Luke and Benj are new entrants creating a diverse and resilient portfolio of businesses
17th October 2021
We visited Luke and Benj Wilson as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out about their new joint venture with Fir Farm Ltd and how they’re creating a resilient business by creating a diverse mix of regenerative farm enterprises.
Fir Farm, where Luke and Benj (along with their father, David Wilson) have run a joint venture with the Parker family, is about 700 acres, but the family also manage Lower Dean Manor Farm nearby which is a further 1,000 acres. The two farms are run in conjunction as organic mixed farms including dairy, beef, sheep, pigs, poultry (including turkeys) and arable land. As they build the business, the aim is to develop products where there is real added value for their customers, and their plan is to focus on milk and heritage grains, which they will mill, alongside the meat production and other elements of the farm.
Luke and Benj Wilson, joint venture with Fir Farm
Luke and Benj grew up on an organic farm in Tetbury and feel that experience was transformational. Luke says, “the seed was always there…so when the opportunity came up, we couldn’t say no.” Benj continues “I [initially] worked as a vet and Luke was working as a land agent … but when the opportunity arose we wanted to jump in. Dad was getting to a stage where he could have a wise and overseeing role, and myself and Luke could get in at the coalface and really get into it.”
The brothers are very aware of what a critical time it is for farming and, as well as being drawn to farming as a way of life, see its potential to improve things for the next generation. A key thing for them is making the way they farm financially viable, in order for it to be sustainable. Benj explains, “actually…the thing that really excited us was giving value direct through to the customer. The [farming] model seemed like it was broken, really, and the margins getting ever smaller…the whole model wants changing. So that’s what’s been our real focus…going back to the basics to keep adding value.” They continue to see farmers all around them doing a good job, but struggling, and want to do things differently.
When asked what their main tip for others who are interested in getting into farming they both talk about the benefits of "just doing it". Benj explains, “the first step into farming is really, really difficult. People say you can’t make money in farming…you can’t get access to land. But as soon as you make that one step and you start doing something like buy a sheep or do the vending machine thing, then you think ‘it does work’ and it gives you so much more confidence in your ideas and what you actually can do.”
One of the innovations at Fir Farm, which help to make the farm financially viable, is a project to use woodchips. Luke says "I’m discovering uses for wood chip that I hadn’t really thought of. It started as an experiment, out of necessity, because we didn’t have enough straw for various reasons. So, we bedded cattle off woodchips and it produced a really good product to put back on the fields.” Benj goes on to explain that some of the woodchip was also composted and the savings – from not having to pay for additional straw – was significant.
Luke continues “it’s the beauty of the resilience of [organic farming]. We were certainly incredibly thankful last year [while others were] trying to find straw from anywhere…keeping things out when it was so wet." In many ways, the brothers feel that creating a circular economy is what saves their business. Their pigs, for example, live off rolled grain, scraps and and whey from a local cheese maker – meaning that Fir Farm has been insulated from some of the shocks experienced by other farmers in 2021.
Benj talks about the heritage grain mix being developed at Fir Farm
The brothers are also keen to emphasise the importance of farming at the right scale. Benj says "tragically, [with farming] you can feel like the decisions are out of your hands ... you either get big or go bust. It’s very easy to get on that treadmill … [for example with the arable farms like those near us] you need a slightly bigger combine, then you need a slightly bigger area and then before you know it, you’re farming 5,000 acres with two people and, you know, millions of pounds worth of machinery on finance and then it’s an absolutely terrifying business model."
The brothers’ father, David Wilson, has farmed with nature for many years and Luke and Benj are keen to pay tribute to his wisdom. Luke says “having dad around to tweak the tiller, sometimes drastically move the tiller…you know, dad has done it and been around things that haven’t worked and really knows to say when to do it differently. I think it’s a nice model for farming in the future…[Let’s not] start a fresh from nothing... let’s have that slow transition.”
As the brothers look towards the future, they hope that by 2030, when the agricultural transition should be well underway, they will be at a high point in the development of the farm. They are clear eyed that the farm must be commercially viable and hope that part of their role will be in training up others to work in rewarding agricultural roles. Benj says that although things can seem daunting in farming at the moment, given the amount of change underway, “it’s also a really exciting time because people are finally waking up.”
When asked what policy makers should be doing to help farmers, the brothers light on the need for young people to get into farming. “Young people are going to save the planet” says Luke, “you have to make it easier to get on that ladder and do it. There’s a lot of people that talk about it, but there’s not enough people doing it." Benj picks up this thread, "people want to do the right thing but [they’re stuck] in a model that is so backwards…and the finances are pretty scary and actually I think if farming [with nature] were incentivised … nobody wouldn’t want to do it.”