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Farm­ing for the Prince of Wales

Being inter­viewed for a job by the Prince of Wales would set anyone’s nerves on edge – so when he asked David Wil­son whether he would be pre­pared to try some bio­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able farm­ing, Mr Wil­son did what any­one else would do – say yes and find out what it is lat­er.

Some 24 years lat­er it is safe to say he has grasped the con­cept and run with it. The High­grove estate is renowned for its envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly prac­tices, but it’s also very much a com­mer­cial enter­prise, with Mr Wil­son at the helm under the watch­ful eye of the Prince of Wales.

Prince Charles has always had a keen inter­est in farm­ing, explains Mr Wil­son. “He pur­chased High­grove in 1981, set­tled there and had a fam­i­ly; it became very much his own. He always had a pas­sion for agri­cul­ture and rur­al issues – he want­ed to farm in his own right.”

He always had a pas­sion for agri­cul­ture and rur­al issues – he want­ed to farm in his own right

David Wil­son

Broad­field, where Mr Wil­son now lives, was pur­chased and set up in 1985. “In the ear­ly days there was quite a lot of neg­a­tiv­i­ty around His Roy­al High­ness try­ing a new sys­tem of farm­ing but he said: ‘If the Duchy of Corn­wall can’t afford to try it then who can?’ He was deter­mined to do it. For me, com­ing from a con­ven­tion­al farm­ing back­ground, it was a bit of an eye open­er.”

 

David Wil­son man­ages the oper­a­tion of Prince Charles: The High­grove Estate. (Pho­to | Roy­al Press Office)

The bio­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able farm­ing sys­tem start­ed on a lit­tle block of long-term arable land, on which Mr Wil­son plant­ed some red clover and grass. “It grew much bet­ter than we expect­ed. As the years rolled on and our con­fi­dence grew, we ploughed some of these leys out and plant­ed some crops – we’ve learnt as we’ve gone along. We cer­tain­ly now have a sys­tem which will pro­duce food – maybe not as much as pos­si­ble so it’s far from per­fect, but it’s a poten­tial mod­el of sus­tain­abil­i­ty.” And sus­tain­abil­i­ty has to be the goal, he says. “It’s some­thing that wasn’t dis­cussed in the indus­try 30 years ago, we now realise it is the com­mon goal we have to aspire to.”

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty is some­thing that wasn’t dis­cussed in the indus­try 30 years ago, we now realise it is the com­mon goal we have to aspire to.

David Wil­son

The farm is owned by the Duchy of Corn­wall and farmed by the Prince of Wales, who, like any ten­ant, pays a rent to this land­lord – which also hap­pens to fall under his own title, says Mr Wil­son. “It’s a bit unique but the two busi­ness­es are total­ly sep­a­rate – it means we are farm­ing in a real­is­tic sit­u­a­tion.”

Rota­tions

The busi­ness runs two rota­tions, one of five years and one of sev­en years. “For the longer one we have three years of clover grass, then win­ter wheat, spring oats, either malt­ing bar­ley or spring beans, then rye at the end.”

The farm has 120ha of per­ma­nent grass­land, part of which is pas­ture for cat­tle for sum­mer use. (Pho­to | Ruth Wills)

Mr Wil­son has recog­nised a decline in wheat con­sump­tion in the UK, along­side an increase in demand for coarse grains like rye and oats because of their recog­nised health ben­e­fits, and he has there­fore adapt­ed crops accord­ing­ly. “We’re now grow­ing spelt, which genet­i­cal­ly is a very old type of wheat. All of the crops have their mar­kets before we’ve actu­al­ly plant­ed them.”

There is also a small-scale veg­etable oper­a­tion, which is inte­grat­ed with 1,000 apple trees, of 1,000 dif­fer­ent vari­eties as both an agro­forestry project as well as an impor­tant gene pool.

In addi­tion, the farm has 120ha of per­ma­nent pas­ture, much of which is park­land around the house at High­grove, with a few fields dot­ted around for live­stock graz­ing over the sum­mer – impor­tant for car­bon seques­tra­tion, says Mr Wil­son. “We do see per­ma­nent pas­ture as a valu­able resource, and the diver­si­ty of species is very impor­tant for ani­mal health.”

In our crop rota­tions we try to plant more diverse mix­tures to cope with the more extreme con­di­tions.

David Wil­son

He plans the grass mix­tures so each part has a spe­cif­ic pur­pose. “In our rota­tions we are try­ing to plant more diverse mix­tures, not just to feed the ani­mals but also to cope with the more extreme con­di­tions which farm­ers are start­ing to feel more acute­ly. We have sum­mers now that can get too hot for good grass and cere­al yields, and if it’s too wet exact­ly the same applies.”

