Angus Crowther is a man with a passion for projects. It is a little over ten years since he took over the 1200 acre family farm near Sible Hedingham in north Essex. In that short time he has, working alongside his wife Pod, established a multi-award winning vineyard and wedding venue, restored a 17th Century threshing barn and run a multi-award winning shoot. Even more remarkable is the fact that these achievements have been made whilst raising a large, young family and maintaining a high-profile marketing career in London. In 2019 Angus co-founded marketing consultancy Alchemists.
Current projects at Tuffon Hall include ongoing efforts to make farming operations more sustainable and regenerate on-farm habitats. This includes restoring and creating wildlife ponds across the farm, planting and gapping-up over a thousand metres of hedgerows, planting a new six-acre woodland and restoring a Planted Ancient Woodland site (PAWs).
‘My great grandfather was a farmworker in Essex; a grafter’, says Angus. ‘He started with very little, managed to buy a bit of land and built it up over time, leaving 300 acres to my grandmother. That was unusual back then and strikes a chord with me now as I have three daughters. My father went up to Scotland and co-founded the Murray Firth Maltings. When that sold he used the proceeds to buy a further 700 acres here’.
Having had little involvement in the running of the farm as a young adult (partly due to a career in Hong Kong and Madrid and partly, as he explains, because ‘farmers are like stags; they don’t like other stags around’) Angus came to take over the running of the farm in his mid-late thirties. Taking two short sabbaticals and studying viticulture at Plumpton was all the time Angus needed away from the demands of the City to get his head around the new direction in which he wanted to steer the family farm business.
‘Growing wheat is interesting to a point’ says Angus, ‘but I am passionate about wine, and the countries where it is traditionally grown - France, Germany, Spain. I have lived in each of those countries and speak the languages. I love the culture and geography of those places - and of course I love the wines. When we started, not many places in Essex were growing vines and people thought I was completely mad - so it has been rewarding to prove them wrong! We now have 15 acres of vines and we supply to Waitrose, in addition to the wedding venue and cellar door sales.’
‘We are on sandy clay over chalk here and the land is not great for growing wheat, but the vines do well here on the freer-draining south facing slopes. They thrive on poor land and like to be stressed. We prepared the soil for establishment the year before using a legume mix and then we subsoiled many times in all directions so the vines went into an amazingly fine tilth. Although vines don’t require insect pollination (being hermaphroditic/ self fertile) we’re aiming to increase the biodiversity by planting cover crops of poppies (which look amazing) and mustard under the rows. This supports beneficial invertebrates and helps outcompete weeds. We prefer to strim rather than spray off weeds - we’ve developed a strimmer on a little arm to cut in between the vines as we go up and down the rows. We’re also looking at biological crop protection, using pheromones and nematodes to tackle vine pests.’
‘With the help of a grant, we’ve invested in a 4m high fan from New Zealand which moves the air between rows just enough to prevent spring frosts taking out the buds. As vines bear both this and next years buds each spring, April frosts can be devastating. Fans are pricey but cleaner for the environment than the alternative (which is to use smoke).’
The rest of the farm is down to a three-year wheat rotation with the bee-friendly choice of borage replacing oil seed rape in the middle year. A Catchment Sensitive Farming grant meant Angus had the opportunity to re-concrete his farmyard so that run-off is captured and sent into a new biofilter, helping to protect local water qualify. The river meadows on the farm are down to a wildflower mix under Angus’s Mid-Tier Stewardship agreement, which also helps to buffer the river from arable operations.
Angus is particularly proud of his shoot, having won the coveted Purdey Award for his approach to replacing maize cover with 12ha of wild birdseed mix across the farm through his Mid-Tier agreement. As well as reducing rat populations, this has noticeably resulted in what Angus describes as ‘clouds of little birds’ arising as he takes detours to check the cover on his walks across the farm.
Indeed, he is often finding excuses to go out on the farm and check, for example, the establishment of a hedgerow - something his middle daughter finds hard to understand (‘Why is Daddy going to look at a hedge?!’) On the cold and windy January day when I visited, we saw a covey of English Partridge nestling against the sunny side of a hedgerow and, shortly after, a woodcock belted out of it, recognised by Angus by the sound of its distinctive wing beat alone.
‘Seeing these species is proof that my shoot enhances biodiversity on the farm’ says Angus. ‘We leave the rarer species in peace but otherwise we eat all that we shoot and that includes deer – we live as much as we can off the land. The kids are used to fallow fajitas and muntjac madras. I’d like to start offering wild meat for sale from the cellar door. The deer have led a sustainable, wild existence but their numbers need to be controlled, so it makes sense. Smoked game would also go down very well with the wine tastings’.
The drive for sustainability continues with energy consumption on the farm. The house now has a biomass boiler, the old threshing barn benefits from a ground source heat pump and there are solar panels on the modern barns.
A family man who rarely sits still, we are grateful to Angus for his time for this interview and we look forward to seeing where his next projects lead him and his trailblazing farm.