'We must farm as our grandfathers farmed', says Suffolk's top farmer

Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate

Andrew Blenkiron, incoming NFU Suffolk chairman, wants to see the county's farmers becoming more sustainable in their methods - Credit: John Cottle

Farmers must wean themselves off their reliance on artificial chemicals as a means of boosting their crops, Suffolk's new farming leader says.

Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate near Thetford, will be officially installed as chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) after the NFU Conference on Wednesday, February 23.

Glenn Buckingham - who is the current chairman - will swap places with him to become deputy chairman.

The incoming chairman believes the county’s farmers must adapt and become more sustainable in their methods.

But he thinks they are in good shape to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead as the government presses ahead with the biggest agricultural upheaval in the UK for more than 50 years - including big changes to how and whether farmers receive subsidies.

Direct farm support payments are being swept away in favour of new environmental land management schemes, offering ‘public money for public goods’ such as planting trees, improving water quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Suffolk is a highly productive county agriculturally and I think our farm businesses are in a strong position. The key is going to be fitting in the aspirations of how to achieve public money for public goods with this highly productive base,” he said.

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“It’s important that we actively engage in the process to ensure we do meet some of those challenges, while remaining productive.

“One of the things I’ve been saying, for about 20 years, is we need to start farming as our grandfathers used to farm, rather than having an over heavy reliance on artificial inputs. I think everyone is starting to appreciate that.

“That doesn’t mean exactly the same but utilising modern technology to help us farm in a more sustainable way. It’s been so easy to rely on agrochemicals and artificial fertilisers.

“Everyone has done it for very good reasons, they wanted to stay in business, but it has been to the detriment of the environment. We have to reverse that, increasing our biodiversity. We are well placed in Suffolk to deliver on this.”

Andrew is 11 years into his stint at the 11,000 acre Euston Estate, a diverse business which includes arable and irrigated crops, a herd of Red Poll cattle and a wide range of conservation and stewardship schemes. It generates renewable energy through solar panels and an anaerobic digestion plant and is about to embark on an ambitious tree planting carbon sequestration initiative on almost 500 acres of land.

The son of a civil servant and grandson of upland beef and sheep farm in North Yorkshire, he was offered a place at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst but opted for a farming career instead. He studied at Harper Adams Harper Adams then went to work on farms in Northumberland for 10 years before moving to Smiths Gore in the West Midlands. 

He served as NFU Staffordshire county chair and chairman of Staffordshire and Birmingham Agricultural Society Show.

He and wife Jennifer later moved to Dorset, where he spent three years working as managing director for Crichel Farms before the move to Euston.

During his 35-year career, he has held positions including eight years as vice chairman of Assured Food Standards, the organisation that operates the Red Tractor scheme.

“I have seen a variety of farming systems and been involved, in hands-on farming, from dairy farming to outdoor pigs, suckler cows and sheep, cereals and then intensive root crops here. That helps me have an element of understanding across all aspects of agriculture,” he said.

It was while in the West Midlands that he felt the need to fight to keep food production in the UK. “ It was a fantastic time to be county chair, fighting the view from Margaret Beckett and others in government that we could be park keepers and most food could be imported,” he recalled.

“Farming is all about the good people, the dedicated people across the spectrum. That’s what makes it such a vibrant industry, one that’s exciting to be involved with,” he said.

“Hopefully, we’re now starting to see a clearer way forward with the Agriculture Act, the Environment Act and the Government’s 25-year Environmental Plan offering an element of certainty as to what we need to aim for.

“We have some strong aspirations for agriculture from politicians, but also from the public, about what they want to see and it will all boil down to the money and whether it is affordable.

“Something the NFU can help with is to ensure the marketplace fairly recompenses us for producing high quality, high value, farm assured food.

“Finding a clear way through for everybody is the challenge of the next decade. That’s the uncertainty but it’s also the exciting part.”