We speak to downland farmer Annie Brown

11 October 2021 | Posted in Emma Chaplin
We speak to downland farmer Annie Brown
Annie Brown © Emma Chaplin

Annie Brown runs a mixed family farm comprising two sites, Lower Paythorne and Perching Manor, in the South Downs National Park in West Sussex. A scarp slope of the South Downs splits the farm in two. The land on the hill is chalk, while the land on the weald is largely heavy gault clay.

Annie won the ‘Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group National Silver Lapwing Award’ in 2015. This is an award for farmers who have demonstrated a real commitment to species and habitat conservation while integrating their environmental management with their overall farm business. 

Annie’s family have farmed land on the South Downs since the 1920s, when her grandfather Henry, like many farmers at the time, came from the West Country, to run a dairy farm within a short enough distance to London to make transporting milk by train feasible. His tenancy was with the Crown. Four of his six children went into farming, including her father, who ended up running it on his own.

“He was an arable farmer, he used lots of big machinery to grow cereals. We never had a summer holiday, we were always harvesting.

European farming policy of the time led to grain and butter mountains etc, so this was changed and market price came into play, which meant his profitability fell. In the 1980s a new policy of offering grants for Environmentally Sensitive Areas began. The land on the Downs was transformed in one season from all arable to all grass. There was pretty much one grass mix used which wasn’t interesting or diverse – over the years to come it was dubbed ‘green concrete’.“

Annie had studied agriculture at Reading University, so when her father died in 2007, without a succession plan, Annie, who was then in her 40s, her mother Joyce and her sister Pauline took over the running of the farm, with help from Ron, who had worked for her father and knew the farm incredibly well.

“He wasn’t sure about working for a woman, initially, but it worked out. He still works for us”.

Annie had a meeting with Natural England and Anthony Weston of CLM and an Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out. She found a new and enthusiastic young farm manager, built him a house, and the farm signed up to a bold new Higher Level stewardship scheme, which involved ploughing up some less diverse downland pasture in order to create a ‘mosaic’ of fields. Today the farm is a patchwork of permanent pasture, and arable fields with options including fallow plots, wild bird seed mixes, low input cereals, fodder crops, beetle banks, corners and margins.

Corn Bunting © Nicholas Watts

Bird feed is also put out during the ‘hungry gap’ in late winter, and overwintering stubble provides additional habitat. The farm has subsequently seen the return of several species, including corn bunting, lapwing and hare.

They then set about establishing a suckler herd from scratch and employed a stockman, married to Annie’s niece.

Now what Annie and team is doing is a mixture of grazing and arable. “A really good argument for producing food and making space for nature - farmers have a key role to play in delivering the renaturing objectives of our countryside”.

“I don’t live on site or get involved with the day to day activities - I have a team I rely on. We provide commodities. Our grain, biscuit wheat, goes to a mill. Our barley goes to make beer. We produce beef, have a small herd of goats for conservation grazing on the steep SSSI land, and we have keep sheep.

"We’re aiming for diversification where we can. We’ve invested heavily in a new venture “Foot of the Downs”, two bespoke glamping pods and shepherds’ huts which is being managed by our farm managers wife; and we are letting part of a barn at Truleigh Hill to a new venture, Cadence Cycle Hub.

"It’s hard work for everyone. There’s never a day you can shut the door. I’m comfortable that we’re a mixed farm, it’s a balanced and sympathetic way to manage this land, for food and for nature. But farming is policy driven, always has been, and we have some huge challenges ahead as support mechanisms change, and the focus shifts to being paid for public goods – soil, air, water, biodiversity. Our farm is in as good a place as any to do this, but the old adage farmers in the red cannot be green is very true. We need to make a profit to do the right thing. I’m 61. If I plant trees, I’m making decisions for the next generation. And the truth is, we have little flexibility about what we can do within our current stewardship scheme.”

What would her father make of the farm now? "I never knew Grandad, he died the year I was born, but I’m happy that Dad would be proud of what we’ve achieved. He would get it."

I ask her what her thoughts are about farming at the moment.

"This country needs to aim for more food self-sufficiency. And to educate consumers to eat seasonably. We’ve lost those connections between consumers and farmers who make a living off the land. Farming need to be economically sustainable… and we have not yet told the story of what we’re doing as custodians of this fabulous landscape in the National Park."

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