhite who looks after all the formal gardens at Belvoir. The gardens cascade down the hill that the castle stands on and like much at Belvoir they are undergoing a pretty thorough refurbishment. Deigned originally by Lancelot Capability Brown for the the Duke of Rutland but not started in his lifetime - despite him writing very moving letter to Duke to try to kick start the project. But the drawings still exist. Discovered in an archive at the castle, the original concept - basically Brown's sales pitch for the job - is recorded on a giant 6ft x 9ft plan.
The formal gardens are in a series of steps down the hill. Each step quite different from the ones above and below. There is a large ornamental pond, a rose garden and Japanese garden. A complex formal box hedge area and some quite spectacular trees. And set amongst the tiers a whole hosts of statues and other sculptures - some preserved from earlier gardens and from earlier incarnations of the castle itself.
At the end of two very enjoyable but tiring days getting down the gardens was considerably easier than climbing back up. But the extra effort of the uphill leg of the tour was rewarded with spectacular views of the castle - towering over its estate and almost glowing in the afternoon sun. Quite majestic.
Tea back in the Guardroom was more than welcome, once we did get back up to level ground and it made a very pleasant end to, what I think all of us felt, was a really special and wonderfully organised visit to Lincolnshire.