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Interview: Tom Raynham talks with Land and Farming about inheriting and modernising an estate
For the younger generation inheriting or taking over a historic house or farm (or possibly both), the question of how to adapt the estate for the needs of the 21st century poses a unique set of challenges.
Today’s young inheritors often face a dilemma: the estate may be asset-rich but cash-poor. So what is the best solution to balance the desire to hold onto an inheritance that may have been passed down over generations, versus the need to adapt to a modern and post-Brexit world?
Tom Raynham used to be chair of the Historic Houses Association’s next generation group, which seeks to answer some of the concerns its young members have, to find solutions and to develop a way forward. Having left a career with Knight Frank in London he is now CEO of an estate and farm near Fakenham, Norfolk.
“I want to make sure we don’t rely on one or two sources of revenue,” said Tom. “Historically, we focused entirely on arable and poultry farming. The business wasn’t diversified enough.”
Tom’s farm is now a diverse business. The crops grown include wheat, barley, oil seed rape, beans and sugar beet. There is also a chicken farm, an Aberdeen Angus suckling cow herd, as well as a solar farm, an anaerobic digester, houses let out to locals, and a five-acre walled garden used for events. Plans are also afoot to partner with other businesses to make better use of the farm’s historic buildings and stables – for example by partnering with a farm shop, a restaurant or a hotel – as well as potentially building log cabins for holiday visitors.
“I’m bringing a more modern take on farming,” said Tom. “The first challenge after 15 years away from the estate was working out the role of a traditional country estate in modern times.”
His approach involves using new technologies and techniques such as precision farming, using GPS connection in tractors to allow variable rate application of sprays and fertilisers having mapped out the farm with satellite imagery. This monitors the variations in soil quality (one part of a field may need more fertiliser than another).
But perhaps the most impressive example of modern technology is the big investment that Tom made installing an Anaerobic Digester (AD) plant, which he uses to produce gas directly into the mains supply. The feed material is all sourced from the farm and is fed into the AD plant, where it is broken down to produce methane, which is in turn fed into the gas mains. Meanwhile, the by-product of the process, digestate, is used as fertiliser – which allows the farm to reduce its reliance on environmentally damaging chemical fertilisers.
“I’m very keen that the different parts of my business complement each other”, said Tom. “For example, we add value to the stock we produce by placing them under our brand to sell to local markets, restaurants and then through the different outlets that we aim to have on the estate.”
Tom’s estate also rents out an old airfield to a company that has installed a solar farm over 225 acres – one of the largest in the UK – which produces enough electricity to power 12,000 homes.
Broadband access has been another area of focus for Tom, who recently spent the best part of a year battling with BT Openreach to get broadband installed. In the end, he turned to a private company, Air Broadband and got them to lay a private cable to get fibre-optic broadband to the farm. Tom believes broadband is a priority for the next generation of landowners, and says the government could be doing more to improve access to high-speed internet connectivity in rural areas.
“There are third world countries with better broadband and phone signal than the UK” said Tom. “That is partly because their governments helped to drive private and foreign investment into the sector, they also do not have a monopoly that we have seen with BT Openreach.”
One of the most notable things about Tom’s estate is the positive approach he uses to find solutions. For example, the farm is located near Fakenham in Norfolk, with the main arterial road to the coast, the A1065 road, running through the middle of it.
“Nearly two million vehicles pass along that road each year,” said Tom. “We have great buildings and a fantastic location, but we are not currently in a position to renovate these buildings ourselves. What we’re focusing on now is attracting businesses that will benefit from our location as we are at the gateway to the coast. We are aiming to partner with operators of farm shops, cafés and retail outlets to give these buildings a new lease of life.”