Records show that David Brown’s ancestors have farmed on the Island in various capacities for at least 500 years. But perhaps none of those who have gone before him could envisage how David and two of his brothers, Chris and Andrew, have had to adapt and re-adapt to the ever-changing farming industry over the past few years.
At his family home at Hale Farm, David is surrounded by the 1,900 acres of land that make up the farm. But these days this is no ordinary farm – it is a one-off as far as the Island is concerned, with sweet corn and asparagus now figuring highly as its main products, both grown on a very large scale.
“We are growing some things that are actually profitable,” admits David. “It has been a lot of hard work. You have to run a tight ship, because there is no leeway, no room for error. We are a big farm on the Island, but you still have to specialise to make the job work. For example, we have 120 acres of asparagus in the ground, and in the country there maybe only 10 other asparagus farms the size of ours.”
He continued: “At one time there were five combine harvesters on the farm, now we have one which we share with my sister Ann, who farms at Atherfield. Things have changed; it is not just about farming any more. Around 30 per cent of our income has nothing to do with farming at all, and it is that 30 per cent that keep things going. You can’t just produce and then find the market to sell it. You need to find that market first.”
Although most of the produce from Hale Farm is taken to the mainland, there are several Island outlets where it is sold, including Farmer Jack’s at Arreton Barns, with David able to proudly boast that the asparagus crop is among the best yield anywhere in the south of England.
The Brown family began farming in Brading, according to the parish records of 1560, and the family have farmed at a variety of venues, including Cridmore and Pyle in the 1700s, and then on to Whippingham in Queen Victoria’s time. Folklore has it that the Mr Brown of that era once halted the Queen’s coach by accidently driving his cows in front of it. So no doubt Her Majesty, having been amused by one Mr Brown, was not amused by this one!
David’s grandfather Arthur was probably the first of the more modern era. He was born in 1890 at Merstone Farm, and grew up on farms near Havenstreet. He returned to Merstone in 1930 when it came on the market, and then acquired Pagham Farm. But this was a period of depression, and the farming industry was not in a good state. Even so Arthur bought Haseley Farm, before taking himself off to Germany, confirming his views that war was again on the horizon. Sensing farming was always needed during war time, he expanded his farming empire, and was among the first to have a tractor on the Island, and go into organic fertilisers.
“He was clearly on the ball,” reflected David. “The arable side of the farm would have been the driving factor, because any waste would have been fed to the livestock as a chief source of food.” After the war Arthur took on Billingham Farm, where David was born. Hale Farm was acquired in the mid-1950s, having been empty for five years, and being partly used as a chicken house. “In those days you bought a farm for the land, and the house and cottages happened to be thrown in with it. These days the house, rather than the land, can often sell a farm,” David pointed out.
Arthur ran his own fruit and vegetable business out of Newport in the 1950s and 1960s. Those days appear to be generally long gone due to the arrival of supermarkets, and as a result the demise of potato and vegetable growing on the Island. Arthur died in 1971, and less than seven years later David’s father Peter suddenly passed away, leaving his four sons to pick up the pieces, of which David, Chris and Andrew are still involved. “We had a fair old shake-up, and had to re-organise,” said David. “There were a few years of basic re-entrenchment. At times like that you think you know what’s going on, but you have a lot to pick up on.”
So 33 years ago the farm was growing 300 acres of potatoes, as well as cereals, and had around 600 head of cattle. After a few decent years the farming industry began to decline again, so the dairy herd and cattle went in 1992. A couple of years later the conscious effort was made to go back into vegetables – starting with cauliflowers and sweet corn. By coincidence grandfather Arthur was the first person to grow sweet corn on the Island, along with other vegetables, so some 50 years later things had moved full crop circle!
Now pumpkins, squashes and asparagus – which was first introduced about eight years ago – are grown mainly for the mainland supermarket trade. So in the ever-changing market, around 800 acres of the farm that stretch through Arreton Valley are taken up with growing vegetables, with a further 600 acres for cereals.
“We have been doing something different, away from the normal farming,” David reflects. “At one stage we were going from one lean period to the next and that is when farmers started diversifying, because at the end of the day you were not going to make money out of farming.”
He admits that at times there was the temptation to walk away, but having met so many challenges it was never really going to happen. David’s son Ben runs the popular Farmer Jack’s while other son Sam has moved away from farming to become a fitter and joiner, specialising in anything from kitchens to bespoke furniture. Daughter Jemma works on the Island as well as being a busy mum and mum-to-be, which leaves David and his wife Mandy well occupied looking after the grandchildren, when he is not out on the farm.