Farming Insight: It’s a farming life for me, says SAA chair Stephen
YOU get the sense that Stephen Fletcher, a self-confessed workaholic and chairman of the Suffolk Agricultural Association, would be willing to give anything a go - even if the thought scared him witless.
Freshly returned from a foreign holiday ‘break’ which involved zipwiring at eye-watering heights, he certainly knows how to test the boundaries of fear.
He admits the experience wasn’t quite his cup of tea, but he didn’t really know how to back down, having watched his fearless wife, Marion, descend.
He’s a man of many interests and roles, zipping from one task to another, and something of a human dynamo when it comes to his working life, which he divides between farming interests - he owns a care farm, Potsford Farm, near Woodbridge - with working as a chartered surveyor, his bread-and-butter, and chairing the Suffolk Agricultural Association.
He also fulfils numerous other business and voluntary roles, including as a trustee of the Suffolk Foundation, supporting East Suffolk Association for the Blind, and indulges in various hobbies, such as tennis and sailing.
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Despite the demanding work ethic, it’s clear he likes to enjoy himself, and the fun factor is not usually lacking from his long working days.
“When I take a holiday, I always book the next one even if it’s only for a few days so I do do other things - I’m not just a boring old worker, but when I’m working I work flat out, but only because I like it.
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“I really enjoy what I’m up to. It doesn’t feel like drudgery,” says Stephen.
A ‘normal’ working day is 10 to 11 hours, he says.
“I think that’s conservative,” chips in Marion.
Stephen adds: “I could say I’m frightfully efficient. I have a very good PA, Avril Newman, who has been my PA for 20 years, and she and my wife keep me on the strait and narrow.”
Stephen, the son of two medical doctors based in Hertfordshire, describes himself as “a first generation farmer”.
“I went to college (the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester) and wanted to be a farmer, but I didn’t have a farm,” he says.
“So I trained to be a chartered surveyor, and during my working life I ran Strutt & Parker’s Ipswich office in the 1980s, then I moved back to the firm I trained with which was Bidwells and became a partner responsible for the rural side of Bidwells across its various offices covering agriculture, estate management and all matters rural, which I did from 1993 to 2008.”
Stephen does have farming roots, though. His grandfather was a farmer, although he sold up and retired. His wife’s grandfather was also a farmer, based in Suffolk.
So while Stephen had to be practical about his choice of job and pursued a very successful professional career, he still hankered after the farming life.
In the early 90s, he managed to acquire 300 acres at Park Farm, Charsfield, near Woodbridge, where he and Marion live. Later he purchased 200 acres at Potsford Farm.
About 350 acres of his farm is arable, growing wheat, oilseed rape and spring barley and it is farmed on a contract basis by neighbour John Taylor, who provides the labour and machinery.
The other 150 acres is grassland and woodland. The couple run their own livestock enterprise, which includes about 30 Red Poll cattle.
Potsford Farm is home to their care farm diversification and livery yard which is run by Kevin Francis and Nathan Nobbs, two fully qualified mental health practitioners, who are supported by a team of volunteers.
“These guys have done a huge amount of work here, because the whole place was pretty dilapidated and we have invested in the infrastructure and the farm buildings.
“We built new stables because we have a livery yard which looks after 15 horses and we have a sheep flock of 30 ewes plus lambs, pigs, chickens and goats,” explains Stephen.
The first clients came to the care farm in September 2010 and since then, the enterprise has enjoyed considerable success. Stephen came into care farming in characteristically singular fashion.
He first read about care farms in 2009, then gave a lift to a man who was hitch-hiking, who happened to mention he had been at a care farm in Cheshire.
“I didn’t think too much more about it and I got home and there was a letter from Nathan and Kevin which said had we considered what we were going to do with this collection of outbuildings. and would we be prepared to consider a care farm.
“The idea was to get co-workers here to benefit from what goes on here and that’s what we’ve done,” says Stephen.
“They grow vegetables on the vegetable growing area and they work the farm.
“They do conservation work, they tend the horses and seem to like it very much.”
