Dartington: nine decades of progressive farming

For over ninety years, the land and estate at Dartington have been used for agricultural experimentation, research and the application of new processes, with a rich and sometimes controversial history in land-based research.

Leonard Elmhirst, founder of The Dartington Hall Trust, came to the estate with the combined experience of a childhood upbringing on English soil with a university education in agriculture from Cornell University in America. He was described by one of his farm managers as “a first-class practical farmer with sufficient theoretical knowledge to keep his end up with any professor of agriculture”.


Old Parsonage Farm from the air


In the pre- and post-war years, under Leonard’s leadership, the first trials of artificial insemination of cattle and battery farm chickens were carried out at Dartington. The UK’s national soil survey originated on the estate, new ground was broken in forestry with exotic conifer trials and the first pasteurised apple juice produced in Britain was made at Dartington in 1935.

Leaping into the 21st century, farming finds itself facing new challenges from climate change, and its associated energy and water supply challenges, to population growth and nutritional deficit, to the need to increase food production whilst preventing biodiversity loss, to the challenge of an ageing population of farmers combined with the difficulty in gaining access to land for new entrants.

With the retirement of the estate’s last farm tenant in October 2014 Dartington had a historic opportunity to shape the future of our land use. In the face of contemporary agricultural risks and opportunities we asked ourselves the question – ‘Is it possible to use Dartington’s land in more innovative ways in order to support its primary purpose and extend opportunities for education, experimentation and enterprise?’

In response to this question we conducted a Land Use Review where over 30 experts and thought-leaders were asked to share their ideas on what distinctive contribution Dartington could make with its landed estate in this century. The resulting report lead to the portfolio of projects you will see before you today on the estate.

Where we had one farm tenant in recent years we now have more than 20, ranging from a goat dairy to CSAs and a new entrant to farming, all trying to model different approaches to food production that are productive, sustainable and resilient.

The diversity is breathtaking: as one tenant remarked, when they were studying horticulture they had to travel around the UK to see the breadth of agricultural enterprises that can now be visited within a few miles of one another at Dartington.