Swanborough Farm is flying high

PUBLISHED: 15:39 25 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:58 20 February 2013

Swanborough Farm is flying high

Swanborough Farm is flying high

The Greenwood family has been farming 1,000 acres of land near Lewes for almost a hundred years. Tim Parker says that diversification is vital to Swanborough Farm

The Greenwood Family has farmed Swanborough since 1920. Pearce Greenwood, a brilliant engineer, was followed by his son Donald and now William, Donalds son, has taken over the 1,000 acre estate situated at the foot of the Downs, south of Lewes.

I visited the farm on one of those remarkable days with sunshine from dawn to dusk. Everything was in good order, the cattle fat and contented, although the ground was a little over-dry. Nevertheless William was optimistic about the future. He is a lively, interesting man; full of ideas and with a passion for flying.

There have been many changes and sometimes difficult, even turbulent times, at Swanborough over the last hundred years. Once, two horses would plough about two acres a day, then came the advent of the tractor and a farming revolution which saw tractors replacing horses and ploughing some 50 acres a day. The expansion of free market economies saw rock bottom prices as imports from all over the world flooded the country. Even now, supermarkets are bringing parts of our dairy industry to its knees as they fail to pay a proper price for British milk. Donald Greenwood had a large dairy herd in the 1960s. In the end, he told me, we had to give it up as we could not make it pay.

Today the farm is a mixture of arable land and beef cattle. As yet there are no sheep on the Downs, but William has no fixed ideas about the future. If the sheep market continues to improve I will certainly consider introducing a flock. I love the farm, he said, but the most important thing for the future is that each part of it must pay its way. We have done well with our arable crops, a mixture of wheat and oilseed rape, in recent years, but the market is always changing and if we were to make the wrong choice then we would lose money very quickly.

Farming, like life, is of course a hazardous business and William told me that recently they had encountered an unexpected problem with the farms cattle herd which I had seen looking so well and contented in their barns. One of the cows had been identified as a tuberculosis suspect. As a result, William has to keep his cattle in when they should be out in the fields. The last test was clear, said William. So, with luck, things should return to normal in a few days. Sussex, thankfully, is relatively clear of TB but things have been very bad in the West Country where the disease is rife with much of the infection carried by badgers. Something will have to be done, said William. The country is losing millions of pounds in compensation and it is just not sensible to ignore the problem.

Swanborough Farm has changed dramatically in just a few years. There is a shoot, new fishing lakes, a livery yard with 10 stables and the old dairy has been converted into industrial units for small businesses. Diversity is key to survival. But perhaps the most unlikely innovation is the farms landing strip.

The strip and its adjacent facilities have become a good earner and are proving especially popular in summer when regular visitors literally fly in for the nearby Glyndebourne festival. As part of the service the farm offers secure storage for light aircraft. I was shown into one of the small hangars. It was like entering a museum. There were six beautifully-maintained small aircraft including a Tiger Moth, a Ryan PT 22, a special stunt aircraft and then in pride of place, a German Buckner Bestmann, a training aircraft for the Luftwaffe in its original colour scheme and markings. The Bestmann, piloted by William, spent a busy summer taking part in air shows both at home and abroad including the popular show at Shoreham. William Greenwood, a man of many parts, has been a pilot since 1987 and in addition is now a CAACRI Instructor/ Examiner who holds a display authorisation for
Vintage Aircraft.

Swanborough Farms land runs right down to the River Ouse. Donald Greenwood told me an interesting story: during the Second World War a German bomber dropped its bombs into the river south of Lewes and the whole valley was flooded for several days.

It was the river that gave the Greenwood family the idea of opening their fishing lakes and the business has become a successful and viable enterprise. The two smaller lakes hold a variety of coarse fish: tench, bream, perch, roach, rudd, chubb and others, while a larger three acre lake holds carp which can grow into monsters of some thirty pounds.

It would be wrong to think that all these activities and I have not mentioned that Swanborough is also hired out as a popular location for film crews mean that the traditional farming side of Swanborough Farm has been neglected. That is far from the case.

The additional revenue generated by the Greenwoods innovations means there is more money to invest in new machinery, tractors, seed, stock and funds to keep the farm buildings in proper repair, including the wooden roof of the marvellous 17th century barn which houses the livery stables.

Swanborough Farm is a success story, and a fine example of agricultural diversification.

For more on the farm or permission to use its landing strip, visit its website

Latest from the Sussex Life