Winning the prestigious Arable Farmer of the Year award at last year’s British Farming Awards has allowed one Kent regenerative farming business to access new opportunities while raising its farm profile. Ash Burbidge find out more.

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James and Emma Loder Symonds demonstrate focus, belief and confidence in the clear path they have set out for their farming business at Nonington Farms, from their use of technology to their evolving approach to profitable and sustainable crop production. The couple have also created a business model that supports new entrants and engages with the local public and wider consumers.

Managing more than 1,200 hectares of arable land six miles southeast of Canterbury, they specialize in whole farm contracting, with the Loder-Symonds family owning 160ha and the remaining land made up of six contract or share-farming agreements. James is a qualified agronomist and Emma is a chartered surveyor and teacher who leads the farm’s education programme. Their team includes assistant farm manager Hugo Dwerryhouse; Phil Cooper and Richard Jordan, who help implement key ideas on the farm; and Abby Ferreira who works in the office.

Nonington Farms is based around a regenerative farming system, involving both arable crops and grazing livestock. James describes the transition to regenerative farming as a learning journey, and one of the initial stages of this journey is to understand that arable enterprises must be flexible with crop rotations. He says: “As we are moving further into reducing inputs and increasing our carbon sequestration elements,
we need to identify any problems when deciding our crop rotation, rather than carrying on with what we have always done.

“For example, if we have black grass issues we would like to alter the rotation and graze a cover crop to sort out the problem rather than keep throwing money at herbicides.”
The arable rotation is flexible, with crops selected dependent on seasonal pressure. It often consists of wheat, beans, oats, oilseed rape, and either herbal leys or annual cover crops.


  • Small flock of sheep grazing herbal leys and cover crops, then slaughtered close to the farm and lamb sold locally
  • Nitrogen testing
  • Installing solar panels on grain store
  • Identifying and reducing diesel usage


One of the central focuses of regenerative farming is reducing inputs. To highlight this, James pays close attention to varieties selected for the farm, servicing his contracts with Warburtons and Allied Mills.
He says: “We grow Group 1 varieties like Crusoe and Skyfall, but the latter is susceptible to yellow rust. To counter the high disease risk on that, we also grow Group 2 varieties like Mayflower and Palladium, where resistance scoring is far higher. “Mayflower is not susceptible to septoria, and that makes us less reliant on fungicides. We also grow heritage wheats, which are far more sustainable. The yields are half those of a modern variety, but they are more nutritionally dense and not so nutrient hungry. It is a niche market selling to local artisan bakers.”

Livestock also contribute to increasing soil health, as pedigree Romneys and Jacob sheep are grazed across a range of covercrops and herbal leys, ensuring there is always a root in the ground
to protect the soil. The cover crop is usually drilled in late July until October, when the following year’s beans and oats are direct drilled. James says: “The sheep nibbled off the old [wheat] tillers which were full of septoria, and after we took them off, you could see the effect in the vigour of new tiller growth compared to the non-grazed areas.”

Challenge and success

A significant challenge the farm is experiencing through its regenerative journey is trying to balance the required contractual protein levels of 12 per cent for Group 1 milling wheat with reducing artificial nitrogen inputs. James says: “That is the real challenge for us, but we are doing a lot of monitoring of both nitrogen in the soil, nitrogen in the plant and levels within the grain. We are looking at historic levels and linking
how much nitrogen each field has historically had and, as we are reducing the nitrogen, we can see what impact that has on protein level. It is not an exact science; this is a gradual journey that takes time to find the optimum.” Cost reduction to benefit profitability is a key driver for success, and the couple prefer to look at their costs over several years rather than over the previous 12 months. “Aiming to reduce the peaks and troughs of profitability, as well as trying to carve out more sustainable markets, would be our key drivers,” says James.

Nitrogen efficiency is another important focus at the farm and, so far, the business has managed to reduce inputs from 25kg per tonne of wheat to 13.8kg/t of wheat. “We do nitrate testing on every field, all of which have different requirements. We count tillers per square metre, and we monitor the potential bank of nitrogen in the soil that can be mineralised. Because we apply variable rates across the fields, we are only putting nitrogen on where it is required,” says James. Liquid nitrogen is applied with a 36-metre sprayer, allowing applications to be controlled down to each individual nozzle. This ensures there is no overlapping along the tramlines and that a reduced rate of chemical is used. James explains: “Most people assume because you are reducing inputs, yields go down, but we found that yields have stayed the same, [which we put] down to yield mapping and precision technology, but also because the soil is healthy. It is allowed to recover, and because we do not use insecticides anymore, birds and other natural predators like ladybirds eat slugs and aphids. “The areas taken out of production never yielded much, so all we are doing is enhancing the yield elsewhere by using them as havens for natural predators who counterbalance the reduction in inputs.”


In 2020, Nonington became a Leaf Demonstration Farm, which Emma believes has widened the farm’s network. She says: “We are brainstorming with farmers across the country and around the world; it opens our eyes to things going on beyond Kent.” Their original Higher Level Stewardship agreement required them to host 25 educational farm visits a year, but they estimate that there are 1,500 visitors to the farm yearly.
“There is a huge demand, but it is something we are very passionate about. I have this sense that you should build a community around you. If people do not understand about farming, what are we doing
about it? “I think sometimes teachers fear coming out to a farm, and farmers fear having teachers and children on the farm. “The best thing is when the children come back, not just year after year, but even week after week. That is when they begin to see what the farm is about and can see the flowers and trees – which they have sometimes planted themselves – growing and learn about the birds nesting in them. They will care much more about nature as a result,” says Emma. James adds: “Other farmers come here too. A lot of them do not have the confidence to deal with the general public, and we can help them. Our success is all about having a good team around us, with an emphasis on attention to detail. The farm hopes to continue producing Class 1 milling wheat and progress with its carbon journey. James also hopes to grow biodiversity by planting hedges, trees and increasing the number of species on the farm. There are also ambitions to expand the educational activities on the farm by extending the schools programme and encouraging new entrants to promote the farming industry. “The dream would be to not use any artificial nitrogen at all  which will be a challenge, but we see it as more of a long-term goal.”


The couple agree that winning last year’s Arable Farmer of the Year at the British Farming Awards has given them a confidence boost about where they are at as a business and provided opportunities with prospective ventures and access to products. “Since winning, we have had lots of people contact us; i has certainly had an impact and raised our profile. All our hard work and everything we have done to improve and streamline the business has paid off, and it is nice to know other people see what we see for the business and its future.”


  • 1,200 hectares in total; 160 owned and the rest under share-farm agreements
  • Mixed farm with arable and sheep
  • Leaf demonstration farm since 2020
  • Educational farm visits with over 1,500 visitors per year
  • Rotation: wheat, beans, oats/wheat, oilseed rape and either herbal leys, annual cover crop or rotational countryside stewardship option

A word from the sponsor

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