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Growing a sustainable business: The move to Miscanthus, conservation and glamping

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Preserving natural capital and reducing agricultural impact on the environment is high priority for Norfolk farmer, Andrew Thornton, who has completely transformed his farm business in two years, from intensive cropping, including veg, maize and sugar beet, to Miscanthus growing, conservation and a glamping diversification enterprise.

In 2018 Andrew reached a turning point when his Higher-Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme finished. He was also experiencing disease problems on the vegetable crops grown and he had an acute awareness that his soils were deteriorating. “It was time to give the soil a rest,” says Andrew.

Andrew took things into his own hands amidst uncertainty over future farm subsidies.

“We decided to radically review our farm business, in order to survive before the arrival of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme in 2024,” explains Andrew. “But aside from planning for the absence of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), ultimately we wanted to reduce our impact on the environment and become more sustainable.”

“In 2017, we sold our machinery in a drive to reduce fixed costs, we put 202 hectares of land into organic conversion, mostly growing grass and flowers and some in fallow, and we invested in a herd of Belted Galloway beef cattle.

“Then in 2019, we planted 23 hectares of Terravesta AthenaTM Miscanthus, on contract to Terravesta. It fits in with what we are doing, and has helped to drive down fixed costs even further on the farm,” says Andrew.

“Planting and establishment was straightforward, the crop is looking fantastic, it will give us a long term guaranteed income and it will capture carbon.

“It’s our hope that in future there may be more opportunities in carbon trading. In farming, we are aiming for Net Zero, but we may also be offsetting emissions from other sectors who want to improve their green image,” says Andrew.

Andrew explains that the initial outlay for Miscanthus is high, but it’s a long-term investment. “The cost of growing Miscanthus is a lot less than other crops, it’s low risk and requires minimal inputs after establishment, it’s also much more resilient to weather than traditional crops.

“The decision to plant Miscanthus is about future-proofing the farm business, and it’s a crop which is profitable regardless of subsidy.”

Also in 2019, Andrew launched a glamping business called Wild With Nature and although it took a hit with Coronavirus lockdown, they’re now fully booked for the next three months.

“Food should be grown in areas of the country which have the potential to produce efficiently in comparison to growing on marginal land like my own, and areas of conservation should complement this,” adds Andrew.

Farm facts

Location: Attleborough, Norfolk

Farm type: Mixed farm with Miscanthus and glamping diversification, and land in organic conversion under stewardship

Farm size: 310 hectares

Miscanthus planted area: 23 hectares

Conservation planted area: 202 hectares