In the year of his 75th Birthday, we look at the major contribution David Bright – founder of Bright Seeds – has made to UK agriculture, particularly in the field of maize production and the environment
This year marks the 75th birthday of one of the leading lights of modern British agriculture, David John Bright. A man of many talents, he has held a number of positions in the agricultural industry and his energy, vision, drive and enthusiasm have enabled him to make valuable contributions in a range of fields. Probably his greatest practical and theoretical achievement has been the development and adoption of maize as an important crop for British farmers, which has improved the capabilities and performance of the UK dairy industry.
David Bright was born in the summer of 1948, just as the London Olympics showed the world beginning to return to its peacetime rhythms after the horrors of World War II. Heralding from farming stock, he grew up in Fawley, Hampshire, a rural village by the waters of the English Channel near the edges of the beautiful and traditional New Forest. It was a peaceful country childhood, but the stream of ships sailing up Southampton Water to the port of Southampton told a story of the wider world, and our place in it. Perhaps that was an early indication of how much of David’s work would be about finding and adapting the treasures of the outside world so that they can help to preserve and maintain the best aspects of British life.
A lifelong passion for farming
His father, Alfred Edward Bright, was an engineer, and could well have been the source of David’s inquiring and scientific mind. Both David’s paternal and maternal grandfathers were farmers in the New Forest, and a lifelong passion for farming came early to him. During the long school holidays he got his first experience on a Hampshire farm milking cows at the age of 14; he later went on to study at Spartsholt Agricultural College.
A keen member of Romney Young Farmers, romance blossomed for David when he met Sue, the daughter of a dairy farmer from Salisbury Plain. An early hiccup came when they were courting, and there was a misunderstanding about where they would meet. David became alarmed, and got the local constabulary to locate Sue. She arrived for their date in a Panda car, and was understandably unhappy about the experience, although fortunately things soon blew over. They married in 1975, and are happily together 48 years later. Sue has been the pillar of David’s life. They have two children, Anna and Christopher.
From 1973 until 1988 David worked at Shearing and Loader Agricultural Merchants, getting an insight into most aspects of farming life and progressing to become a Director. After 15 years it was time for David to set out on his own, and he started his own company. Sue had originally worked as secretary to the Manager of Barclays Bank in Romsey, and this gave her a solid grounding to run the finance side of the business. Her focus, efficiency and sound good sense and judgment have been an essential part of the companies’ success. The family tradition has continued. Christopher, who is now CEO of Bright Seeds, had a childhood fascination with sighting rabbits, and car journeys were punctuated by his repeated chorus of “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit”.
Bringing maize to the UK
One of David’s farming contacts got him interested in bringing maize to the UK. Maize is a remarkable plant with the ability to yield exceptional levels of biomass due to its unusual method of photosynthesis. Its potential value in Britain was recognised as far back as 1828, when the great agricultural reformer William Cobbett published A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn “to show what a blessing this plant will be to the English labourer”. But maize is a tropical and sub-tropical crop, and the practical difficulties this presented meant it never really took off here.
David was fundamental in changing this. Up until the 1990s, dairy cows in the UK were fed forage almost exclusively comprising grass silage. Farmers who tried to grow maize were hamstrung by the severely limited number of varieties available. The viability of growing a crop outside its normal range often depends on finding a particular variety best suited for the growing season, climate, soil, intended use etc. Testing a range of types of maize, importing the best seeds and explaining all this information to actual and potential growers were crucial to David’s mission to bring maize to British farms.
At the forefront of opening up the forage maize market
David was a pioneer who explored the opportunities for forage maize in the UK, investigating the viable growing options with European breeders and importing the best seeds to Britain. He was at the forefront of opening up the forage maize market, providing UK growers with a selection of varieties that could work in our climate. His friendly and infectious enthusiasm spread the message about the possibilities of maize-cultivation far and wide, and his ability to communicate complex information directly and clearly meant that the leading scientific principles of growing maize could be implemented by farmers on the ground.
A key part of David’s success in developing forage maize as a mainstream crop was establishing a network of trial sites at strategic locations throughout the country to establish which varieties performed best in different climates and soil types. Producing this detailed, specific localised information was the game changer that gave farmers the confidence to take the plunge and try growing a new unknown and unproven crop. With its high energy density and low fibre content, maize has been shown to be an ideal complement to grass silage. Forage maize has proven of great benefit to improving cattle’s diet, leading to improved animal welfare and higher milk quality and yield.
Another first – Duo-Maize
David was also behind the duo-maize system whereby different varieties are drilled in alternate rows to improve performance. Trial work showed that through careful selection it is possible to create desired competition between two varieties, thus improving growth rates. It can also vary starches to give different rates of degradability in the rumen, always important in high performing dairy cows. This was another first.
As a subtropical crop, many varieties of maize ripen late in the UK, so that harvesting can be as late as November. This is highly undesirable because it heightens the risk of “run-off”, where nitrogen in the soil runs into watercourses, lowering water quality and harming wildlife and ecosystems. The solution is to find a variety that ripens and is harvested early, so that there is time to plant a nitrogen-holding follow-crop. This not only provides extra grazing for livestock, it fixes the residual nitrogen in the soil and so reduces “run-off”.
Maize as an environmentally sustainable crop
The technique is so valuable for the health of the countryside that the government now pays farmers to do it through the new Environmental Land Management scheme. David’s detailed local trials throughout the UK of early maize varieties over many years have created a database of scientific knowledge that has made early maize a viable option for British farmers, ensuring that maize is an environmentally sustainable crop. Other important techniques that David has developed and promoted are “undersowing” and “green manuring”. Undersowing involves undersowing grass into standing maize (for similar reasons as a follow-crop). Its success depends on finding a grass variety that will grow well, but not well enough to reduce maize yield, so again detailed local trials and expert advice for farmers are important to make the technique work.
His work led to him being noticed by leading figures of the agricultural world like Lord Plumb, the influential leader of the National Farmers’ Union. These contacts deepened into friendships, and encouraged David to continue and expand his activities. He practiced public speaking at an early age with the Romney Young Farmers, and has grown to become an accomplished orator versed with good diction. This has proved invaluable for his voluntary work speaking to young people at schools and colleges about rural enterprise and countryside matters.
He is a past president of the Lymington Growmore Club; Churchwarden; Parish Councillor; and a member of the Worshipful Company of Farmers, and the Maize Growers Association. He also speaks regularly at farmer meetings, conferences and agricultural colleges about British Farming, the value of British produced food, and the importance of home-grown forage for sustainable animal performance and welfare. His research and development in the field of dairy farming was recognised with the honour of a RABDF Prince Philip Award citation in 2001.
There are many ways a person can make a difference, but perhaps the greatest gift is to make the world a better place for those who come after us. David’s legacy and contribution to British Farming and the Countryside is already secure, and he is still hard at work. His strong Christian faith notwithstanding, perhaps he will indulge the notion that Hun Hunahpu, the ancient maize god of the Mayans, was smiling at his birth.