Family drive to save future of local farmland
We spoke to Emma Sturdy, wife of Robert Sturdy, tenant farmer at Eden Farm in Old Malton, about the farm and their campaign to save the 180 acres earmarked for a project to install just under 100,000 solar panels.
Q How long have the Sturdy family farmed the land at Eden Farm?
Rob’s grandfather, Guy Sturdy came to Eden Farm in 1954. The farm was in a very poor state and the house was in need of a major refit – there was only one cold water tap, no power supply, no toilets and no sewage system! Originally the farm was part of Eden House. The farmhouse was used as the sleeping quarters for many of the house and garden staff – the maids would sleep in the attics and the men in the large bedroom over the kitchen and there was no connecting doors or passages between the two. Robs father, John, moved to Eden Farm in 1971, the year he took over the tenancy and so for almost 70 years, the Sturdy family have improved and invested in the farm to a standard we are all very proud of.
Q What type of farming do you conduct on your land? Where does the produce go?
Eden Farm is mainly arable. We grow winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley, fodder beat and oil seed rape crops. In the past the land has grown potatoes and sugar beet. We also have beef cattle that we rear from calves. Over 20 years ago Rob and his father diversified into recycling Malton’s green garden waste on the farm. The council lorries bring the waste, we turn it into compost and spread it on the land as a soil conditioner. We are really starting to see the benefit to the land after this long term spreading, and, of course, it works for Ryedale District Council as it reduces their road miles. Most of the wheat and barley goes to local Mills and all the cattle to local markets.
Q Who completes the majority of the work on the farm?
Definitely Rob! Rob works with great passion and enthusiasm on the farm. Rob almost single-handedly runs the farm, only getting help in when needed at the busy times of year. I focus on the farm administration, running the house and looking after the children. After Robs dad passed away in 2015, we not only lost a member of our family but we lost a member of our team here at the farm. It’s a team effort, which given recent events, has proven invaluable.
Q Could you summarise the planned development by Harmony Energy?
Harmony Energy would like to place 92,500 solar panels on 180 acres of farmland (130 acres of our land) together with a 30 MWH battery storage plant. This is by far the biggest solar development in Ryedale, would take away half our farm and reduce our net income by around 80%. It is a very strategic proposal as the land allocated is located right within the heart of Eden Farm.
Q What did the future of Eden Farm look like a year ago, before the proposal, and what will its future look like if the development receives approval?
Our future a year ago looked very positive. We’re a small farm (280 acres) but through hard work, investment, diversification and skill, the future of this farm is very promising. We have invested heavily in machinery and a grain store with a view to becoming more efficient and innovative on the farm.
If planning permission is granted and the development goes ahead, we face very uncertain times. We will not have sufficient land to feed the animals and will be forced to buy in hay and straw. We may also be forced to intensify the beef cattle farming, rather than see our animals grass fed. The land will have to work a lot harder than it does now in order for us to make a living. That will not be good for the environment and it will not be good for us as a family.
Q How did you find out about the development?
Back in October 2020, we were contacted by phone by the land agent acting for our landlord, the Fitzwilliam Trust Corporation*, who said some of our land had been identified as a site for solar development. We were left devastated when a meeting with the land agent in November 2020 informed us that our landlord intended to serve a notice to quit on almost half our farm.
Q What is an Agricultural Holdings Act (AHA) tenancy? What bearing does it have on your ability to challenge the proposal?
The Agricultural Holdings Act was passed in 1986 so as to give long term security of tenure to tenant farmers. In brief, the Act provided that if a Tenant pays rent and farms land ‘in accordance with the rules of good husbandry’ he will be entitled to farm the land for up to three generations. The Act also provides that the landlord can serve a notice to quit on the Tenant if he (the landlord) is granted planning permission to develop the land for non-agricultural purposes. Of course, the possibility of agricultural land being developed to accommodate solar panels had not even been dreamt of in 1986 but this provision is now being used as the means of trying to take away almost half our agricultural land.
Harmony Energy says the following:
“The site is not subject to any national or local planning designations or protections which would preclude this type of development. It is therefore considered the type of site which should accommodate renewable energy development and we consider it the most suitable in Ryedale.”
Q What do you make of this justification for the development?
This assertion is simply incorrect. Our land has been officially tested and classified as being ‘best and most versatile agricultural land’. The Ryedale District Local Plan provides that such land must be protected unless ‘it can be demonstrated that the (proposed) use cannot be located elsewhere and that the need for the development outweighs the loss of the resource’. At a recent meeting of Malton Town Council, Peter Kavanagh of Harmony Energy acknowledged that if this proposal fails, they will simply look to develop elsewhere. As to question of need, we believe that it is nonsense to suggest that the loss of prime food producing land can be justified by the development of a solar factory.
Q CEO Peter Kavanagh claims that Harmony Energy “try to develop on the lowest grade land available”. Are there other viablelocations for the development in Ryedale? Are there any alternatives to the development?
It’s not for us to to find suitable sites for Harmony to develop. That is their job. We believe the only reason that Eden Farm has been identified as suitable for development is simply due to its close proximity to the sub-station and the fact that Harmony Energy have gained landlord consent. This means minimal costs to Harmony Energy in terms of connectivity, which reduces overheads and ultimately delivers maximum profit to both Harmony and the Fitzwilliam Trust. However, at the same time, it would take away our ability to make a living.
Q You say that you’re not against solar power full stop. Could you explain why and elaborate how this is coherent with your campaign against the solar farm?
We believe solar and all forms of renewable energy absolutely have their place in the future. We have never disputed this fact. Solar is important and farmland is important. Ryedale has a Climate Change Commitment that states that it “supports community-based schemes”. We could not agree more, but this is not a community scheme. Ryedale’s response should not rest on the shoulders of one farming family. Covering good food-producing fields is not a sustainable approach. Good farmland must not be hijacked for renewable energy.
Q Why should I back British farming?
So many reasons! Our beautiful countryside in Ryedale looks like it does, thanks to farmers—all the hedges, trees and fields are all maintained by a farmer. We are so fortunate to have the right climate and the right land here to grow our own food. We should be focusing on being more self-sufficient in terms of food security and, of course, we can be proud that we have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world. Once farmland has gone, it’s gone forever.
Q What can people do to support the campaign?
We have received huge support which means a great deal to us. People can head to our website www.saveoldmaltoncountryside.com and add their email address to be kept informed about when planning is submitted. People can write to the local newspapers, our local MP and follow our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages for regular updates as well as snippets of what we do here at the farm.
Quick Questions with Robert Sturdy
Q What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spend time with my family, I don’t get too much spare time so every moment counts.
Q Clarksons Farm or Countryfile?
Q Ferrari or John Deere?
Q What have you found out about yourself in the last year?
Not to trust everybody but how grateful I am to be surrounded by a great network of family and friends.
Q What’s your favourite holiday destination and why?
Northumberland for its great, unspoilt countryside
Q Who would you have at a dinner party and why?
Kate Moss! But if she’s not available then Jeremy Clarkson, Boris Johnson and my late father, John Sturdy. We would discuss food security and the destruction of farmland in our country that’s happening at an alarming rate.
Q Early bird or night owl?
Q What’s the most satisfying part of farming?
Harvesting the crops. Seeing what has been achieved after a years work at harvest time, can make it all worthwhile.