Emotional moment as family decides to cease farming in-hand

Stephen Miles, who is retiring from in-hand farming

Stephen Miles when he was Suffolk Show president in 2019 - Credit: SAA

One of Suffolk’s most prominent farmers is set to hold a dispersal sale after bringing in his last harvest at the 3,000-acre family farm.

Stephen Miles and his family at Lea Farm, Great Ashfield, near Bury St Edmunds, will hold an auction of a considerable array machines and equipment from September 22 to 27.

The Miles family has decided to move from farming in-hand to handing the day-to-day operations to a contract farmer.

Claas Lexion 770TT combine completing the 2021 harvest at Great Ashfield.

Stephen Miles' last harvest as an in-hand farmer at his farm at Great Ashfield prior to a dispersal sale - Credit: James Mann / Clarke & Simpson Auctions Ltd

Third generation farmer Stephen, 66, and his family will remain at the 1,700-acre farm which they own and continue with other businesses and concerns on site while neighbouring farmer Bill Baker of Drinkstone contract-farms the land.

Stephen is a stalwart of the farming community and has held a number of prominent roles in the county — including High Sheriff of Suffolk in 2011/12, Suffolk Show director from 2005 to 2007 and Suffolk Show president in 2019 to 2020.

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He followed his father, Rowley Miles, and grandfather, John Miles, into the family business. Stephen’s son, Philip, became the fourth generation to join after graduating from university.

But this year the family took the unanimous decision to call it quits on the in-hand operation so that Stephen can retire and enjoy time with his grandchildren and Philip – an agricultural consultant – can focus on the overall business, including other activities around the farm, as well as his own work. Stephen and wife Petrina are also very keen gardeners – and will get more time to spend on that.

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But it will be an emotional moment as the final machine is shipped off from the farm, the-father-and-son team admits.

In the build-up to the online auction – which will follow viewings held from 9am to 4pm on Friday (September 24) and Saturday (September 25) – they have been busy preparing for the auction, which is being organised by Clarke and Simpson.

“It’s a bit frantic – we hadn’t allowed for a late harvest,” admitted Stephen. “We finished last week with the help of our neighbours.”

In the end, harvest was “very average”, admitted Philip, and “slow, fairly painful, got there in the end – not the most exciting yield-wise”. He added: “Thankfully, prices are reasonable.”

Stephen came home from college in 1976 to join his father and uncle, Rowley and John, on the farm.

The family had arrived in the village in 1900 after Stephen’s great grandmother Mary – who lived in Metfield – was widowed and left with seven children to raise. She got into financial difficulty but the Barker family – which is based at Westhorpe – found her a small farm at Great Ashfield. 

Two of her sons, John and Gershom, would remain in the village for the rest of their lives. They farmed in partnership until 1925 when they split up and moved in separate directions. John continued to farm on his own and expanded the business as opportunities arose. He would later be joined by sons John and Rowley. During World War II some of the land was requisitioned by the War Office for an airfield and it wasn’t until around 1960 that the family managed to buy it back.

The farm was also home to a World War I airfield, it was later discovered. In the 1950s the family kept a Friesian suckler herd but by the 1970s this had been replaced by a 750-strong beef herd, with farm workers heading to Sturminster Newton Market in Dorset every week to purchase calves. 

In 1983 the business entered its first contract farming agreement at Beyton. More agreements followed until eventually the operation farmed a total area of 3,000 acres.

Over time the livestock operation became uneconomical and in 1986 the family decided to focus purely on the arable side. 

Among the most nostalgic pieces to feature in the dispersal sale are the farm’s D2 Caterpillars – a fleet of which were used around the farm. Philip will retain one relic as a keepsake but the others are going under the hammer.

John died in 1976 and Stephen began working alongside his father. “We worked together for a long time and from the early 1990s onwards I took on more and more responsibility,” he said. Rowley died in 2007.

For the past six years, Stephen has employed a farm manager, Ed Lawton-Bradshaw, presiding over a team of five. Stephen and Philip expressed their gratitude to them for their loyalty and commitment even as the last harvest was brought in and the machinery prepared for sale.

Philip has two sisters – Rachel who lives in Devon and Emily who works in London. It was a family decision to sell up and refocus, said Stephen. “We have just sat around the table and discussed everything and it has been a very good process,” he said. “It’s a very hard decision but for us it’s the right decision.”

He added: “I want to enjoy life and we have got grandchildren in Devon.”

Philip admitted it was a difficult decision, but said it was the right one. “We had our family meeting and it was felt as upsetting and challenging year as it has been we felt it was the right decision for us as a family.”

It was a daunting time but an exciting one for agriculture, and he wanted to focus on the area he was strong at which was business management, he said. But he admitted it would be “very, very weird”.

“I think it’s an exciting time in agriculture but also extremely scary for a lot of people,” he said. “Given we are having a lot chucked at us all at one go it’s important to get with the best business option and not the first thrown at you.”

But the farm and its businesses will remain in family hands. “We are still going to own it,” said Stephen. “We are looking at woodland management and the environmental side and we have started a self-storage operation.”

These days the farm is fully arable – growing crops like wheat, barley, sugar beet, oilseed rape, linseed and peas.

“I have enjoyed it and we have been very lucky in our staff,” he said. Many farm workers had been with them many years, and one was the fourth generation to work for the family, he said, with a number over the years scooping long service awards from the Suffolk Agricultural Association – organisers of the Suffolk Show.

“That did make our decision very hard. It was not a rushed-into decision,” he said.

“I think it’s quite emotional for everybody – whether it’s staff or us as owners. We have all worked together as a family. Everybody looks out for everybody. When you work with the same people year in, year out you become very close – so it does make it hard.”

Philip will be responsible for taking the business forward and felt the next phase would be “exciting”.  “This is not the end of John Miles & Sons, it’s just the next phase of it,” he said.

Auctioneer James Durrant said: “We are delighted to be undertaking this auction on behalf of the Miles family. This very genuine sale has come about as a result of the decision to farm by contract after farming in hand for over 100 years. The machinery on offer is all of excellent quality and well maintained. The sale also includes a range of bygones from previous generations.”

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