This article originally appeared in the summer 2018 edition of Telegraph magazine. Read it online now.
Fluffy white clouds drift across a brilliant blue sky, while swallows dart and chase over the lush green fields at Bowes Farms in south Norfolk, as we set up a photoshoot in the midst of lambing season. If ever there was an archetypal vision of an English idyll, this would be it.
Having owned the 4,500-acre farm since the 1970s, 74-year-old Kevin Bowes is at home in the landscape, taking the gambolling day-old lambs in his stride while we coo and set up the lights for the first round of photos.
“My family have been farmers for generations,” Kevin says. “It has always been a mix of arable and livestock, although we did have a meat business, which we sold to Cranswick in 2009.
“We run a mixed farm basically because we have very light land. Being a mixed farm helps improve the fertility of the soil in a natural way.”
With around 1,000 cattle and up to 5,000 sheep on the land in winter, there is a team of 14, including Farm Secretary, Manager and Foreman, on hand to keep the business running smoothly.
“We have wheat, winter barley, spring barley and sugar beet. We also have parsnips on the farm, carrots and potatoes. There’s also some maize grown for anaerobic digesters. I think that’s about it.”
As he walks through the fields, he explains that the last of the sugar beet has only just been planted in mid-May. The ideal planting time is early March, which could have a knock-on effect on Bowes Farms.
“Weather is one of our biggest challenges. This spring has put a hell of a lot of pressure on us – and I mean a lot of pressure – because it came very late. It’s been so wet that we won’t have the yields that we did last year.
“The Beast from the East was a nightmare for farmers. Just when you thought you were ready to go [and the bad weather was over], you’d get another 4-5mm of rain and it would be bad again. That’s farming though – you can never quite tell what the weather is going to do in this country.”
Weather is one of our biggest challenges…That’s farming though – you can never quite tell what the weather is going to do in this country.
Conversation naturally turns to other challenges faced by the UK farming industry and Kevin highlights the impact of current negotiations to leave the EU, which he hopes will have a positive outcome.
“I suppose my glass is nearly always half-full,” he muses. “We’re currently importing a lot of food into this country. As a result, Brexit should help [UK] farming. I hear the downsides, but it can’t all be bad, there has to be some upsides as well. We’ll see what happens – that’s all we can do.”
Of course it’s hard to avoid the ongoing headlines around supermarkets squeezing producers, looking to increase their own profit margins, while continuously seeking to lower their prices.
“We have a policy in this country of wanting to feed people cheaply. And we will import from anywhere in the world to achieve that and that’s mainly done by the supermarkets. They also try to squeeze where they can. They’re very efficient buyers.”
He points to the ASDA-Sainsbury’s merger, which was making headlines days before we speak, as having ramifications for UK producers.
“It’s a shock. They’ll be a huge company and their buying power is going to be even stronger. And they will have favourite suppliers and it’s a bit of a melting pot.
“People talk about the Aldis and the Lidls of this world and I welcome them. Knowing the industry, they are efficiently run; they source a lot locally and their way of buying is far more efficient than the big supermarkets. They have a model which is working really well.”
That said, Bowes Farms no longer deals with the big supermarket chains. Instead choosing to work almost exclusively with a local abattoir for their livestock.
“We’re all UK trade based. We do quite a lot with a local abattoir, Blakes, so we’re not running around all the country to sell our meat.”
We’re all UK trade based. We do quite a lot with a local abattoir, so we’re not running around all the country to sell our meat.
Supporting local issues
An active figure in the farming community, Kevin has been President of the Wayland Agricultural Society for a number of years. This voluntary organisation runs an annual one-day show, which has a long heritage in the town of Watton. Held in August, there’s shopping, food and drink, equestrian qualifiers and livestock showing.
When asked why he chose to get involved, he explains that it’s important for people to come along and learn more about where their food comes from.
He points to a nearby tractor and combine harvester in the yard and explains that he takes machinery along to the show to demonstrate the scale of the job and the costs involved.
“Take the combine harvester; that can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy and we only use it on one or two days of the year,” he explains. “What other industries do that? It gives people more idea of what’s involved and the costs of farming.”
Almost fortuitously, this is the moment he pauses to speak to Farm Foreman David Bales to discuss a part needed for a piece of machinery. It’s going to take a week to manufacture and cost around £1,000. He acknowledges the coincidence and explains that it’s a regular occurrence.
Kevin is also a council member for the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and is currently in the final year of his tenure.
“Members can ask us for advice, or if there should be more things happening to support the industry. Plus it raises awareness of farming with young people. It’s a support role. It’s very important.”
His involvement with both associations mean that he’s a familiar face at the Royal Norfolk Show – and last year took home an award for his conservation work.
“I was presented with the Grey Partridge Award,” he states. “We don’t have a great number of grey partridges in East Anglia, but we do have them and it’s important that we do all that we can to conserve them. We are growing all sorts of crops and running stewardship schemes for them. This includes headlands and wild bird special mixes, which we’re planting for them.
I was presented with the Grey Partridge Award. We don’t have a great number of grey partridges in East Anglia so it’s important that we do all that we can to conserve them.
“Why are the numbers declining? I think because 50 years ago our crops weren’t as dense as they are now.
“We also have predators, which don’t help. And when I say predators, you can bring man into that. I bring man into it is because how many insects do cars kill each day? Grey partridges lay a tiny little eggs and the conditions have to be absolutely spot on for them to survive, because they need high-protein insects from day one. You need sunshine for ten days because they hatch between the 10 and 20th of June, and it’s a vital time. That’s when you really need the conditions to be spot on.”
And that’s not the first award that he’s been given for conservation; he is rightly proud of the fact that he was joint winner of a bronze Purdey Award for Game and Conservation in 2014. The national awards recognises those that have made a positive impact in the world of shooting.
“Being a shooting man makes you respect wildlife. No hunter kills all his prey,” Kevin adds.
Safe and sound
With so many different facets to the business, there’s lots to manage and insure.
“We’ve been with Alan Boswell Group for insurance since 2011. Zoe [Kerswill] came out to see us to arrange cover. We have had a couple of claims but we’ve been pleased with how they’ve been handled.”
With so much heavy equipment, livestock and buildings, as well as people, on site, health and safety is also significant consideration for Bowes Farms. This recently led to Alan Boswell Risk Management providing support on rebuilding surveys and plans, as well as health and safety audits.
“We’ve had health and safety and engineering inspection support [from Alan Boswell Risk Management]. You have to do that today because of the legislation. [Farm Foreman] David Bales looks after health and safety. We try and keep up to date as far as we can, but it’s like a moving target. We take advice and do what we can.”