There’s a great team spirit among the staff - there are three besides Kevin and Nathan - and it is run as a separate business.
“It certainly works for us because there’s an activity going on here which is paying the rent and it’s worked for the care company because it’s got lots of customers who have paid to come.”
The care farm is helped by funding from Suffolk County Council, and delivers many benefits to the community in helping support the health and wellbeing of its citizens.
“When we first bought it there was no livestock. There were horses in the small livery. We did a lot of work under an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) scheme to re-fence and clean out the dykes and water meadows in preparation for the Red Poll cattle herd.
“They graze down there all summer,” says Stephen.
The work on the care farm continues, with thoughts turning to a workshop for the co-workers to work in and learn some new skills.
Stephen has a company, Fletcher Barton Ltd, which advises people on property issues and makes use of his chartered surveying skills.He runs it jointly with Will Barton, who joined him in the summer and who works full time in the business.
“It’s more how to optimise performance, how to help people buy their own property, how to develop it, get planning permission for it,” he says.
The business takes up about 70% of his time, he says. But he’s also a non-executive director for two or three businesses.
The remainder of his time is divided between the farming and care farm business and his charity work, which includes chairing the Suffolk Agricultural Association, a role which comes to an end in February 2013.
The move into farming has been in stages, he explains, and is based on purchases he has made and shifts in his own working life.
It’s clear his farming activities have been a labour of love, but he is also careful to ensure that the sums add up.
“I’ve got a number of different hats I wear. I suppose it has been a gradual thing. When we bought the farm in the early 90s I was still flat out working in the surveying business,” he explains.
“I had planned to become a farmer when I was able to do so.”
When Bidwells decided to change its shape and wanted Stephen to work in Norwich or Cambridge, Stephen decided it was a good time to look at his other interests.
He stayed on for two or three years as a consultant to help with the transition, but felt his future lay elsewhere.
Stephen and Marion have three grown-up children - Celia, 27, a teacher, Henry, 29, a freelance environmentalist, and Edward, 26, a doctor.
Farming, a career he has moved into later in life, has constant challenges, admits Stephen, but it is rewarding.
“It’s changing. It’s changed hugely in the 40 years I have been involved and it will carry on changing in the next 10/12 years. It’s evolutionary. One’s got to plan carefully.
“All the investments you make in farms are long term and expensive so you have got to analyse them carefully otherwise your payback periods will just be unviable.
“It’s a long term business - it’s doesn’t suit people who want to jump in and out,” he says.
“If you want to be a farmer, you want to be a farmer.
“That’s why it has to be a lifestyle decision, and enjoy the benefits that come from it.
“If you don’t enjoy those sorts of things there’s absolutely no point in doing it. If you do, it provides a great backdrop to all those activities and a nice place to live.”
It’s important, believes Stephen, to remain rooted in reality, and to have a variety of different investments.
The care farm offers activities and education to about 15 people living with illness or disability a day, or around 60 different people a week.
It is accredited by Suffolk County Council, and has good links with Suffolk Mental Health Partnership Trust and various voluntary organisations within Suffolk.
People are usually referred to it by a care co-ordinator or social worker and support needs are discussed at the point of referral to ensure the placement is as productive and beneficial as possible.
Those attending the service take part in all aspects of animal husbandry as well as the growing of fruit and vegetables and taking part in conservation work where possible.
Stephen has ambitions to grow it, but this will involve more investment.
Nathan said: “The farm is proving a real success and the feedback from the people we work with has been really positive.
“The therapeutic benefit of working outside and working with animals has exceeded our own expectations.
“We aim to support people on their path of recovery as well as offering skills and knowledge that can be used in many aspects of life.”
At the same time, the Fletchers’ award-winning arable operation has been praised for the efforts made to improve the farm through rabbit control, drainage and fertility, implemented with the help of John Taylor, the contractor.
The shift into farming and all it entails evidently suits Stephen, who feels energised by the experience.
It’s a small-ish farm by today’s standards, but thriving, and the care farm element adds a new dimension.
“Having been in surveying for nearly 40 years I feel having changed my direction in 2008 I have got a real spring in my step,” says Stephen.