Retiring from the TMAF Board at the 2023 AGM after more than 40 years association with Morley Research Centre (MRC) offers me the opportunity to reflect on the changes to the organisation which have taken place over those years.
To date I have been unable to locate the Minutes of meetings held over much of this time. It is possible they were destroyed in a fire in a container building at the Old Rectory office some years ago. What follows, therefore, is a personal recollection of events which may be faulty, and I apologise in advance to those whose memories are more accurate than mine.
The beginning of Morley Manor Farm
The Norfolk Agricultural Station (NAS) changed its name to Morley Research Centre in 1965 when it had decided to profit from the rise in land value drive by the expansion of greater Norwich and move from the original experimental farm at Sprowston to Morley Manor.
The curiosity of like-minded farmers
The history and importance of NAS to Norfolk agriculture is recorded in detail by Alec Douet in his book Breaking New Ground – Agriculture in Norfolk 1914-72 (Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to buy a copy for £25).
My earliest association with NAS was around this time as a member of the Norfolk Agricultural Club – administered by the staff of NAS and then meeting in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich following the Saturday livestock market then held below Norwich Castle.
The room would be full to capacity for renowned national speakers and I recall the towering presence of chairman Tom Blofeld (6ft 7in) with his booming voice and black eye patch standing tall on the stage controlling proceedings in his inimitable fashion. Years later I would become chairman of this discussion group, followed by Nick Steed, but by then the audience was too small to attract high calibre speakers and the club was eventually discontinued.
Seeing value in research and the opportunity to do more
The uplift in land value, as more of the Sprowston estate was purchased for building development, provided the funding for the new farm. Most importantly, it endowed a considerable share portfolio to support experimental work on the farm and, more recently, to offer grant aid to a wide variety of experimental and educational work, both locally and nationally.
Under Director Frank Rayns, who retired in 1960 after 35 years in charge, Sprowston was primarily an experimental station. He was succeeded by his assistant director since 1949, A.C. (Dick) Owers, who changed the emphasis toward providing an example of a well-run farming business rather than a demonstration centre for new farming techniques. Dick retired in the mid 70’s and was succeeded by Perry Mclean who came from a background of Experimental Husbandry farms (EHF).
EHF’s were set up by government in the 1947 Agriculture Act following the template Rayns had established for the independent NAS during his long tenure as Director. As Douet recalls (p.238) “Sprowston-trained men directed no fewer than 6 of the Ministry’s 11 EHF’s in 1960”.
At Morley the number of employed experimental staff began to grow and some members began to establish a national reputation for their work – in particular, Doug Stevens on cereal husbandry and Bill Bray on sugar beet. Following Bill’s untimely death his role was later assumed by Mike May with Morley becoming the pre-eminent authority on sugar beet.
With my business interests in arable cropping and pigs I had been appointed a member of the Terrington EHF advisory committee and Board in 1978. I joined the Morley Executive committee in 1980 at the time when it comprised about 30 members drawn mainly from the farming community of Norfolk under the chairmanship of LordTownshend and included representatives from Norfolk County Council, MAFF and NUAAW.
This was a time of rapid innovation in crop varieties and spray chemistry. Farmers wanted readily available, practical advice on how best to use these products for maximum yield and financial return. Much of the work done at Morley took the form of ‘Which’ testing of new products to tease out their potential and identify their weaknesses. The information so gathered was disseminated free to farmers, largely through government-funded MAFF advisers.
As the 80’s progressed, European farm productivity jumped in response to the level of government support and scientific expertise available, to the point where surplus production became politically embarrassing. Support levels began to be cut back, the speed of innovation, especially in crop protection chemicals, slowed down.
Incorporating more objectives than just crop yield
There was a growing feeling that some of the technology harnessed over the previous quarter century had damaged the natural environment. Questions asked of researchers became more complex and more expensive to investigate, often requiring specialist laboratory facilities. UK government policy gradually reduced financial support and encouraged farmers to ‘stand on their own two feet’. MAFF became ADAS with a wider role including environmental protection and policy. Later, ADAS itself was privatised and farmers were asked to pay for the on-farm advice they had previously received for free.
