Two enterprising young farmers have embarked on an ambitious land transformation project after securing a "life-changing" opportunity on the Norfolk County Farms estate.

Tom Martin, 23, runs his own contract shepherding and shearing business, while his partner Hannah Hetherington, also 23, works full-time as a regional crop manager for a frozen food business.

Last October, they took on the tenancy at the 115-acre Mendhams Farm in Outwell, between Downham Market and Wisbech.

It is part of the Norfolk County Farms estate, more than 6,800 hectares of publicly-owned agricultural land which brings revenue into Norfolk County Council, while creating opportunities for farmers to expand or start new ventures.

And the couple have already launched their "eco-friendly" five-year business plan.

The farm's arable fields have just been harvested for the last time before being resown as herbal leys under a Countryside Stewardship scheme.

The grassland will help support a new flock of sheep, with 300 ewes being purchased in September, and new fencing and hedges being established in the coming months.

Mr Martin says the transformation will benefit soils and wildlife, as well as helping the business to grow.

"We are taking industrial-looking farmland and hopefully changing it into eco-friendly farmland," he said.

"For the county council, it is perfect for what they are trying to achieve because they want to be more environmentally friendly, be kind to the land - which the grass leys and hedgerows will be for the wildlife."

Mr Martin began his business on his family's farm in nearby Hilgay, but he said there was no way the couple could have afforded their own farm without the County Farms tenancy. He estimates Mendhams Farm, including its farmhouse, would have cost £1m to buy outright.

"It is a great opportunity, and a lot of people don’t get the chance of giving it a go," he said.

"A lot of people are more than capable, but there are not enough farms to go around, so to get a foot in the door is very hard.

"Although we have got a family farm, I have also got two other brothers - one is interested, one is an estate agent - but it is not a big farm. If that gets split three ways it would not leave a lot each.

"So we decided to make our own destiny and go for it."

Cambs Times: Norfolk County Farms tenants Tom Martin and Hannah Hetherington with their dogs at Mendhams Farm in Outwell, near WisbechNorfolk County Farms tenants Tom Martin and Hannah Hetherington with their dogs at Mendhams Farm in Outwell, near Wisbech (Image: Denise Bradley)

Miss Hetherington added that securing the tenancy has "literally changed our lives".

"I know it sounds a bit dramatic, but it has - because without it we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this," she said.

"We would not have been able to afford to go and buy a farm, so we would still have been where we were before.

"We are transforming the farm really. It has been cereals for years, so with us putting grass and hedges and bringing wildlife back to the farm - it will be completely different. 

"Even the pumpkin patch, you walk in there and there are bees pollinating the flowers, and there is life in there - whereas before, with the bare land, there is no reason for any wildlife to be there."

The pumpkin patch will be ready in October, part of a broader plan to invite the public onto the land with lambing days and educational open days.

Cambs Times: Norfolk farmer Tom Martin, winner of the 2023 Chris Lewis Award, at Mendhams Farm in Outwell, near WisbechNorfolk farmer Tom Martin, winner of the 2023 Chris Lewis Award, at Mendhams Farm in Outwell, near Wisbech (Image: Denise Bradley)

Earlier this year, Mr Martin won the 2023 Chris Lewis Award, named after a respected Norfolk stockman and sheep breeder who was known for supporting young people.

Mr Martin will use most of the £8,000 prize money, funded jointly by the Norfolk Farmers Trust and the Clan Trust, to invest in an electronic mobile sheep weighing system, complete with equipment that will record data to help increase livestock performance - both in his own flock, and within his contracting business.

The award-winner's advice to other aspiring young entrepreneurs was to "just go for it".

"For us, it was easier not going for it than going for it," he said. "But if you believe you have got something that you think will work, and are determined enough to make it work, you find a way to do it."