Farming feature: ‘Dreaming about crises’ - Glasto founder on his remarkable rise

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. L-R: Ian Pigott (conference cha

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. L-R: Ian Pigott (conference chairman), Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Founder), Tom Chapman (Heath Chapman Associates), Lawrence Hene (Ocado), Caroline Drummond (LEAF) and Blake Vince (Canadian farmer). - Credit: Archant

Sentry’s annual regional farming conference, which took place at Rowley Mile, Newmarket, on Wednesday, ended on a high with arguably the greatest farm diversification of them all – the Glastonbury Festival. SARAH CHAMBERS reports.

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Foun

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Founder). - Credit: Archant

Any farmer looking for a diversification offering a quick return might want to reflect on the experience of Glastonbury Festival founder and dairy farmer Michael Eavis.

It took him a full 11 years before the event turned in a profit – but you can’t help feeling it was worth the wait.

The charismatic owner of Worthy Farm was at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile to deliver the first Sentry Lecture.

Dressed in shorts despite the wintry conditions outside, he clearly wasn’t the type of farmer to stand on ceremony. He described his harsh introduction to farm management, aged 19, through the illness and death of his father. Michael was rather reluctant to come home, but wanted to keep hold of the family dairy farm and not see it sold, and so he was forced to cut short his career at sea with the Union Castle Shipping Company. It meant years of hard graft and two years sharing his time between a job at a coalmine and milking the cows.

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Foun

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. Michael Eavis (Glastonbury Founder). - Credit: Archant

“I was so pleased to get back to the cows after working in the mines all day - I actually enjoyed the milking,” he laughed.

In the end, he pulled through, but, as delegates learned, the festival was born not out of a desire to make money, but his love of music and his ideals, including a strong and enduring commitment to anti-nuclear and other causes. As he proudly explained, one of his forebears, George, was a Tolpuddle Martyr who represented “the hard-done farmworkers”.

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The event started modestly enough at £1 a ticket, including free milk from the farm. When the licensing laws for events came in, the council turned him down, he recalled, but he successfully appealed. Now, 45 years on, the festival ploughs £100million into the Somerset economy every year and everyone within a 20-mile radius of the site can find jobs. Today, funds go to causes such as Greenpeace and Oxfam Wateraid. He has an event which grosses around £32million, he’s been able to steer a project to build attractive homes out of traditional stone for working people, he doesn’t borrow any money and his farm has a mighty workforce of 57. His daughter, Emily, is “a prime mover”, and he has his own management team of about 10 rather than bringing in outsiders to run the event.

“I counted them today, so that’s not bad really,” he said. “We are going great guns at the moment.”

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket.

The Sentry 2015 conference at the Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket. - Credit: Archant

Today, while he gets half a million pounds from the festival for the use of his 500-acre site, some of his farmer-neighbours do equally well if not better - as he explained to a packed afternoon audience.

But, perhaps surprisingly, he has no sense of security about the future, with his highly popular four years on, one year off formula of festivals.

“The problem is if I can’t sell the tickets then I’m really stuck, aren’t I?” he said. “Basically, it’s actually self-funding and it hasn’t failed yet. It will eventually fail, but I don’t know when.”

On the downside, he has about 22 landowners to deal with and some tough negotiations.

“Landowners are the big thing, really. They all want something different. It’s really hard work,” he said. “I’m still dreaming about crises when I go to sleep. It’s not safe, it’s not straightforward.”

Sentry, a farm management company, based at Ipswich, makes a habit of trying to get farmers to think outside of the box at its events and this year was no exception as it asked delegates to rethink their arable traditions.

First up was Caroline Drummond, chief executive of Linking the Environment And Farming (LEAF).

The theme of her talk was ‘Health by Stealth’ and the story behind making food as nutritious as possible. Remarkably, although nutritional value is key to its importance, it’s an often overlooked factor, as she discovered through her Nuffield scholarship work.

“In striving to produce more, have we lost our understanding of nutrition?” she asked. She looked at attitudes not only of consumers, but also of farmers and their educators, pointing to a gap in her own agricultural education which meant while she learnt a great deal about the diets of farm livestock, she knew little about human nutrition. This was one of the failings, she argued, of the classic brand of agricultural training.

Governments may have a headline target to cut premature deaths from non-communicable diseases by a quarter by 2025, but there was a long way to go in dealing with their causes – relating to nutrition and exercise, she told delegates. Already, in fast-developing China, 51% of the population was showing pre-diabetic symptoms.

“But where is farmers’ part in this,” she asked. “What’s going to be the tipping point to generate real change?”

She examined the pizza, and in particular how its three key ingredients - wheat, tomatoes and cheese can be designed to give optimal nutritional value. She also looked at the obesity epidemic in the UK which was costing £4billion a year.

“We are producing food, not commodities,” she said. “We need to embed health as a value when we buy food.”

To follow, Lawrence Hene, director of marketing and grocery retail at Ocado explained how its model, delivering food directly to the consumer by as short a route as possible, was becoming increasingly successful.

Then it was on to Canadian Nuffield farming scholar Blake Vince who showed how he was protecting his soil and trying to combat blue green algae blooms in nearby Lake Erie, by his no-till and zonal tillage approach to growing corn, soybeans and winter wheat on his 1300 acre family farm in Ontario. He uses cover crops and believes strongly that helping fungi within the soil was helping to enrich and improve it and provide him with a better crop.

Closer to home, Tom Chapman of Heath Chapman Associates introduced a system of “mob grazing”, replicating movements of animals in the wild, as a means of improving soil conditions on an estate in Hertfordshire. By using mobile fencing and moving cattle around, his goal was to extend grazing to reduce the winter feeding period and cut the need for fertilisers on crop fields. He hopes, over time, to graze animals outside all year round, thus reducing overheads, and believes that livestock should become part of farmers’ rotation once again.

“If we are going to get cattle back onto our land, we need to think laterally,” he said. “There’s no reason why you can’t keep cattle outside all year round, even here in the UK.”