The EHF’s were sold off and much of their role giving practical information to farmers on new products and techniques moved to commercial industry and independent agronomists. Morley remained a member-owned independent facility, but it was clear that its role within the industry had to change.
Finding strength in collaboration
Working alone Morley was not big enough, nor had the resource to finance new types of research. Senior staff were approaching retirement and British Sugar invested heavily to divert much of the national sugar beet research work to Broom’s Barn. Mike May transferred from Morley to Broom’s Barn significantly reducing MRC’s work on this crop.
Morley established closer links with the Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust at Otley, running heavy land crop trials under the supervision of Ben Freer and James Molden with a locally drawn committee which continues to this day as the MATGroup. A relatively short lived light land centre was later set up at Church Farm, Attlebridge (Michael Jones), its work partly financed by the John Mann Trust, a legacy from the late John Mann who, with Frank Rayns, had led Norfolk farming innovation through the inter war years.
The size of the Executive committee made it an unwieldy body to manage a business in a rapidly changing industry. Under the chairmanship of John Cross (Ixworth), the Executive committee began to be slimmed down. I assumed the chair when John retired from the post in 1995 and completed the process of reducing the Executive committee to a Board of no more than 10 members, meeting more regularly and with an enhanced management role. Several ex-ADAS crop consultants had formed an independent group which was keen to be associated with ongoing trials work at Morley.
Steps considered to provide advice service to farmers
Morley Agricultural Consultants (MAC) was set up in 1997 to enable a commercial business to operate within the charitable umbrella of MRC. The Board was looking for ways to maintain close involvement between Morley and farmers in a period when the size of farming units was increasing rapidly (through contract farming arrangements and the like) and more technical and business management advice was delivered by agronomists. At one point, in the early 2000’s substantive talks took place for a possible acquisition of ADAS Arable Ltd by Morley which would have provided almost national coverage by independent crop consultants linked with Morley. However, the business case for this major change could not be made.
Perry McLean retired as Director in 1992. He was succeeded for a short period by Robert Cook and one of my first jobs as chairman in 1995 was to find and appoint a successor to take Robert’s place. Jim Orson came with all the abilities required of a technical director, but, he was at pains to point out, was not primarily a business manager. The Board decided to appoint Colin McEwan as Commercial Director with a remit to explore other potential avenues which would allow Morley to achieve a viable size of operation and continue as an independent entity.
The start of TMAF
The structure of Morley to this point was somewhat incestuous. The assets built up in the portfolio since the sale of Sprowston were considerable. Work carried out by the Morley staff was financed by member subscription, farm profit, external sources of grant aid and first call on the income from the portfolio. The Board wished to create a more competitive and ‘arm’s length’ arrangement for the allocation of these charitable funds. At the same time it had opened negotiations for a merger with the Arable Research Group (ARC) which carried out similar on farm trials work to Morley in several different areas of the country, but on host farms rather than on its own property.
The assets of Morley belonged to the membership largely based in Norfolk, and it was important this ownership should be retained in the event of a merger of the trials activities of Morley and ARC. The solution was to separate Morley into a research business, employing the research staff and competitively tendering for research funding. The capital assets of the farm and portfolio would be held by a new charitable company called The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF).
A 2003 service agreement between MRC and TMAF ‘allowed the provision of services and equipment between them as required’ and a ‘Deed of Gift between Norfolk Agricultural Station operating as Morley Research Centre transferred the assets to TMAF.’ TMAF in turn granted a farm business tenancy to TAG Farms allowing for a rental to be paid to TMAF for land and facilities provided, and Morley Farms Ltd was created to become the contract farmer.
In parallel to these changes, members of MRC and ARC were asked to approve a merger of the two organisations, creating a new business to be called The Arable Group (TAG). The Managing Director of TAG would be Mike Carver (previously founder and MD of ARC), Commercial Director Colin McEwan, Research and Technical Director Jim Orson. The Board was drawn equally from the Boards of the previous companies. I became the first chairman supported by members from the MRC Board, Robert Salmon, John Forrest and Frank Oldfield and 4 members from the old ARC Board. TAG Board meeting venues alternated between Cirencester and Morley as the trials team and workload increasingly integrated. Almost all major arable cropping areas in England had a ‘local’ trials site and a regional team of agronomists available for advice. Some two years into the new arrangements Mike Carver suddenly tendered his resignation. His role was adequately covered by Colin McEwan and Jim Orson with no real damage to the business.
