Skylark Land & Homes LTD
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Sadly traditional farming may not always be profitable. We had a chat with Tim May, Managing Director at Kingsclere Estate, whose vision at Kingsclere is to regenerate the estate for a fertile future by encouraging the growth of a circular community of growers, farmers and local businesses.
Hi Tim! Tell us a bit about you.
I am the 4th generation to farm here at Kingsclere Estates Ltd. The first bit of land was bought by my great grandfather when he wanted to have some where for hunting when he was away from his office in London. He ran a solicitor’s firm in London which dealt with mainly corporate interests. This influence has stemmed through to the current day where the company is still run in a corporate way with regular board meetings being a good example. The business is not really run as a family farm, we have a formal office and formal roles within the company, and I took over as Managing Director in 2011 at the age of 31.
Give us a brief description about your business.
Kingsclere Estates consists of farmland, woodland, residential properties, commercial properties, and a green burial site. On the farmland we run an organic system based around 4 years of multi-species pasture followed by 4 years of cropping. This is a transition from when I first arrived back to the farm when it was run as a broad acre cropping enterprise.
We farm 2500 acres regeneratively and organically, applying a holistic approach. We are currently growing organic quinoa, organic linseed, organic gluten-free oats and heritage wheats / grain varieties and have 480 New Zealand Frisian Jersey crossbreed dairy cows and a mobile milking parlour, which is followed by egg laying chickens (1200 hens housed in 4 mobile units), with us managing cows and hens on the grassland. Half of the eggs are sold through a vending machine on the estate, the rest goes to organic wholesalers. The dairy and egg enterprises are run as shared-farm partnerships.
Every year some grass goes into crop land and vice versa so we always have that rotation going on. I am only interested in growing high value crops (growing feed does not make sense to me) and my decisions on what to grow are influenced by considering the companies and processors I sell to my partners, which can mean introducing a crop such as linseed or quinoa which I wouldn’t have considered on its own.
How is Kingsclere run?
At Kingsclere we have a vision to regenerate the estate for a fertile future, by encouraging the growth of a circular community... Whether rotating cattle and grass to re-fertilise topsoil, planting and rotating herbal leys to keep our soils nutrient-dense, or bringing more sustainable businesses onto the land to feed into each other, it’s a holistic approach that's responsive to the local particularities of the land.
This is deeply rooted in the idea of daring to grow differently – to grow potential. It may not involve growing in size or in reach, but instead focusing on improving the estate’s health and wellbeing, increasing the quality of our produce and reconnecting with the people on our doorstep. We believe this is not only good for business, but better for everyone.
Tell us a bit more about your Circular Community..
Ben Reynaldo, a carpenter who wanted to get into farming, built a mobile hen house and kept 50 laying hens on pasture that had been grazed by cattle. He has now become one of my business partners. The chicken flock has grown to 1,200 hens which are housed in four mobile units so can be moved from one part of the farm to the other quickly. We are slowly expanding where we can and trying to get a premium for the good product that is being produced from this system. Profit from the eggs is shared in accordance with the share-farm agreement. With the units being mobile, Ben can grow his business beyond Kingsclere by co-operating with other farmers in the area who may also want to ‘host’ a flock of hens. It is done on a shared farming basis - profits and sales are all split.
Farm partner Oliver Chedgey runs the dairy cows and the 20-a-side mobile milking parlour with the running costs split between us. Oliver owns the machinery and puts in labour; I provide the food and the land. We share the actual cows and running costs. The income from milk and surplus cow sales are split accordingly. We started in 2018 with 180 in-calf heifers and the herd has grown every year since - we currently have 450 cows. We have gone back to traditional breeds - their health is very high. Our milk yield is about 3,500 litres per year per cow. Having a mobile parlour means that we have cow muck in the field where we want it to be - with no extra cost to spreading it back on the land. It is a cost-efficient system.
These two businesses are mutually beneficial to each other, and a good example of our circular community in action. The dairy herd grazes the land on rotation, and the animals are milked on location. This ensures they’re not under stress from walking to and from the pasture to the parlour and they aren’t standing on concrete for hours a day. The block grazing is having a visible effect on soil fertility too.
The flock of hens then follows behind the dairy herd. The chickens peck at the cow dung, feeding on the insects found within – just as nature intended – which means they need fewer protein supplements in their diet. Their pecking also exposes any bugs to sunlight that kills off any unwanted bacteria, regenerating the soil’s health and fertility – so we can grow fully organic quinoa, oats and linseed once they’ve moved on.
