We visit Kingsclere Estates in North Hampshire to meet Regenerative Farmer Tim May, to learn more about his sustainable model of share farming and land management.
Tim is the fourth generation to farm at the family owned 2,500 acre estate located in the Hampshire downs, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Basingstoke. His great grandfather, a solicitor in London, purchased 250 acres of sporting land for hunting. His grandfather increased the farm to around 1,500 acres and Tim’s dad has since added another 1,000 acres of land.
Interestingly, due to the legal background, the farm has always been run as a company, with a board of directors and quarterly meetings.
“The company owns no land at all – it’s all under a continuous tenancy,” explained Tim.
“That means my family can borrow against the value of the land and if a project were to go wrong the bank could only ever take hold of tenanted land. So the tenure of what we do as a farming business is completely separate,” he continued.
Growing up on the conventional mixed farm, there was a lot of livestock; a commercial herd of 500 milkers and a large indoor pig unit and arable operation. There were also a lot of people; the estate employed around 28 staff, with a small team in the office.
Then in 1998 the family got out of pigs, which were losing around £200,000 a year in net worth. The dairy was also in dire need of investment, and faced with the prospect of an injection of £250,000 it was decided to sell the cows. By 2002 the last of the dairy cows were sold and the redundant farm buildings repurposed as commercial lets, at which point they moved to 100% arable cropping.
Growing up, Tim always knew he wanted to farm. He attended Brymore school down in Somerset, one of the only state schools that has its own farm.
“I used to go and milk cows and feed the pigs in the morning and then go in the workshop in the afternoon. I got a GCSE in Agriculture,” he said.
At 18, he spent ten months working on farms in New Zealand and Australia and then did the 2,000 mile harvest in North America, returning home in 2004 with a global perspective on agriculture.
Having gained a degree at Harper Adams, he returned to the farm to run the arable operation. “We were going through a down time and I felt the farm needed an injection of youth,” he said.
Tim admits it wasn’t an exciting time, with wheat and oilseed rape prices on the floor. All the land was farmed conventionally on a broad-acre basis – one drill and one combine across 2,500 acres using all the latest GPS technology.
“We bought our first direct drill in 1996, mainly down to the mechanical costs of the aggressive flinty loam soils,” he said.
The focus was on reducing the cost of getting seed in the ground. The whole concept of soil health was a bit limited at that time, he added.
“When I came back I took on a different agronomist who understood the soil health side of things a bit better,” he said.
Tim continued to use the same methods but saw little improvement in yields year on year, in spite of growing expenditure on increasingly sophisticated inputs and technology. He began to realise that the soil was becoming lifeless and lacking organic matter.
Nuffield Scholarship and a change in direction
Then in 2011/12 he embarked on a Nuffield Scholarship, travelling to Brazil, North America and Africa over a six-week period. He spent time reading while on the road, becoming interested in sustainability and the circular economy.
During this time it became clear to him that it wasn’t the soil that was worn out, but the economic model of farming.
In North America Tim visited YouTube sensation Joel Salatin at Polyface farm in Virginia. The farm is driven using unconventional methods, with the goal of “emotionally, economically and environmentally enhancing agriculture”. Joel, one of the leading practitioners of regenerative farming, had a profound influence on him. He was captivated by his enterprise stacking, mobile infrastructure and direct sales farming model. Interestingly, Tim pointed out, many of his mixed farming ideas come from the seminal fifties book Farming Ladder by Cotswold farmer George Henderson.
Two of his fellow Nuffield year scholars, Tom Chapman and Rob Richmond, wrote their reports on mob grazing and soil carbon, both helping shape Tim’s new vision.
“When I married the two of those it was pretty obvious I could get the grass and fertility building phase back into our rotation. We should be able to reduce our inputs and increase our yield,” he said.
Tim wrote his final Nuffield paper entitled “Understanding and implementing sustainability”.
I asked what some of his key findings were from his paper? He explained that sustainability is often broken down in terms of people, planet and profit, also referred to as the triple bottom line.
“Some of the better farms I visited were proud of what they were doing and why they were doing it – getting away from commodity agriculture and producing a quality product,” said Tim.
“It’s also about forming cyclical relationships with people; the tag line in our business is growing potential,” he continued.
In his own farming context Tim believes that profit is vital, as you need a surplus of time and energy to do the innovation and changes needed to become more sustainable.
Another concept integral to Tim’s vision is the circular economy, an economic model whose objective is to produce goods and services in a sustainable way by limiting the consumption and waste of resources (raw materials, water, energy) as well as the production of waste.
Tim has seen first-hand the outcome of commodity farming; the economic, social and environmental costs. That’s why he wants Kingsclere to become a circular community farm estate.
Farming partners not employees “One of my big ambitions is to have fewer staff and more partners. We now have very few employees and use contractors to do all our arable work,” he said.
Tim is actively looking for new partners who want to be part of his exciting journey. He is looking for bright, entrepreneurial candidates. No previous farming experience is necessary. He lists some of the opportunities open to partners; established raw material growers, start-up farmers, food producers, drinks manufacturers, compost innovators, farm shop owners, veg box scheme creators, field restauranteurs, textile producers, glamping enthusiasts, the list goes on and on.
Tim wants to hear from you. He already has several partners in place, running sheep, dairy, chicken and other enterprises on the estate.
