Euston Estate: Tradition or profit? - a marriage of convenience
WHATEVER your views on large, inherited estates, there is no doubt that the few that remain provide a window onto a vanishing world.
The ethos which governs them is often out of step with modern thinking, and with the commercial and profit-motivated imperatives which drive most businesses.
Some, like Euston Estate, near Thetford, have helped preserve natural and man-made treasures which might otherwise have been lost to the nation.
The ancient - and still privately-owned - 11,000 acre estate on the edges of Suffolk’s border with Norfolk, contains the largest semi-ancient broadleaf woodland in East Anglia and some nationally-important landscape and building features, alongside a very large farming operation extending to around 6,500 acres.
Its estate director, Andrew Blenkiron, has the formidable challenge of balancing the need to preserve its natural and man-made assets and its traditions, with the necessity of ‘balancing the books’ by ensuring its commercial operations, which include the farm and a property-owning arm with 120 homes, remain commercially viable.
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It has been a testing time on the estate, which, with its light, flyaway soil, has been dogged by drought-related problems over the past couple of years. Earlier this year, when the drought was at its worst, Andrew was visited by National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall, who came to see the problems at first hand.
Its sizeable farming operation includes wheat, barley and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) crops, as well as 16,000 tonnes of sugar beet, and 1,000 acres of vegetables irrigated by its 150 million gallon reservoir.
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All of this, in times of drought, comes under severe strain, and, while spring drought has now turned to summer deluge, the unpredictable weather patterns are a constant headache.
Andrew, a recent arrival, came from an estate in Dorset where he was managing, among other things, a large dairy herd and around 2,000 outdoor breeding sows, including an organic operation.
With the death of the 11th Duke of Grafton in 2011, his grandson, Duke Harry, aged 33, took over the reins of the Euston Estate. He became the 12th Duke of Grafton, his father, Lord Euston, having died in 2009.
“Trusts generally are set up to ensure continuity of an estate through the generations and they are managed by a set of trustees who help the current incumbent through his tenure,” explains Andrew.
Andrew, 47, who is originally from north Yorkshire and went to Harper Adams, was taken on with the arrival of the new duke, having cut his teeth on various challenging roles, including the Dorset estate. He managed a unit in Northumberland, then moved to Staffordshire where he was an associate for Smiths Gore before taking up the Dorset role.
His present post involves overseeing a very diverse estate business, which includes everything from a commercial shoot and profitable deerstalking enterprise to a thriving log sale business which has grown out of the 1,500 acres of forestry he must oversee. There are also around 2,000 acres of tenanted farms and land lettings, and various livestock enterprises, with land let to sheep, outdoor pigs, poultry, suckler cows and horse businesses.
The estate includes the historic Euston Hall and grounds, which require constant and costly attention to keep them in good order, and hosts a number of charitable and commercial activities, all of which help to keep it a living, breathing community rather than a museum piece.
Andrew is a busy man, and takes an active role in farming life. In January, he was speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, setting out his view on who holds the global power in agriculture and how can we respond.
He points out that farming’s destiny, to a worrying extent, lies in the hands of just a few and that farmers are in danger of being pawns. To combat that, it’s incumbent on farmers, he believes, to maintain political influence and to continue to develop their markets, both at home and abroad. It’s also important never to under-sell, he says, and to continue to adopt more sustainable methods.
“I don’t like the American model. It’s a mechanism by which they are controlling our destiny and controlling our price. A lot of it is committing all your crop to one outlet, and once you have done that you are kind of beholden to them. You owe them the inputs already. It just seems to take an element of your independence away,” he says.
So Andrew strives to stay true to his own beliefs and carve out a future for Euston which will continue to keep it commercially viable and sustainable - but not locked in the past.
Andrew arrived last April as part of a re-structure following the arrival of the duke, and it was a challenge he felt he couldn’t resist.
“The fact that it is a long-term traditional estate is something I would like to be involved in to help to build things for future generations rather than build them up and sell them or build them up for other uses,” he says.
“The tradition is something I find quite interesting.”
But tradition can be very costly, he admits.
“Trying to maintain that tradition while developing profitable businesses that allow for sufficient income and profit to move the business forward to develop things going forward - that’s the real difficulty. If you are out-and-out focused on the profit, you have a different focus.”
As with any business, there’s the interest of the internal politics. The estate has about 25 staff, and it’s Andrew’s job to smooth out differences and ensure the team is going in same direction.
“The thing with these traditional estates is not to do something very suddenly, otherwise you cause disunity, you cause an upset,” he says.
One focus at the moment is a parkland restoration project. The parkland was designed by William Kent, a forerunner of Capability Brown, and is thus an important part of England’s heritage. The total project will cost in excess of half a million pounds, and putting together the means to carry out the work, with grant aid, is complex and time-consuming.
As with many estates, maintenance work would have been carried out by a large workforce on an annual basis but Andrew must now grapple with the effects of many years without that kind of manpower keeping the water features de-silted and the walls firm.
“It’s that deterioration of the landscape that’s take place over the last 100 years that many estates have had to address either by abandonment or restoration,” he says.
For Andrew, it’s an added incentive for keeping the farm business healthy.
“One of the main mechanisms for generating cash and profitability is to ensure the farming operation is successful and we have been focusing on how to make that work slightly better,” he says.
Vegetable growing is a big income generator, aided by good Breckland soil and almost beach-quality sand in some places. This year for the first time the Abrey family, which has the capital investment in the machinery and storage, are the third party responsible for the growing, although the estate does lend a helping hand.
Irrigation such fast-draining soil is vital, and thousands of metres of underground piping has been put in place to that end.
“It’s much more profitable to grow root crops on this land than it is to grow cereals,” explains Andrew. The estate also grows 17,000 tonnes of sugar beet which goes to the Bury St Edmunds sugar beet factory. Between these, combinable crops are grown as a break crop.
The soil is poor and needs fertiliser to improve it. The cost of fertiliser has rocketed, putting more strain on input costs. Building up the fertility in the soil through fertility-building crops is one challenge Andrew faces. While these are being grown, no cash is flowing in, creating a dilemma which he must balance
“That’s farming, and we overcome that gamble by fixing prices over crops that we sell,” he says.
The estate is a member of Cambridgeshire-based Camgrain, a farmer-owned central storage co-operative, and a proportion of its crop will be marketed through that.
Last May, parts of the estate moved from Entry Level Stewardship to Higher Level Stewardship, and meeting all the added environmental targets is a big project. There are stone curlew plots, field margins, hedgerow management, lower input grassland, and grazing of traditional native breeds, with 100 Red Poll cattle on the estate.
Andrew endured a baptism of fire in his first year, with a “horrendous” growing season. and the weather playing havoc with the estate’s sugar and winter wheat crop yields.
Other parts of the business have fared better: the shoots have been doing well, and there are plans to make more use of the hall and grounds to help generate income, such as for corporate facilities. There may be scope for developing some events, but it is an area that needs to be looked at carefully, says Andrew.
“You don’t hit these places with radical change. If you want to change them your work on them slowly,” he says.
Neverthless, last week, the estate hosted the World Equine Endurance Championships and it has applied for planning for a proposed sports pavilion on the park and a 60 acre PV farm on the estate land. It is also seeking full planning approval for the 60 million gallon irrigation reservoir.
Duke Harry has “many ideas” for moving the place forward, he adds.
“It’s exceptionally interesting times for everybody involved here and a new hand at the tiller rather than a new broom. You look back through history and you see places where people have gone in with that attitude and I don’t think it’s necessarily worked.”