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Visit to the Fenton Centre

Having been snowed off earlier in the year we were blessed with a bright and sunny day for our visit at the beginning of April. The Fenton Centre is just North East of Wooler and enjoys splendid views of the Cheviots.

The centre had just opened for the season and the very young staff had a baptism of fire as our smallholder group filled the café which was already coping with other visitors and a large party of lycra clad cyclists. Cope they did and we had an excellent lunch though this inevitably delayed the start of our talk as our host Simon Henderson and his wife Helen were managing the kitchen.

Simon gave a background of his own history in farming starting at his father’s shrinking farm on the urban fringes in County Durham and his move north to a 400 acre farm at Fenton. Economics had dictated an increase to 600 acres which was being farmed in a very modern way. GPS located soil samples were used to produce a map showing fertility. GPS guided systems in the tractor cab then applied fertilizer only in sufficient quantity for the land being crossed thus avoiding waste and the inevitable run-off into river courses.

The main crops being grown were carrots. Potatoes and vine peas. All were harvested by contractors using very expensive specialist equipment. In spite of the intensive nature of the cultivation the farm had made great provision for wildlife with field margins and double hedge wildlife corridors linking the existing isolated woodland areas. Owl boxes had been successful in encouraging owls whilst isolation of the river banks and enhancement of an oxbow lake had encouraged water voles and the otters, which are the symbol for Fenton. Measures to encourage insect life such as beetle banks, long grass margins and heaps of woody branches had the added advantage of providing a home to aphid predators, which significantly reduced the need for insecticides.

Alas, even with highly efficient production methods, British farms are losing out to Eastern European producers who are paying wages of 80p per hour. Simon had felt the need to further diversify; hence the Fenton Centre and the wild seed business. The former, a ‘not for profit’ business had been set up with help from Defra and the lottery heritage fund. The centre is used for meetings and by groups in the community as well as an educational resource for children and school parties. An ‘interpretation centre’ stresses the need for wildlife habitat and shows examples of the wildlife to be seen at Fenton.

We were given a guided tour of the barns which house the seed sorting machines, which use a vibrating plate to sort out the different types of wild flower seed. The mini-combine, which is used to harvest the seeds, is only used on a small fraction of any field bearing wild flowers to ensure regeneration of that field in subsequent years. By teaming up with a local small business Fenton are able to sell wild flower seeds in small packets to the gardener or in bulk to local authorities and the like for planting large areas such as road verges. The barns also contained an Aladdin’s cave of old military vehicles, which were to form part of another attraction to Fenton.

Simon’s imagination knew no bounds and he had plans to provide a district-heating scheme using coppiced wood and a bio-fuel production plant if the government tax incentives were improved. It was a tonic to meet someone with so much energy and entrepreneurial drive who also cared passionately about the environment.

D.B.