How Edward Vipond, of Troston Farms in Stanton, who won Farmer of the Year at Farmers Weekly awards, grew to be the cream of the farming crop
Edward Vipond’s farming roots are deep in the soil of Suffolk, where his father and grandfather both worked the land.
It’s where he too now farms – and where he recently reached the pinnacle of his profession with the accolade Farmer of the Year.
Edward’s expertise managing 1,400 hectares of Suffolk farmland saw him named the best in Britain at the industry’s most prestigious awards.
At the Farmers Weekly presentations last month he won not only farm manager of the year, but the overall top spot chosen from the winners of 15 categories.
He says he is still in shock at the result. But the recognition comes after decades of hard work striving to learn every aspect of the job to which he has dedicated his life.
And it is not the first time his commitment and talent has been appreciated at a high level. While still building his skills he was selected for a much sought-after Nuffield farming scholarship.
For the past six years Edward has managed Troston Farms – meeting the challenge of finding crops that can flourish in our changing climate on fields that range from heavy clay to light sandy soil.
It is a very different picture to where his farming journey began. “I grew up on a 100 acre farm at Wickerstreet Green between Boxford and Kersey,” he says.
“When I was 16 my father decided to sell the farm and buy a bigger one in Scotland where land was cheaper. You could quadruple your area which made sense for a family business.
“But in the end it didn’t happen and father finished up buying a fishing tackle shop in Kelso in the Scottish borders, which left me at a crossroads.
“I’d left school with one GCSE, in biology. School and me didn’t really relate. I was always out doing something I shouldn’t, like helping Dad on the farm.
“So I became a YTS trainee doing a farming course, working on a very traditional mixed farm, with cows and arable.
“I cut my teeth on good solid agriculture, building on my knowledge of the family farm.
“I worked there for two years with the YTS, then a year as a full employee. After earning £29.50 a week I felt like a millionaire.”
He continued his education at Moulton College, in Northamptonshire, doing an advanced national certificate in agriculture, which he then converted into a diploma – both with distinction.
“I was the third generation of my family to go to Moulton. My father Tony and grandfather Dick, who farmed at Castlings Hall, near Groton, both went there.
“Then I did a sandwich year on the Cottesbrooke Estate and learned an awful lot there with dairy, beef, sheep and arable.
“When I finished my studies at Moulton I did an advanced farm management course in Aberdeen. It was a very intensive year.
“I passed that then was at another big crossroads . . . there’s a big wide world out there, what do you do?
“I was someone who had quite a lot of practical knowledge but no management experience.
He found his next step with Velcourt, a company that manages farms across the UK and Europe for private landowners.
“I spent 14 very happy years with them in various roles – first as a trainee farm manager in Cambridgeshire.
“I finished up managing a 1,300 hectare unit in east Lincolnshire, and gained a breadth of knowledge.” He also did a course in agronomy.
Being selected for a Nuffield farming scholarship – which gives recipients the chance to travel all over the world to improve their knowledge – was a pivotal moment.
“I studied precision agriculture and in that 18 months to two years I was in north America for six weeks, Australia for a month, and spent a considerable time in Europe.
“It was life changing – that’s not too strong a word. Having done that has given me confidence to think laterally, and has also given me a personal confidence.
“When I arrived in north America I flew into Atlanta airport, which is huge. I was like a rabbit in the headlights and getting in a car and driving to my first contact was an eye opening experience. It grows you as a person.
“At the awards ceremony I was asked to do a speech. Before I wouldn’t have said boo to a goose, but to stand up in front of 2,500 people was no problem. Nuffield gave me that inner confidence.”
Precision agriculture uses technology to make farming more efficient, and includes things like GPS guidance for tractors, soil sampling and mapping yields.
“When I did it in 2005 it was still a very new thing – and a lot of people were saying ‘we don’t like that’. Now it’s second nature to most farmers,” he says.
He left Velcourt to manage a farm in the Cotswolds, looking after a diverse estate that included an anerobic digester making biogas to power homes. “I spent a happy eight years there, but was micro-managed,” he said.
