Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Arable growers seize grape opportunity

April 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a Suffolk arable farm where a new vineyard is set for a sparkling future.

Anew vineyard is sure to be an attraction when Stuart Scarff and his family welcome the public to Open Farm Sunday on 9 June. At last year’s event more than 600 people visited their Suffolk farm at Combs, Stowmarket.

“It’s good to open the doors and invite people in to see what’s happening,” says Stuart. There’s a lot of local interest in farming and it’s a great opportunity to promote British agriculture.”

This year, local producers including beekeepers, a brewery and a farm shop, are taking part alongside many of the farm’s agricultural suppliers, and the rural police team. The family is putting on a barbecue and the village church community is providing teas.

The vineyard – at 8ha, one of the biggest in Norfolk and Suffolk – was established following a decision to diversify the farm’s income.

“We had to look at diversifying, to be less reliant on global markets,” says Stuart’s son, James, who returned to the family farm to manage the new enterprise in 2016, having spent the previous 10 years working in field-scale vegetable production on the Suffolk coast.

“Chicken production was a possibility, but that’s based around the price of wheat and under the control of a few producers.

“Dad had been interested in vineyards for two or three years, and went to a farm innovation exhibition at the NEC … that led to a year’s course at Plumpton College, one day a month, learning the basics of establishing and managing a vineyard. We could see the wine industry was a massive growth market and that supply wasn’t meeting demand: it was an opportunity for us.”

Establishment

East Sussex-based Vine-Works produced costings for establishment of the vineyard, and went on to supply and plant the vines, install the infrastructure and provide labour.

Before that, though, Dr Alistair Nesbitt from Climate Wine Consulting – whose doctorate from the University of East Anglia was the first qualitative and quantitative analysis of viticulture climate suitability in England and Wales, and whose report identifying the most suitable 35,000ha in the UK for growing vines put Suffolk and Devon at the top of the list after the Isle of Wight – was brought in to produce a climate report and identify high risk areas for frost damage.

“We chose a south-facing slope, of course, and one that was as close to the farm as possible for movement of machinery and ease of transport of grapes,” says Stuart.

Next was identifying a market for their grapes. Long lists of wineries were contacted and several offers made before deciding to go with East Sussex-based family business Ridgeview – which went on to win Winemaker of the Year at the 2018 International Wine and Spirit Competition.  Ridgeview was looking to expand and spread risk – the risk of frost is lower here than in Sussex – and they got on well.

Wary of poor planting conditions following the very wet spring of 2016, the decision was taken to split the planting: 4ha in 2017 – a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir – and the same again in 2018. In hindsight, says Stuart, they could have planted them all at once: it rained as the final four rows were planted last year, and 90 days passed before there was any more.

Satellite positioning

“Using GPS ensured the vines were planted in exactly the right position, 1m apart in the row and 2m across the rows,” says James. “Then each one had a metal rod put in alongside it, and a tree guard to protect against grazing. The following winter, posts were installed for trellising, a series of foliage wires to hold the canopy in place, and the vines were pruned back to ground level.

“We hadn’t budgeted on getting a crop until 2020, but last summer conditions were perfect and we saw fantastic growth. So, after meeting with Vine-Works and Ridgeview, we decided to prune for harvest this year rather than next. It will be a small harvest but it will be good to have a dry run on a small scale: we’re on a big learning curve.”

During April and May, four Exfrost fans, imported from Australia with 40 per cent Leader funding, keep air flowing through the vineyard so that cold air can’t settle. They turn on automatically when temperatures dip below 2C and alert James if they are not working.

“We want frost during the winter to give the vines a good rest, but late frosts can kill the developing buds and create ongoing problems for the following year. We also have two Soil Moisture Sense weather stations in the vineyard and they run with an early warning system that alerts me during frost events.

Harvest

When it comes, harvest will be by hand: while grapes destined for still wine can be picked mechanically, those for sparkling wine need to be on the bunch. Once the vineyard is in full production, 60-70t of grapes are expected off 8ha, loaded in 4t lots and delivered to Ridgeview’s presses each evening. The resulting wine, after three years’ developing in the bottle, will sell for £30 to £40 a bottle.

“We’ve got a lot to learn, but Ridgeview’s manager is always on the end of the phone to help us with the timing of critical decisions, so we’re feeling optimistic and confident.”

Arable farming remains the foundation of the business, which has grown from Stuart’s father’s original 80ha to 350ha, a mix of owned, contracted and rented land. Wheat, oilseed rape – both high and low erucic acid varieties – and peas are being grown this year. Spring beans, spring barley and millet make an appearance at times, but Maple peas, grown on contract for Church of Bures, have been a constant part of the rotation for the past 20 years.

“It’s an old fashioned variety mainly for the racing pigeon market, easy to grow, but hard to combine, as it goes flat to the ground,” says Stuart. “So it requires a lot of patience at harvest – but it can make the best margin on the farm.”

The farm is in a process of transition, moving away from ploughing and heavy cultivations to a system of fewer passes with minimal disturbance. The decision was strengthened when, in 2017, after a wet August, most of the second wheat land was ploughed, and the resulting crops were very patchy.

“This season we just tickled the surface, rolled and walked away. We sprayed off in October just before drilling and using a Vaderstad Rapid we more or less direct drilled into the chipped up stubbles. The crops look great.”

Domestic brown bin compost from Material Change at Creeting has been added for the past 10 years or more to improve the condition and fertility of the soil. Worm numbers have increased markedly and the soil is in a much healthier state from adding compost and reducing soil disturbance, and the planned introduction of cover crops should help, too, says Stuart.

“It’s a long term process, but we’re seeing the benefits now. The next step is to sow cover crops behind the combine with a Claydon drill. It will be trial and error, but we’ve been to lots of meetings and looked at what other farmers are doing.”

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