Monday, July 15, 2019

Ancient and modern

April 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a farm on the Suffolk coast where centuries-old landscapes sit alongside intensive production.

It takes a long while to spot the 30 or so beef cows grazing among the ancient trees of Staverton Park. Eight years since it was fenced as part of a higher-level stewardship agreement, the cows have done a good job helping to restore the pastoral woodland character of what is the biggest area of oak pollards in Europe.

“It was thick as thick with bracken, but it’s gradually opening up,” says Tim Pratt, farm manager of Wantisden Hall Farms, owned by farming family J H Kemball and Son.

“The cows don’t eat the bracken, but they stand it down. They are there all year, and due to start calving soon.”

Together with The Thicks – a denser woodland with towering hollies as well as centuries-old oaks – this historic landscape extends to 100ha. Come May, it will be carpeted with bluebells.

Since the farm’s entry into HLS, there are more birds, and good numbers of butterflies and moths, particularly where the wood pasture and woodland give way to wet grassland, now being grazed by sheep. Whole fields are in pollen and nectar mixes, and sowing of environmental mixes along margins and in field corners is staggered for flowering throughout the season.

Demonstration farm

“We’ve been a LEAF demonstration farm for nearly 20 years now,” says Tim, “so we try to encourage people to come here, from local schools and the Women’s Institute to foreign visitors and farming groups from around the country. What they see depends on the time of year, and on what interests them, whether it’s more the environmental side or the intensive farming.

“We also get involved with the annual potato planting day at the Suffolk Showground, where hundreds of children come to learn how to grow potatoes and then go back to their schools to grow their own.”

Harvesting or planting takes place almost every week of the year. In all 600ha is under cultivation, and a further 800ha is contract-farmed. Tim has been farm manager for 13 years, winning Farmers Weekly farm manager of the year in 2016, and there are 13 full-time staff, four seasonal workers and more at the busiest times.

The mild coastal climate, together with light soils and irrigation, make ideal conditions for growing carrots, onions, parsnips and early potatoes, while heavier land west of the A12 has a more cereal-based rotation, with winter wheat and barley, oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize.

“We harvest parsnips up until Christmas, and by that time we’ve started planting under polythene for the following July. After Christmas we’re lifting sugar beet, and we start planting carrots and onion sets. Spuds start going in at the end of February, mostly under fleece for frost protection until the end of April or early May.”

Marketing group

The farm is one of six members of marketing group 3Ms cooperating to supply potatoes to the major multiples. At Wantisden early varieties Maris Piper, Maris Peer, Bambino and Paris are grown along with bakers Maris Piper, Marfona and Lanorma.

“Our potatoes are lifted pretty much off the field to order – except for our home-grown seed potatoes, which we grow on isolated virgin land.

“Last summer’s drought was very tricky: we ran out of water in some places and couldn’t get around quick enough with the temperatures as they were. We kept the crops alive but yields were all down – probably a third down on vegetables. There was some compensation as prices rose, but with potatoes, we had to use our free by just to fulfil contracts.

“So this year we have decreased the area of all our vegetable crops, particularly where water may be an issue, and we’ve altered our contracts slightly to get crops off the farm sooner. We have spring fed reservoirs here at Wantisden, and we also have boreholes and river abstraction licences – but it’s the river abstraction that is at greatest risk as it could be restricted by 50%. And we’ve had quite a dry winter so it is an increasing worry. We’re looking at building a new reservoir on one of our contract farms to give us more water security.”

Bulk storage

Whole crop rye and maize, double-cropped if rain comes at the right time, are also grown on the light land for the AD plant at Bentwaters Park. Much of the onion storage is also at Bentwaters, but a 3000t bulk onion store at Wantisden is being converted to box storage for ease of management and improved quality.

“With bulk storage you get compression at the bottom of the pile, and a bigger proportion of defects, and we’re paid on pack out. With boxes, if there is an issue, you can pull out a row. We’re replacing mobile floor ducting with a new duct and a ‘letter box’ for each onion box allowing air in, and a new ‘brain’ for the drying system monitoring air humidity and flow. Farm Electronics is looking after the conversion, and it will be ready by July.”

A wide range of cover crops improve soil structure, hold on to nutrients, reduce compaction through deep rooting and increase organic matter. A trial with Kings Seeds over the winter saw 10 different cover crops grown across 10ha to see what grew best, how much each benefitted the soil and which the farm’s sheep liked.

“The sheep had all 10 options to choose from at any one time. They don’t oil radish – they ate that last, but it’s good as it’s very deep rooting; they really liked fodder rape, but it yielded less compared with, say, stubble turnips – which are very cheap to establish compared with Italian rye grass, which is expensive, but which is growing very well now. The crops will soon be sprayed off and ploughed in, and it will be interesting to see what comes up in the following sugar beet crop.

“We’ll do the trial again on a bigger scale.”

Selling direct

The sheep – 250 Poll Dorset ewes – were introduced in part to help increase soil organic matter. They lamb outdoors in September and October, which fits in well with the farming calendar and the Easter lamb market, and graze on grass for a couple of months before moving on to cover crops. The farm’s shepherd doubles up as a tractor driver in the summer months.

“We supply to farm shops and to Direct Meats, and demand for lamb is rising so we will probably increase our numbers. I was talking to some London chefs recently, through Direct Meats, together with Jeremy Durrant, from EW Davies Farms. Provenance, health and welfare is very important to them. We are both LEAF demonstration farms, and have the same breed of sheep and similar grazing management, but our flocks lamb a month apart, so together we can offer a consistent supply.”

Pigs, kept on 50ha of the lightest land rented to a local farmer, are also part of the arable rotation, providing organic matter, phosphorus and potassium, and clearing up volunteer potatoes.

Wantisden Hall Farms is no stranger to diversification, with well established wedding and events venue Wantisden Valley, as well as Bentwaters Park and warehousing and haulage business Debach Enterprises run by the family. Now a new venture, Wantisden Parks, set in meadows along the Butley Creek, is being prepared for its first season of camping and glamping.

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