Live­stock

As well as the arable oper­a­tion the farm pro­duces milk, beef and lamb. “We sell our milk through the Organ­ic Milk Sup­pli­ers’ Co-oper­a­tive (OMSCo) of which we were one of five founder mem­bers; a lot of it goes via Wait­rose as liq­uid milk under the Duchy brand,” says Mr Wil­son. “We sell beef and lamb through the organ­ic live­stock mar­ket­ing co-op but increas­ing­ly through more spe­cial­ist out­lets as we’re try­ing to devel­op more direct sales. We sell some of our grain to Ship­ton Mill and the oats go to Morn­ing Foods.”

Besides agri­cul­ture, the farm also pro­duces milk, beef and lamb. (Pho­to | Ruth Wills)

The farm doesn’t have any pigs at the moment, but it nor­mal­ly gets involved with whichev­er is the rarest pig at the time. “The Prince of Wales is a patron for the Rare Breeds Sur­vival Trust (RBST) and is keen we sup­port them.”

Genet­ic diver­si­ty is some­thing which is real­ly impor­tant in the quest for sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and is reflect­ed in the diver­si­ty of the farm. “We’ve lost 90% of our food genet­ics in 100 years and we are still los­ing plant DNA, and ani­mal breed­ing is increas­ing­ly con­trolled.”

There are 100 head of Aberdeen Angus, Glouces­ter and British White beef cat­tle on the farm. “We think we can pro­duce won­der­ful qual­i­ty beef from grass­land and for­age – all our beef is non-cere­al fed.”

Dairy

The dairy herd con­sists of 200 Ayr­shires and a few Short­horns. “When we first came here His Roy­al High­ness said he didn’t want anoth­er black and white herd so we went for Ayr­shires, and I think they have done us well on a low input sys­tem,” says Mr Wil­son. “In amongst the herd there are eight orig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion dairy Short­horns – they were part of a herd from a love­ly old Cor­nish farmer who just got too ill to look after them. The RBST want­ed some­one to look after them, and went to the Patron (Prince Charles).

“We bought them and it gave the dear old boy some mon­ey to help him in the last year or two of his life – they had been his life’s work. We’re breed­ing them pure to a dairy Short­horn bull that was rec­om­mend­ed by the RBST,” he adds. “I’m inter­est­ed in them from the point of view of breed­ing for extreme­ly low cost of milk pro­duc­tion from for­age.”

The sheep and beef are all pro­duced with­out con­cen­trate feed, and Mr Wil­son would like to get the dairy herd to do the same. “Last year pro­duc­tion was around 5,500 litres because of the extreme­ly dry weath­er, but nor­mal­ly we would be clos­er to 6,000 litres per year. We have also recent­ly installed a milk vend­ing machine for direct sales.”

Although the farm does use some antibi­otics from time to time, Mr Wil­son wants to reduce them and use alter­na­tive meth­ods. “We are allowed to use antibi­otics, but the focus is now on real­ly reduc­ing them; we don’t use dry cow ther­a­py, we use home­opa­thy and herbal prepa­ra­tions and are now try­ing to breed for mas­ti­tis resis­tance.”

Sheep

The busi­ness runs a flock of 350 ewes in a joint ven­ture with a young farmer, and the sheep are a real­ly impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the farm, giv­en the cycle of soil fer­til­i­ty and health. “The Hebrideans were one of the first rare breeds we kept – they are now off the rare breed list, but we have kept them and we think per­haps post-Brex­it we might have a mar­ket­ing edge with them. Their meat is very dif­fer­ent to nor­mal sheep meat, it is very lean and the hogget meat is absolute­ly sub­lime. Plus, they’re incred­i­bly easy to keep,” says Mr Wil­son.

Hebridean sheep are now off the rare breed list. (Pho­to | Roy­al Press Office)

So what’s it like work­ing for the Prince of Wales? “He’s a good man in every sense of the word – what peo­ple nev­er talk about is that so much of his work is for oth­er peo­ple. He wants the coun­try­side to thrive and be pros­per­ous, and he works with a lot of the inno­va­tion that can take us for­ward in the future. All the roy­als have a gen­uine under­stand­ing and pas­sion for the coun­try­side.”

Farm Facts

  • 770ha in total
  • 445ha rent­ed by the Prince of Wales from the Duchy of Corn­wall
  • Con­tract farm­ing 325ha