It had always been hoped that the expanded business would not only have national reach but also greater scientific depth and resource. To that end Morley had initial discussions with NIAB at the same time as the merger talks with ARC. It proved difficult to arrange a three way merger at that stage, but once TAG was in operation and NIAB had a new CEO keen to widen the activities of that organisation there was a clear path for TAG to become the ‘farmer facing’ arm of NIAB. By this time, I had given up my role as chairman of TAG and the subsequent development of TAG is documented within the archives of NIAB.
Meanwhile the first AGM of TMAF, where Nick Steed took over from me as chairman, took place in November 2003, one month after the full merger of ARC and MRC forming TAG. Apart from myself, other Directors on the TMAF Board at this time were Mike Gamble, Christine Hill, Poul Hoveson, John Wallace and Robert Salmon. The second AGM in 2004 records a temporary loan of £400K to the new business to finance the working capital needs of TAG farms. The complications of who was responsible for what within the farming arrangements at Morley did cause some strains over the next few seasons and following the integration of TAG into NIAB, the opportunity was taken for Morley Farms Ltd alone to be the tenant and wholly owned commercial subsidiary of TMAF.
Using independence to sustain long term research
The changes at Morley were timely and ensured the survival of the independent farmer-owned research sector, albeit under the new ownership of NIAB. TMAF had the flexibility to use the farm and its financial resources to support a wider range of projects deemed by the Board to be of most importance to the industry. Much of that support continued to flow to work proposed by NIAB, and still does today. One wing of the new offices, constructed in 2008, to replace those in the Old Rectory at Morley, accommodate field staff from NIAB, while the remaining area is occupied by TMAF, Morley Farms and a general meeting room.
As government reduced expenditure on near market agricultural research, much of the industry felt pressure to restructure in order to survive the more competitive environment. TMAF was able to step in to save from demolition the only remaining UK wind tunnel facility for testing spray technology, based at Silsoe. It also leased for 20 years from BBSRC a small field at Saxmundham which had been used continuously for a century to study the effects on soil and crop yields of different levels and types of N, P & K. Without TMAF intervention these valuable plots would have been lost. They are now being utilised within the NIAB trials programme.
Scale and depth of TMAF research
Of the charities supporting agriculture in the UK, TMAF is one of the largest. Apart from freehold ownership of around 1,000 acres of land it controls a portfolio valued around £8m. Income from shares, commercial rents and from farm profits amounts to roughly £400k annually, which the Board uses to support relevant agricultural research and education, wherever possible with benefits for the East Anglian region.
Increasing complexity and cost of research means that many projects are funded in partnership with other charities, institutions or commercial businesses and government agencies. The Board seeks professional guidance where appropriate on the potential value of research proposals requesting financial assistance. When TMAF was set up in 2003, an Advisory Group of farmers, agronomists and researchers was also appointed to monitor and assist the Board. This reflected the structure established within each of the five regional TAG groups with the aim of suggesting the most relevant work appropriate to the region.
Whilst only a small proportion of the farm is used for trials work, the farm itself is used to demonstrate good practice and innovatory techniques. It also provides a rare opportunity to host long term research projects on the same site – particularly valuable in aiding understanding of the behaviour of soils under different management regimes. Such information is increasingly important in the development of strategies to lower carbon footprint, reduce chemical applications and improve biodiversity.
Maintaining scale, depth and significance of TMAF contribution to agriculture
The impact of the initial foresight and vision of the founding farmers and all those who have shaped TMAF into what it is today is significant.
Of charities supporting agriculture in the UK, TMAF is one of the largest.
Apart from freehold ownership of around 1,000 acres of land TMAF controls a portfolio valued around £8m.
Income from shares, commercial rents and from farm profits amounts to roughly £400k annually, of which the Board uses a quarter to support agricultural education in its various forms and the remainder for agricultural research, wherever possible with benefits for farming in the East Anglian region.