What a difference a year makes. For several years I have watched the progress of wine production, moving northwards from Europe as temperatures crept up and, although not a wine drinker, I have noticed how wine has steadily taken over as the tipple of choice among a great many previous ‘spirits and beer’ drinking friends.
English wine now appears increasingly well accepted. Three or four years ago I had tried to sound out opportunities among a couple of land agents and was met with a, somewhat, lack of enthusiasm. But at that time we still had the dairy herd on the farm. That changed in 2018. Deathra, with their inexcusably incoherent rules, spreading TB to the area, brought the whole situation to a head, forcing our hand and determined the fate of the herd.
Therefore, at the same time, back in late winter we again began to investigate vines seriously, but this time with the assistance of a man who believed in the future of the wine industry. First of all there were some quite high hurdles to overcome, mental and practical, to prepare for such a new venture.
The past eight months have now seen much change. The milking herd went away in May, as a group, to a new robotic dairy farm in Ballymena N.I.
Helped, in their successful transition back to robotic milking, by Emma, who also went over again in the Summer to oversee the herd and farm for the owners’ family holiday.
Another lorry load of in-calf and maiden heifers followed in midsummer and a third and final group, of yearling heifers, followed in mid-November. Their new owner had set his heart on getting the whole herd across since he first saw them. British Friesians were what he particularly wanted, but also these animals’ high milk quality and general excellent health status persuaded him, with a little help from me, to keep the bloodlines all together without the need to risk buying in any ‘outside’ animals, with different health problems.
What a relief to have got them away thus! The cost and paperwork of the pre movement testing nearly put us off, but in the end it all passed off without any hitches, and kept them together, which had always been our very top priority. So now some seven months on we are almost free of all cattle, free of the unreliable and soul destroying TB testing, with its ever present anxiety, and free of serious amounts of officialdom. It’s a whole unstoppable system, that continues to fail many thousands of other cattle farmers across the country. I do hope the ministry are satisfied with their performance, because very many farmers are not.
We are therefore now able to move on, free of stock, to a new cycle, a completely new type of farming on the hill farm, but without the responsibilities involved.
Because of its topography, the farm appeared to fit the requirements of vines perfectly. It is sunny, mainly south facing, just under 300ft above sea level, free draining light loam over deep chalk, and we soon had a number of interested parties inspecting it. I had long ago decided that selling the farm was out of the question while I draw breath, so turned down some potentially attractive overseas offers running into at least twice what I consider the place is worth. Most reassuring! The plan is that the vineyard will be our tenants, while my business retains ownership of the farm.
So, the result is that we are now, just under a year after taking the decision on the herd, looking forward to seeing the first vines being planted next Spring by a privately-owned East Sussex vineyard, looking to expand their operation westwards along the Downs. A big, exciting move, certainly something which was ‘way off my screen’ last Christmas. The vineyard will occupy just under half of the chalkland farm initially and around half the farm buildings. Then the plan is for almost the entire farm to be planted to vines within the next three or four years. As I have said before, when talking of the spruce forest up in Argyll; compared to cattle, trees don’t need feeding, and even more importantly, don’t get out at night!
Vines are in a similar ‘class’; so I am now looking forward to sleeping through the night beyond 3am, something which the concerns of TB had stopped me doing for the past two years. The vines too will be someone else’s responsibility. The schedule is to prepare the ground during this winter, set out the sites, plant windbreaks and have things ready to put the rootstock in as the days start to lengthen again next Spring.
Since she lives on the farm, Emma is quite keen to get involved and, while it may not give her quite the relationship she developed with cattle, it will likely be less stressful. There is much work needed. Grass cutting, weed control, hedges; spraying and pruning. Helping with future grape harvests, generally learning about viticulture. All the while perhaps acting as ‘on site security’ for the vineyard. If the idea comes to fruition it would give her an interesting life. And I think she enjoys the occasional glass of wine.
Only downside is that everyone will have to wait some five years before they can taste the reward of their work. But interesting times to look forward to?
So apart from the vines, within a few months all our remaining grassland will be down to arable cropping, maize or cereals. What will I do with myself! No problem!
Meanwhile, my Best Wishes to you all for a peaceful Christmas and a Healthy New Year.