• Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on Jul 07, 2022
  • Articles

Sir James Dyson is one of the largest landowners in England with some 35,000 acres.  Although not from a farming family, he helped out on farms in North Norfolk as a youngster and has a deep love of farming and the countryside.  Thus it should be no surprise that, on the back of his success in business, he should invest in farmland.

His first purchase was the Nocton Estate in Lincolnshire in 2012, to which he has added over the years, now owning around 28,000 acres in the county.  He bought land in Gloucestershire north of Bath, then the Churn Estate on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border formerly owned by Reading University.  The following year he acquired the adjoining gallops, then the land at Compton which had been occupied by the Institute of Animal Health.  That took his land holding in the area to 4,700 acres.

The Institute of Animal Health (IAH) closed in 2015 and the land put up for sale.  However, there had been intense research on animal diseases, including anthrax, brucellosis, BSE, scrapie and bovine tuberculosis so concerns that some of the land might be contaminated held up the sale.  This was resolved, the only proviso to the sale was that 100 hectares could not be used to produce food for fifteen years.  This has been put down to miscanthus as an energy crop.

The Berkshire and Oxfordshire branches of the CLA held their AGMs at the estate recently and I was delighted to join other members on the visit.  We met at Mayfield Farm where there has been significant investment in buildings with a huge new grain store.  There were already some new cattle buildings put up to house the 650 cow dairy unit run by IAH whilst the pig unit has now been converted into self-storage facilities.  After coffee and the AGMs in the grain store, we were given an introduction to the estate by James Dawson, the Estate Surveyor.  We boarded tractors and trailers and set off past the miscanthus which is grown on contract with Terravesta.  The yield was 7 tonnes per ha last year but is gradually increasing and should reach 14 to 15 tonnes per ha.

After the impressive buildings at Mayfield Farm we went up a narrow road to the Ilsley dairy unit, sadly empty and unproductive.  Various applications to obtain planning consent for conversion have met with opposition from nearby residents and the planners, but attempts to redevelop this brownfield site continue.  Further up the lane, four former isolation units have been converted into high quality holiday lets.

We crossed the gallops onto the Churn Estate passing numerous arable fields.  The farming is relatively conventional with 640 ha of winter wheat, 350 of spring barley, 160 of oilseed rape, 57 of peas, 40 of lucerne, 80 of permanent pasture and 40 of two-year leys for silage.  A large area of lucerne was grown on both estates in the past and fertility is very high.  We saw one field of spring barley that had been direct drilled after lucerne; it had received no fertiliser and, although short in the straw, looked well.  Indeed, all the crops were excellent and very clean.  Controlled traffic on a 12 metre standard is practised which means that the wheels of all machines follow the same tramlines, reducing soil compaction.

At one point, I thought I saw some weeds but then realised it was a beetle bank stretching across the field.  There are 275 ha devoted to Stewardship options and regular biodiversity audits by the RSPB and others showing that wildlife is important on this beautiful open downland landscape.

The stables at Churn were empty for three years but are now let to an eventer whilst the gallops are let to a local racehorse trainer.  The livestock enterprise is cattle production for beef.  A calf rearing unit on the Gloucestershire estate takes day-old calves from dairy herds which then come to Compton at twelve weeks for rearing and fattening.  There were 1,000 last winter but the number is down to 400 this year.

We returned to Mayfield Farm for drinks and a talk by Gavin Lane, CLA Vice President, before an excellent hog roast lunch.    There is no doubt of Sir James Dyson’s commitment to farming.  The volume of food produced by the company is impressive, 35,000 tonnes of wheat, 9,000 tonnes of spring barley, 15,000 tonnes of potatoes, and 9,000 tonnes of vining peas.  A significant volume of energy crops are grown primarily to feed the two anaerobic digestion plants in Lincolnshire which provide power and heat for homes and the new 15-acre glasshouse producing 800 tonnes of strawberries each year.  This enterprise focuses on supplying fruit early and late extending the season and replacing imports.

The digestate from the AD plants is increasingly replacing inorganic fertilisers on the arable land.  The company claims to be the first large scale farm in the country to be carbon neutral and, last year, sequestered 1,300 tonnes more carbon than it produced.  Not surprisingly, considering Sir James’ other business activities, there is an emphasis on innovation, especially robotics, although we were not shown any of that at Compton.    The visit was hugely enjoyable and instructive.