Start date: 2nd July 2018
End date: 3rd July 2018
Venue: Bowood Estate - Wiltshire
The Master's Summer Outing to Wiltshire
Day One - Bowood House
The 2018 Masters Outing visit was blessed with the most wonderful weather. And our arrival on the Master's local patch saw the Wiltshire countryside looking magnificent despite the fact that it took place in the middle of a most un-English heatwave.
Bowood, which is situated close to the village of Derry Hill, Wiltshire, is the family home of the 9th Marquis of Lansdowne and has been in the Lansdowne family for over 250 years. Set in one of Capability Brown's most spectacular landscapes, it is all that remains of a far larger house that had its origins in the 1770s and went through a series of modifications and extensions, before falling into disrepair and finally demolition in the 1950s. What is left is called the Little House - though it is far from inconsequential or small.
The estate now boasts a golf course, spa and hotel as well as extensive grounds with a children's adventure park and a large area that regular hosts events such as an annual game fair.
On arrival at the hotel we were greeted by the Marquis himself who gave a very amusing potted history of the house and his family. And went on to describe the struggle that is on-going to keep this magnificent estate financially stable and even perhaps one day profitable. A struggle that has led the Marquis to seek out every possible source of revenue and in the process to all but ditch farming as an in-hand activity as it simply didn't pay.
It was clear from the outset that the Master and Clerk had put many hard hours into the planning and preparation for our visit. The agenda was a packed one that allowed, just a little too little time at any of the venues to do them complete justice but provided a wonderful overview of the way this challenging estate is being managed and developed to extend its life and to increase its relevance in today's hard headed business environment.
After a carefully choreographed, albeit hectic, afternoon, involving a tour of the gardens, the house and the grounds we had a short rest period before cocktails on the hotel terrace and dinner in one of the hotel's conference facilities. With over 70 guests and the sun continuing to shine, we drank champagne over-looking Capability Brown's fabulous lake and landscape - a real pleasure and a treat not to be quickly forgotten.
It wasn't all high-jinks and pleasure however. The Master's guest speaker was Jonathan Gill a researcher at Harper Adams and his talk on the now famous handsfree hectare project he has master-minded was both fascinating and challenging. Whilst the genuinely autonomous farm might be some way away, it was clear from his talk that the technology exists to make it a reality. His enthusiasm was infectious and I am sure many of the audience went away as I did determined to take the possibility of a more automated future much more seriously.
Day Two - East Wick Farm courtesy of Richard, Sue, David and Katherine Butler
It was an early start on Tuesday with coaches scheduled to depart at 8.45am. The journey through the beautiful and historic landscape of Wiltshire, passing Marlborough and its famous school and abundant examples of pre-historic occupation, was made particularly interesting through the commentary of Liveryman Robert Cooper who combined evident passion for the area with knowledge and humour.
We were welcomed at the Butlers family farm with tea and a series of interesting presentations. Firstly from Richard Butler who talked about the development of the farm and the farm business in general.
The farm, he told us, is an approximately 1,800 acre mixed unit, with a substantial, 300 head, dairy herd,1000 acres of arable cropping and a separate and very busy contracting business called E W Contracting. It was clear from the moment we arrived that the farm is a carefully managed and serious enterprise. With Waitrose as a major customer and commitments to a number of important conservation projects the family blend in, it seems, an almost seamless way, the hard headed business rigour needed to make profits in today's agricultural market place with genuine concern for their local population, environment and the very special landscape they say they feel privileged to farm.
Richard's son, David, took over the commentary at this stage and talked about the machinery management policy on the farm, stressing the need to be completely on top of machinery spend if profits are to be maintained.
Our final speaker before getting out onto the farm was from Dr Julian Little, Head of Communications and Public Affairs at Bayer. Once again we were treated to an interesting thought provoking talk. The general thrust of which was, that in the chaos that is BREXIT the Government has to respond rationally rather than emotionally to the challenges of feeding the population at a reasonable price. And listening too closely or only to the strident and well orchestrated voices special interest groups will not create the right context for the debate we need to have about the future of agriculture in the UK.
The Farm Tour
With time a little tighter than any of us would have liked we tried to fit in a number of different and all fascinating stops. The new cattle sheds and milking parlour. The cattle themselves, looking what they should - milk producing athletes. Then the new recovery shed, that allows the returners the chance of a gradual re-integration into the herd after each lactation.
Then finally on the way back towards Bowood a chance to absorb the wonderfully scenery of one of the last remaining chalk downloads in the UK.