“I don’t usually keep a keg in the kitchen,” laughs Tom as he goes on to explain how beer barrels on the worktop could become more of a permanent fixture. The previous weekend, he launched a new pop-up restaurant on the estate as part of a burgeoning events business. “Everyone’s a foodie and I love that as much as anyone,” he says. “The first one was a great success so we’re looking at moving around the estate. Different types of food in different buildings, out in the open or in woodland. We have some lovely pubs in the local area, but few restaurants, so it’s good to do something a bit different.” Trying something a bit different has been a common theme since the 40-year-old moved back to Raynham with his family in 2016. Having worked for Knight Frank in London managing agricultural investments, he says one of the joys of the job was “seeing what lots of people are doing right, or wrong, and trying not to emulate the bad ones… the plan is to make the right ones for Raynham.”
Raynham Estate entered the Townshend family in the 1500s. Second Marquess Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend was an agricultural pioneer in the 18th century, creating a four-course crop rotation featuring turnips, thereby earning him his nickname and increasing UK wheat exports nine-fold, revolutionising agriculture. Fast forward nine generations and Tom describes how the estate is still at the forefront of agricultural innovation today.
With a traditional portfolio, it is the venture into renewable energy that sets Raynham apart from similar enterprises. Tom proudly says that since 2015 it has been home to one of the largest solar farms in England, generating just under 50 megawatts of power. He explains: “I asked Knight Frank to review the potential for a solar farm on 225 acres of disused airfield. It used to be part of the estate, but was requisitioned in World War II and used during the Cold War as a missile site. My grandfather was able to buy it back from the Ministry of Defence in 2006. “My grandfather passed away in 2010 and that’s when I became more involved with the estate. I always thought the airfield could be an enterprise zone. It’s on the edge of the estate and the land wasn’t that great, so I started looking at ideas from data centres to solar farms and other renewable energy businesses. Solar is certainly much less intrusive than wind.” Spearheaded by Tom, the project went out to tender. “But these things change hands a lot,” he says. “One firm got planning and we gave it the lease. It sold the lease to a company that then built it. The lease is a constant and tradable asset, so it didn’t cause any disruption to the estate. As soon as it was built, it was sold to Bluefield, a renewable energy fund. The lease runs for another 25-odd years and the panels themselves should be 60–70% efficient in 30 years’ time, so I think its aim is to carry on. We’d certainly be happy to discuss this with Bluefield.”
“When you turn on your gas cooker, some of our gas could be cooking your dinner"
The next project was an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant, which produces around 550m3 of gas. And through private investment, the estate was able to own a 50% share of the business. All the feedstock for the AD plant comes from the estate’s farm waste. Tom explains: “The waste goes through a process without oxygen inside a digester vessel and the enzymes, bugs, nutrients and bacteria break it down so it releases methane. We collect that, clean the methane to a high standard for the National Grid and it’s then injected into the gas main. So when you turn on your gas cooker, some of our gas could be cooking your dinner.” The farm produces 20,000 tonnes of sugar beet for British Sugar. The equivalent is returned as pulp, which is processed and cleaned to a fluffy consistency, and fed into the digester along with rye. “We’re about to introduce chicken muck, which is a bit like rocket fuel, so we have to be careful with the quantities,” smiles Tom. “It’s a scientific experiment, likened to the stomach of a cow, where you have to be very careful what you put in because that controls what comes out.” There is a lot of infrastructure involved and Tom warns it’s quite a change from normal farming activity. “You suddenly become an industrial process. It’s a learning curve and it takes a little while to settle down,” he says. “But I’m comfortable that we’re in a place where it’s running smoothly.”
Eulogising about the AD that is fuelling his ambition for renewables to benefit the entire farming operation, Tom says: “The amazing bit is there is no wastage. We take the crops that we grow and use the by-products on the land as fertiliser. We’ve already started seeing improvements in our crops and reduced our bought-in fertiliser.” When asked about the risks he considered as he embarked on his renewables journey, he laughs. “I wouldn’t say I am a natural risk taker but I’m a Scorpio, so I’ve got that slightly fiery side. I’ve realised there is a strong need to diversify and with diversification comes risk. “Relying entirely on farming revenue means you’re open to the weather and commodity prices, things that are out of your control that can mean a 30% swing in your revenue from one year to another. Trying to budget for that makes life very difficult, so diversifying and broadening our revenue stream enables us to have a little bit more stability. Like a lot of landed estates, we have a certain level of borrowing, but I’d like to see that reduced. Financial stability through diversity is a really big goal for me.” Tom says he got into renewables at the right time because changes in Government policy mean it’s not easy to enter now, solar especially. He says: “The returns for landowners entering the industry now are a lot smaller and more complicated due to a competitive lottery system bidding for capacity on the grid.”
In the Pipeline
Tom’s not giving up on new renewables just yet, though. “We’re lucky enough to be right next to a large substation,” he grins. “So we’re looking at whether we can offer some land to battery storage operators.” Tom cautions this may increase the flow on to the grid even more. “That’s why our attention is diverting more towards innovating through events such as the pop-ups to stabilise our revenue stream.” However, it is clear renewables linked directly to the farm business ignite a passion in the man who will one day become the ninth Marquess Townshend. As the legend of ‘Turnip Townshend’ lives on today, ‘Renewables Raynham’ could go down in history as a 21st century agricultural innovator 300 years in the future.
“Financial stability through diversity is a really big goal for me"
Top tips for landowners considering renewables
- Assess what connections you have on your land
- Put out to tender and let developers compete