“Then I saw an advert in the farming press for a job in Suffolk and, being born here, I always wanted to come back,” says Edward, whose maternal grandfather Sidney Lefley was a greengrocer in Sudbury.
The job was at Troston Farms, owned by the Claas family, whose business is one of the world’s leading makers of farm machinery. Head of the company, Cathrina Claas-Mühlhäuser, lives in the village.
“Cathrina is very passionate about Troston. She may be the head of a massive corporation but she is very down to earth,” says Edward.
“Working here is the complete polar opposite of being micro-managed. I’ve been here six years now and we have changed a lot.
“We’ve expanded from 1,100 hectares to just over 1,400, spread over 25 miles from Stanton to Risby, and are still keen to look at other opportunities.
“Big isn’t always bad. That may be the public perception, but it isn’t,” he says, pointing out that on the farms there are 80 hectares devoted to nature, including plots of wild bird mixes.
Among the birds thriving there are stone curlews and common curlews. “If we find a nest in the spring, we’ll draw a line round it and monitor it. I’m a bit of a twitcher – I enjoy looking at the birds. I saw a golden plover the other day.
“We’ve planted eight kilometres of hedge, and nectar rich margins for bees.
“We also grow sunflowers, mostly at Troston. The seeds go to a firm in Diss to be sold to other farmers who plant them to fill in the winter ‘hungry gap’ when the birds have little to eat.
“Sunflowers are a crop that can handle the extremes we are feeling in the weather at the moment.
“When I was young I can remember spring, summer, autumn being pretty consistent. Now it is much more extreme with dry springs, and wet autumns.
“Growing crops on lighter land is very risky because of the chance of that crop suffering a weather event.
“In 2017 we got nearly 60 tonnes of maize a hectare. In 2018 it averaged 22 tonnes. It was too dry, the plants were four of five feet shorter. Every hectare I grew I lost money on.
“Troston is in the Brecks, so you can’t grow wheat there because the soil is very light and sandy.
“The only reason it’s cropped is the Dig for Victory campaign in World War Two. It would have been heathland. It’s been ploughed out because they would have been paid to do it.”
Rye is another drought-tolerant crop, grown at Troston for Ryvita crispbread, distilling and pig feed.
Park Farm, at Stanton, where Edward is based, has completely different conditions, with heavy clay suitable for wheat, barley and maize. The farms also produce more than 10,000 tonnes of sugar beet a year.
The next few years will bring more financial challenges as agricultural support payments are withdrawn.
“In 2028 there will be zero support paid as we know it now for keeping land in good agricultural condition.
“The new scheme – I’m part of the pilot – is for environmental benefit. In 2028, our income will be 50 per cent down even with other schemes.
“It will be about how you manage the risk to your business. I treat this farm as if it was my own. It’s personal to me. I take it almost too personally at times but that’s who I am.”
The operation runs with just four employees – one in the office and three full time on the farm, plus two students every summer.
“There is a real shortage of students going into farming,” Edward says, adding, “who would want to work seven days a week 12 to 15 hours a day?”
He does still do some hands-on farming. “I was spreading slug pellets yesterday and drilling until 10.30 the other night,” he says. “They do occasionally let me on the machines!”
Promoting farming is also important to him. He keeps up links with Stanton Primary School – ‘we’ll take our biggest, shiniest tractor along’ – and also does school Facetime sessions.
Like his father and grandfather before him, he is a steward at the Suffolk Show, and also takes part in the Suffolk Schools Farm and Country Fair.
Edward still doesn’t know who put him forward for the Farmers Weekly award. Three judges visited in August for a three-hour tour around the farm.
Among those supporting him at the awards ceremony were his partner Bridget and son Archie, who works for an agricultural contractor and is the fourth generation of the family to go into farming.
“When they said I’d won the farm manager award I was in total shock.
“And when they opened the envelope with the overall winner I can still hear Alan Dedicoat (the National Lottery’s ‘voice of the balls’) calling out my name.
“I was one of those moments in your life that you will never forget. I was honoured and humbled. It means an awful lot to me, and to Cathrina, and the farm staff.
“I’m now on the judging panel for next year and I’m looking forward very much to that.”