Seven outstanding Devon farming businesses are celebrating tonight (Wednesday May 18) after picking up the top prizes in the 2016 Devon Farm Business Awards, organised by a partnership of the Devon County Agricultural Association, the Addington Fund and Stephens Scown.
The awards were presented at a dinner and awards ceremony held at Westpoint, home of the Devon County Show, attended by EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Affairs Phil Hogan.
Devon’s Farmer of the Year for 2016 and also Best Dairy Farmer is 52 year old Gordon Davis of Westcott Farm, Westleigh, near Tiverton, where he and his family milk some 200 pedigree Jersey dairy cows.
Chairman of the judges and Addington Fund Chief Executive, Ian Bell OBE, said that Mr Davis was not only an outstandingly efficient dairy farmer, but also a great ambassador for his industry.
“Standards on this farm are second to none”, he said. “The Rivermead herd is one of the finest Jersey herds in the country and the farm is a model of tidy efficiency, where attention to detail is everything.
“But over and above that is the work that Gordon does for his fellow farmers, in setting up his own dairy company to provide an outlet for his own and five other dairy farmers’ milk, and as an ambassador and educator for the dairy industry. Put all of that together and you have an outstanding Farmer of the Year.”
Westcott Farm is very much a family business. Gordon and his son Kevin work full time on the farm, with his wife Hazel and his other son, Mark, also much involved. The family’s Rivermead herd of Jerseys has won many top prizes at agricultural shows. Left without a milk contract when his processor closed earlier this year, Gordon Davis solved the problem by setting up his own dairy company, which now markets high quality Channel Island milk from his own farm, and five other former suppliers of the defunct processor, who might otherwise have had to quit dairying. He has established demand in London and the Midlands from companies manufacturing high end specialist products ranging from Indian desserts to cheese and butter.
The Davis family are great believers in helping urban consumers understand more about dairy farming, and have laid on many milking demonstrations, for children in particular, as well as being keen supporters of Devon County Council’s “Farm Wise” initiative, which will once again be featured at this year’s Devon County Show.
“A wonderful herd of high-yielding Jerseys with excellent conformation right through, superb udders, feet and legs, producing nearly 7000 litres per head at 5.6% butterfat and 4.1% protein, with a calving index of 372 days which is absolutely top class” said the judges.
The award for Devon’s Best Young Farmers went to Ian and Cath Ratcliffe, still in their early 30s, who milk 350 cows at West Webbery near Bideford, having moved themselves and their cows to Devon from Cheshire in order to grow their business. Ian is a former Farmers Weekly columnist and Cath was a dairy consultant, who is now putting theory into practice. She has set up bench-marking and grazing discussion groups to boost the efficiency not only of her own, but also of her neighbours’ dairy businesses.
“Their positive approach and individual complementary skill sets are enabling their business to grow at an impressive rate, whilst managing to retain a contented workforce and maintain an enviable work/life balance,” said the judges.
Another young couple, Marcus and Liz Warner, of Lower Henland Farm, Kentisbeare near Cullompton, went home with the CAAV* John Neason Farm Diversification Award, for their business selling quail eggs and duck eggs. They moved to Devon from Gloucestershire to take on the tenancy of a 180 acre Devon County Council farm, and needed to diversify to make the farm viable. They now have 15,000 quail on the farm, producing 9,500 eggs a day – 15 per cent of UK production! – as well as 2,000 free range egg-producing ducks.
Attention to detail and determination were the qualities that most impressed the judges. “This is a couple who are entrepreneurial, ambitious, and are developing a thriving business on a relatively small tenanted farm,” they said.
Diversification has also been the name of the game for Devon’s “Farming Champion” for 2016, Geoff Sayers.
His Carswell Group, based at Holbeton in the South Hams, is now one of the largest and most innovative farm-based businesses in the county, encompassing five grass-fed dairy herds producing 10 million litres of organic milk a year, the ‘Holy Cow’ range of organic dairy products, the ‘Well Hung Meat Company’ specialising in top quality meat and meat products, and a high-end farm holiday enterprise.
It was the example that Geoff Sayers has set on branding, provenance, quality and business management, as well as a ‘clear focus’ on staff training and progression that earned him the award. “The way in which the three pillars of the business – core farming, food processing and holiday lets – are combined to promote British farming and food is hugely impressive,” said the judges.