“We’d like to introduce outdoor organic pigs and are looking for a partner to help us get this enterprise off the ground,” he added.
He is passionate about his farming partnership model, as it allows him to be less of a manager, freeing up headspace to get on and think about the next project and drive more stacked enterprises on the farm.
Tim returned from his Nuffield trip with a clear vision to radically regenerate his soils and do everything in his power to increase biodiversity on the estate for future generations.
He began to implement changes in 2012, switching to grass and a mixed rotational farming system. To help build a strong business case, he undertook a five-year cashflow which yielded substantial savings through a large reduction in inputs. With the funds, he purchased a new tractor, planted 480 hectares of herb rich leys and went out and bought his first livestock. He has since converted nearly all the land to organic, with the final block of land going into conversion next year.
Sheep were an obvious route, due to their low cost. Tim bought 1,500 low input breeding ewes from a retiring shepherd, hiring him to look after them and lamb them down in May.
Later he found a young shepherd, James, who he hired. He has since become a partner and now owns his own flock of 1,000 easy care self shedding sheep at Kingsclere, paying Tim for the grazing. This year he will be lambing in March, with all the lambs fattened on 100% herb rich pasture.
Tim’s next venture was dairy. He partnered with Oliver Chedgey to set up a mobile milking parlour in 2017. I’d only ever seen a mobile milking parlour once before – a prototype milking bale capable of milking two cows. This parlour is in a different league, capable of milking 20 cows a side, which translates to 120 cows per hour.
It is also completely mobile and is moved every couple of days, ensuring the cows are milked on location. This means they don’t have the stress of walking between the pasture and the parlour, which can lead to lameness, while spreading the fertility benefits of a dairy farm across the whole land area. They are milked once a day between 7am and 11am – more in keeping with their (and our human) natural rhythms, explained Tim.
Kingsclere operates a shared farming agreement with Olly, meaning the estate owns half of the 450-strong herd and puts in the food from the land. Olly owns the other half of the cows and all the machinery and puts in all the time. They then both take a share of the milk price according to what’s been put in.
The Pasture Raised Egg Company
Ben Reynaldo runs the Pasture Raised Egg Company at Kingsclere. He came to the estate as a start-up, with no prior experience of farming. Tim offered him a mentoring service, examining the best way to make the business viable.
Starting with 25 hens, and now running a 600-strong flock, Ben and his hens follow the cattle around with the mobile egg-laying units. The chickens peck at the cow dung, feeding on the insects found within it. This means they need fewer protein supplements in their diet.
Kingsclere has shared the capital costs, installing an egg vending machine at Folly Farm and investing in the mobile shed units, while Ben has bought half the flock and other items needed to set it up. They share running costs and share income from the sale of the eggs.
Niche arable crops
Tim is starting to see the benefits of his four-year fertility building grass leys, with some promising yields achieved over the past couple of years on niche arable crops such as quinoa and organic linseed.
In addition to the more traditional farming enterprises, Kingsclere Estates is also home to a number of commercial businesses, housed mainly in a collection of farm buildings that were used for the dairy and pigs back in the 1990s.
Tim’s wife Sharon runs her counselling service from Folly Farm. He also runs a green burial business on the estate.
In the future Tim would like to create an innovation hub at Kingsclere to help develop more fledgling partners; providing a corner of a field or barn, along with mentoring and business support to get the idea off the ground.
“We’re going to get value from learning from their mistakes or successes and see if it’s a business we invest in when they get to that growth phase,” said Tim.
Tim believes that the next logical step for veganism will be regenerativism, as the people that are really ‘woke’ about being vegan start to embrace regenerative agriculture.
“It’s important we don’t fight the vegans too much; we need to celebrate them and thank them for looking at the food system,” he said
Tim is quite positive about the impact of Covid-19, believing that it has helped increase interest in where food comes from.
He is also hopeful that in a year or two the agricultural sector will start to see a larger pool of talent looking to set up land-based businesses.
The phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme
I asked Tim what he thought about the phasing out of BPS.
“I will miss the no-strings attached money,” he replied. Money that has enabled Tim to implement many of the regenerative farming changes he has made since returning from his Nuffield.
However, he feels reassured that their tenancy rent agreement is linked to profit, so future reductions in BPS will be offset by smaller rents.
He also said they would be exploring opportunities to work with their local water company to reduce nitrate levels using cover crops and companion crops as well as investigating markets for less nitrogen-intensive crops. He is also exploring the use of virtual fencing to enable variable rate grazing.
On the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS)
Tim worries about the possible prescriptive nature of ELMS.
“I can’t really embrace it as I’m trying to change things all the time,” he said. He cites the Countryside Stewardship option EK21 for herbal leys, which is incompatible with his system of holistic grazing.
The future of the estate
Tim is well on his way to creating a regenerative community farm estate at Kingsclere. He has a clear vision of where he is going and what he wants to achieve. With so much uncertainty surrounding farming, chatting to Tim is a breath of fresh air. He’s excited about the future and, as his corporate tag line says, ‘growing potential’.
You can find out more about regenerative farmer Tim May on his website Kingsclere Estates.
Interested in finding out about other regenerative farmers? Check out our feature on mob graziers Sam and Becky Newington here.
A version of this article originally appeared in the January print edition of South East Farmer magazine