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Learn lessons from the past, says Andrew Blenkiron, new chairman of Suffolk National Farmers' Union

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There is no doubt Andrew Blenkiron’s grandfather would be proud of his grandson. He followed him into farming – an ambition from which he never wavered – and has just become chairman of Suffolk NFU.

But not only that . . . he credits Yorkshire hill farmer Eddie Marley’s way of working as the inspiration for his approach to 21st century agriculture.

He believes today’s farmers need to take lessons from the past while harnessing the technology of the present.

Andrew Blenkiron
Andrew Blenkiron

For the past 11 years Andrew been director of the Euston Estate north of Bury St Edmunds – 10,500 acres of beautiful Breckland landscape which is far from the easiest land to farm.

On the mantelpiece in his office he keeps a jar of the sandy soil to show to visitors. It is so fine and dry that when he unscrews the lid a cloud of dust rises.

Andrew’s two years as NFU chairman will see him leading farmers through the challenge of competing with post-Brexit deals likely to mean cheaper imports from countries not bound by UK standards.

Andrew Blenkiron at Euston
Andrew Blenkiron at Euston

They will also be coping with a new system of government payments based on environmental benefit.

His goals include increasing NFU membership and helping farmers tap into new markets and opportunities.

Andrew spent his early life in Swaledale, where his dad was a civil servant and his mother a school secretary who later worked for the NHS.

“My grandparents on my mum’s side were hill farmers in North Yorkshire. That’s what gave me my foundation in farming. I used to spend every holiday there,” he said.

“When I was seven we moved to Jordan because of my dad’s job, then we were in Germany for three years where he was an auditor for Forces bases. I did my O and A-levels at a British Forces school.”

But Andrew already knew where his future lay. “My ambition was always to follow my grandfather into farming.”

This was despite becoming a teenage entrepreneur employing his friends in a gardening business.

“When people leave their service quarters they are ‘marched out’ and homes and gardens are inspected,” he said.

Lifting potatoes at Euston
Lifting potatoes at Euston

“At 16 I had some mates working for me getting people’s gardens into order. I also bought four lawmmowers and set up a mowing business in the summer.

“It got to be a bit of a balancing act to keep the business going when doing exams.

“After school I went to the Newby Hall Estate in North Yorkshire to do a pre-college year. My uncle was a herdsman nearby. I had an exciting year learning how to drive tractors on a very large arable farm.

“Then I went on to Harper Adams College, in Shropshire, and did a three year course, including one year practical on a farm with arable, dairy and sheep.”

His first job was on a farm in North Northumberland where he then became manager while still in his early twenties.

While there he met his wife Jennifer, who was running an equestrian business across the border in Scotland, and competing as a showjumper and eventer.

Two years after their wedding they moved to the West Midlands, where he worked for a farm management company.

He managed 4,000 acres but was also in charge of five client farms from Oxfordshire to Northumberland. “I was doing 30,000 miles a year up and down the M6 and M40.”

It was there he got his first taste of NFU chairmanship, heading the Staffordshire branch for two years. He also chaired the Staffordshire and Birmingham Agricultural Society, of which he is still a governor.

Through the NFU he was also involved with Wolverhampton City Show, where he was shocked by how little youngsters knew about farming and the origin of their food.

“One of the things we have at Euston is school visits to demonstrate to children where their food comes from.

“We do a lot with Barnham school, and with the Country Trust which pays for buses to get people out to farms from inner cities.”

Andrew Blenkiron
Andrew Blenkiron

In 2008, he and Jennifer moved to Dorset where he ran a large multi-enterprise business with cattle, pigs and cereals, leaving when the owner died and the estate was broken up.

He came to Euston – family seat of the Dukes of Grafton – as estate director in 2011. His arrival coincided with the current Duke Henry FitzRoy inheriting the title from his grandfather.

Andrew soon discovered one of the biggest challenges of farming in the Brecks. “In my first year we had 14 inches of rain. That taught me pretty quickly how dry it could be in this part of the world.

“Eighty per cent of the estate is Breckland blowing sand and it doesn’t hold water or organic matter.

“But it is incredibly good for growing root crops like potatoes, carrots, onions, parsnips and sugar beet, and because it’s so dry and light we can harvest pretty much any day of the year.