We’ve re-introduced livestock to our land, and we keep it moving. By spreading cow and sheep dung over our fields, we return nutrients and carbon from the pasture to the topsoil. Managing grazing means green leaves and roots can flourish. And, by planting multi-species plant covers between crops, and adopting direct drilling rather than tillage, no field is left bare. This increases diversity, promotes active root growth, and reduces soil erosion. Diverse plant communities support diverse microbial communities that can transform and store more carbon.
To become a circular community, we’re moving away from traditional employer-employee relationships and supplier-tenant contracts. We want people working with us on the estate to take ownership of their ideas. If we’re all as invested in the land as each other, we can create closed-loop local systems that minimise waste in clever ways. Whether it’s local chefs keeping our produce in demand or a sustainable firewood venture that keeps our woodland managed – it’s all about linking up what we can give and what we can take, to the benefit of the whole community.
We’re out to make the most of the estate’s opportunities for abundance. With a growing team of partners on site, we can shift from selling commodities to distant, invisible consumers; to selling products that are made and sold right here – from sun to soil to table.
Circular thinking acknowledges all our systems are connected. How we work our land here at Kingsclere directly affects the wellbeing of the people living on and around it – both now, and in the future.
As a mixed farm looking for more partners, we’re building a community working towards a different kind of growth, where success is measured not only in profit margins, but in resilience and our ability to repurpose resources. We’re growing a community that feeds itself.
Has it all been plain sailing?
Having nearly reached a burn out point and finally recognising I couldn’t do it all myself I undertook counselling to be able to learn to proactively manage mental health and wellbeing and to be able to recognise symptoms and put in place coping strategies much earlier.
What do you find most difficult?
Marketing new food products - have a brainwave of a product and can produce it but how do you get the value back from all the work that has been put in by connecting that product with the correct following or consumer.
How has your business shifted over time?
I took over the management of the family farm (when it was just arable) in 2004 when I was 24. Back in the 1990s, the farm mainly ran an arable operation but also had a dairy and a pig operation. The animals were housed, and while the straw from the arable land was used for bedding, the manure could only be spread on a few fields near the barns. Soil fertility was constantly depleted on the rest of the land (not made any easier by trying to grow crops on the chalky loam of hills with many fields almost covered with flint). With the low milk price in 1997 and with new animal welfare regulations, the farm was losing money rapidly. It became clear that a very different approach was needed, and reducing financial risks became the main goal.
After completing a Nuffield Scholarship in 2013, I was inspired to deploy an abundance mentality rather than the old reductionist mindset and came across the ideas of holistic management and enterprise stacking - aiming to get the same bit of land to run more than one enterprise, and that’s where productivity gain can come from. After learning how to handle cattle, I entered into a share-farm agreement in 2017 which saw dairy cattle return to the farm. As soon as we reintroduced livestock, we were able to start building soil health and reduce our weed burden.
Our gradual organic conversion has been built on the back of deploying a regenerative agriculture approach. We adopted a direct drilling system on the farm, with the assistance of minimal tillage, when necessary, in an attempt to maintain ground cover, build soil structure and diversity whilst reducing costs. We used global positioning systems and the latest aerial imagery to create detailed maps, enabling us to pinpoint areas where site specific management is required - for example, increasing sowing density or improving the organic matter within the soil. This allowed us to enhance the natural potential of the land for the future whilst helping to minimise our reliance on chemical inputs.
Whilst the farm business is important to us, we also recognise our role as stewards of the countryside. We aim to maintain the land through our management practices, improving and growing the potential of our beautiful landscape, and the wildlife that thrives here.
The decision to convert Kingsclere to organic was driven by the consistently higher price for organic milk and dairy products. In 2017, I decided on a phased conversion, one eighth of the land at a time - which means the whole farm will be organic by 2023. I have had to learn a lot and by not making the farm organic all at once I knew that if something went wrong, I would still make a profit from conventional crops.
What are your plans for the future?
I believe in growing potential - seeing the potential in everything that I am involved in and helping people realise the potential of being better than they are today and helping them get there. Success grows success. I would like to see 20+ partners on the estate and would like to get our raw materials processed and marketed on the farm to get off commodity crop production.