As a boy, Keith Datchler helped out at the dairy farm across the road before school. He has just celebrated his 41st year at the 2,000-acre Beech Farm Estate near Battle, working his way up from dairy herdsman to estate manager.
How did you get into estate management?
What training did you undertake to start your career?
What are the biggest changes you've seen over the past few decades?
What has specifically changed on the Estate?
Do you benefit from any grant funding?
Can you outline the history of the estate?
What are your hopes and fears for the future?
If you had an audience with government Ministers what would you bring to their attention?
I actually grew up in South East London, my father was an accountant and in those days people took their holidays in Britain, visiting the seaside or countryside. We also used to spend whole summer holidays with my Grandmother in Deal. These were really special times for me growing up, I loved being in the countryside and I’m sure my father felt the same way as we moved out of London to Three Oaks in 1959. There was a farm across the road from us in Three Oaks and the rest is history! I was fascinated by work on the farm.
I used to help out with milking, they had sixteen dairy cows, before school, then I would help out in the holidays too, I started to get holiday work on local farms and when I finished school I went to Plumpton College. My real passion was dairy farming and my ambition was to manage one of the larger dairy herds in the UK. I originally joined Beech farm as a herdsman, at the time Beech Farm was a medium sized dairy farm with sixty to one hundred cows. I started work here on the 16th February 1970.
If we are talking about big changes affecting our countryside the last century has seen very rapid change and I’d say the biggest things affecting our countryside have been the improvement in communications, there are so many cars, people can live in the countryside and work in a town and I think people’s attitude to the countryside and farming has changed. Today people expect abundant, cheap food and to be able to buy any fruit or vegetable in any month of the year. This is a fairly recent market development. People in Britain also enjoy unprecedented access to the countryside and although I think generally this is a good thing it is yet another small pressure that farmers have to bear. This is a working landscape, I worry that increasingly people view the countryside as solely a place for recreation.
The major change on this estate was our decision to cease operating as a dairy business. We had seen milk quotas falling and falling and we were worried about the viability of the business. We considered hanging on in the hope that milk quota would increase but thirteen years ago a decision was made to wind up the dairy business. We looked at the business in the most objective way we could, as an assemblage of assets, products and services. Land, buildings, staff, equipment and the herd and we thought about what could make viable business in the future and what may not. At that time we employed thirteen people, today we employ one. When the dairy herd went obviously those people lost their jobs, although we did our best to ensure they were supported in moving to something else. The majority of those people left farming and I’d say most of them are better off now than they were when they worked for us here. The farm workers occupied the cottages on the estate, so when they left we rented out the cottages, the barns have been converted into offices and workshops which are let. We sell the herbage, the grazing rights to the fields and we either sell the timber as standing wood for local forestry businesses to harvest themselves or we use contractors to manage the wood for own needs.
With support from stewardship grants we have converted the all of our grazing land to biodiverse, species rich wildflower grassland and all of the land is certified organic. Because we sell the herbage, the rights to graze, rather then letting the land, we maintain control over how the land is managed. All of the land is in a Higher Level Stewardship agreement with some in ELS; this grant aid is essential in allowing us to manage the land with an emphasis on biodiversity, including the woodland.
Beech Farm is around 2,000 acres in size and the Brickhouse Estate is 1,100 acres. The land is typical Wealden clay and sandy loames. The character of the land is also typical High Weald, being mainly small pasture fields with around 1200 acres of forestry land at Beech Farm and 350 acres woodland at Brickhouse. The estate is relatively recent, the first land being purchased in 1947. Sir John bought a derelict farmhouse with 200 acres and renovated the farm as a home in the countryside. Sir John’s interest in the countryside developed further, especially his passion for forestry. The prinicipal purchase in the development of the Beech Farm Estate was the addition of the forestry land from the Ashburnham Estate, over the following years the farm land adjacent to the forestry acquisition was added to the estate in order to make a more complete land holding.
I am concerned about the lack of young people interested in following a farming career. All the people I know in farming are around my age, I think there is a real risk we will lose a generation of farmers, who will manage the countryside in ten or twenty years? Where will the knowledge, skill and experience come from?
That biodiversity equals food security, with unceratin times ahead, particularly related to climate change, it is essential that we have diversity in farming and land management. And it is impossible to enhance biodiversity without subsidy.