This year’s Best Woman in Farming is Bridget Cole, of Greenwell Farm near Yelverton on Dartmoor. Bridget farms what is very much a traditional family Dartmoor hill farm with her two sons Matthew and Neil. They run South Devon and Galloway suckler cows, as well as large flocks of Bluefaced Leicester and Dartmoor Whiteface ewes. However, it is for her work off the farm as well as on it, that Bridget has earned this award. She is an active member of the NFU, who makes her presence felt at national as well as regional level, and a hard-working member of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council, which regulates grazing on the moor. She is also a leading protagonist in Dartmoor Farmers Ltd, the co-operate which was set up to market Dartmoor beef and lamb.
“Bridget has dedicated her life to farming on Dartmoor,” said the judges. “Her sons are the fourth generation working on the farm. Bridget is committed to the Dartmoor Commoners Council and will do everything she can to promote farming and Dartmoor in any way possible.”
The award for Devon’s Best Commercial Farmers went to Julian and Marianne Ayre, who have two farms near Tiverton – Westcott Farm and Stanterton Farm – on which they milk a total of 580 cows. The systems they use are based very much on New Zealand experience, not only in terms of reliance on grazed grass in order to keep costs as low as possible but also in the fact that both farms are run on a share-farming basis, one with their son, and the other with their daughter and son-in-law. This was after the pressure from trying to run the original dairy business on their own became so intense that their marriage cracked under the strain. Now, with work/life balance restored by the share-farming arrangements, they are happily married again!
The judges particularly liked the efficiency and the simplicity of Julian and Marianne’s approach to dairying. “They have a standard milk contract which means, in common with many other dairy farmers, a milk price of around 24p/litre at best. But what differentiates these farms in today’s market is the efficiency of the low overheads system.”
All of the awards were greeted enthusiastically by an audience which included the President of the DCAA, Lady Arran, and the President of the NFU, Meurig Raymond, as well as the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Phil Hogan.
But the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award: Edward Darke, of Kingsbridge, Chief Livestock Steward at the Devon County Show and a Vice-Chairman of the Devon County Agricultural Association.
Edward is the third of five generations of Darkes to farm Coleridge – his grandsons Matthew and Sam being the latest – which now extends to over 1,000 acres. The farming is still very much a traditional South Devon mix, with 250 dairy cows, beef cattle, a 400 ewe commercial lambing flock and – Edward’s pride and joy – a championship-winning flock of 60 pedigree Devon and Cornwall Longwool Sheep.
As the citation for award makes clear, Edward Darke has been “a champion for Devon agriculture and countryside all his life”. But it is his work and support on behalf of agricultural shows – not just the Devon County, but the Kingsbridge Show and many others – that is singled out for special praise.
“Edward has been a great supporter of agricultural shows, understanding their importance in spreading best practice and communicating the importance of agriculture and rural business to the general public.”
DCAA Chairman Mrs Mary Quicke MBE said: “This is the third year that we have worked with our partners to organise these awards, and whilst the economics of farming may have taken a big turn for the worse over that period, it is hugely reassuring to be able to say that the quality, not just of the winners, but of the nominees overall, is as high as ever. If confirmation was ever needed that we’ve got some world-beating farming businesses in Devon, then this year’s winners have certainly provided it.
“Naturally, as organisers of the Devon County Show, we are particularly happy about Edward Darke, our Chief Livestock Steward, and a stalwart of the show for many years, winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. But all of our winners deserve the warmest congratulations and thanks, for what they have achieved and the example that they set.”
For the Addington Fund, Chief Executive Ian Bell OBE, said that helping to judge the awards had once again been not just a pleasure, but an inspiration.
“The winners are living proof that a hostile economic climate need not be a barrier to running a successful farming business. The message which they send to other farmers, not just in Devon but across the country, is simple but powerful: ‘yes we can’.”
And Stephens Scown’s Phil Reed was equally impressed:
“This year’s nominations and winners cover the whole spectrum of Devon agriculture, from the uplands to the lowlands; from South Devon sticklers to quails, and show that there is still a positive side to farming and that the future of farming in Devon is in good hands.”