“We put heavy investment into the water infrastructure, with two reservoirs and underground pipes.

“Climate change impacts very much on what farms do. Every year we are breaking records like the hottest and wettest days. We have got to adapt to cope with that.

The Euston farm also grows wheat and barley, which remain heavily vulnerable to spring droughts.

Reservoir on Euston Estate farm
Reservoir on Euston Estate farm

Despite sophisticated data-modelling, the weather is one thing farmers cannot control. But on the ground, intensive use of chemicals and fertilisers has often been seen as the way to a good harvest.

“For 50-odd years farmers have turned to artificial solutions to cope with situations ... and nature is starting to kick back,” said Andrew.

“We need to return to the way previous generations farmed but using the technology which is available to us, like robotic tractors and tech to identify good and bad parts of fields.

“With soil, it is so detailed now we know where we need to put micro-nutrients and phosphate, potash and nitrogen. Also coming along are targeted herbicides and pest control.

“We need to farm more in conjunction with nature as my grandfather used to do.

“On his farm I can remember lots of mechanical weeding, good crop rotation, and cover crops grown between other crops then ploughed in or grazed by livestock.

“Including livestock in the mix is important. The value they put into the soil is huge.”

Red poll cattle at Euston
Red poll cattle at Euston

Euston land hosts other people’s sheep, outdoor pigs and free range chickens. The farm has its own herd of 150 red poll cattle, which are Andrew’s way of continuing to be a hands-on farmer.

“I check the cows every morning, and am on call for emergencies,” he said. “That’s my release, my grounding. And I will help out on the tractors if needed.”

He believes the message that chemicals are not the answer to everything is getting through. “I think a lot of farmers are realising there are potential opportunities to farm slightly differently from the past 40 or 50 years.

“Black grass is a really difficult weed to control and people have adapted their rotations now to effectively control it.

“And it all ties in with the government and potentially the general public’s aspirations of reducing our carbon footprint. The NFU has suggested farms will be net zero by 2040.”

Euston is also focused on renewable energy, growing forage maize and rye for its anaerobic digester plant which produces biomethane gas for the national grid.

Anaerobic digestion plant at Euston
Anaerobic digestion plant at Euston

“A separate pipe goes to Euston Hall. And the digestate is incredibly good fertiliser,” Andrew said.

There are also solar panels which feed electricity into the grid and permission has just been given for another 220 acres. The panels are ground mounted and sheep graze underneath them.

Breckland is home to an exceptional number of rare plants and invertebrates.

Andrew is a member of the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network. “What we are focused on at this stage is six metre cultivated margins round all our fields.

“It’s about benefitting the species that are found in the Brecks, and doing what the rabbits used to do. There is a new rabbit virus in the last 10 years which has decimated the population.

“The margins are ploughed then left as a seed bed for rare species to germinate by themselves.

“These plants are mostly annuals, and most of them don’t like too many nutrients in the soil. We also plant 3,000 hedge plants every winter, plus trees.”

There is also a way that environmental work could lead to profit. “A whole new market that is opening up is biodiversity net gain, with people offsetting their carbon emissions.

“And they pay the farmer for doing it – say with a wildflower meadow,” he said.

Andrew Blenkiron hosting NFU Suffolk centenary
Andrew Blenkiron hosting NFU Suffolk centenary

One of his biggest worries is cheap food being imported without the UK’s environmental and welfare standards. “It really does concern me, and the NFU, and my fellow members,” he said.

The Agriculture Bill that became law last year means public money for public good – environmental benefit and nature recovery.

Many farmers are anxious about the effect of the new rules replacing a system that effectively paid people for the amount of land they farmed.

But Andrew said it might not mean quite as big a change as has been suggested.

“A reasonable proportion of money from the Common Agricultural Policy was focused on the environment, and I think most farmers have always been concerned with that,” he said.

One of his aims while Suffolk NFU chairman is to increase membership. “A number of farmers are not members but heavily rely on work the NFU does,” he said.

“Large farms pay more to be members – it depends on acreage. Also there are benefits like discounted schemes, help with individual problems, and the fellowship and interaction with other farmers.

“I’d also like to ensure that this transition we are just starting goes as smoothly as possible for farmers, like going into new markets, and ensuring we continue to farm and supply markets on a level playing field with similar standards.”