Thursday, January 28, 2021

Borage and bees make profitable combination

September 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles


Fields of blue borage abuzz with bees make a pretty picture. Harvested carefully, they also make a pretty penny. Judith Tooth reports.

Essex farmer Peter Fairs has been growing borage for 30 years. His company, Fairking Ltd, together with De Wit Speciality Oils, is now the UK’s largest borage oil specialist with growers as far afield as Ross on Wye, Winchester and Norwich.

Most growers are in Essex – including Peter’s own farm at Great Tey. It is part of a family farming partnership with his wife, Penny, their son Andrew and his wife, Wendy. Together, HJ Fairs and Son farms 4000 acres of owned, tenanted and share-farmed land between Marks Tey and Braintree. This year, a quarter is down to borage.

Peter’s fascination with ‘novel’ crops began through his friendship with Francis Nicholls of John K King and Sons of Coggeshall, which led to the Fairking partnership. The 1980s brought success with borage, quinoa and lunaria and, of those, borage expanded the most rapidly. Today Fairking Ltd is an independent company, cleaning novel crops at Great Tey ready for processing at De Wit’s extraction plant in north Lincolnshire.

Borage oil contains the same essential fatty acid – gamma linoleic acid, or GLA – as the better known evening primrose oil, but contains nearly twice as much GLA and is easier to grow. It is sold as star flower or borage oil capsules, or is used to enrich evening primrose oil capsules, to help with body metabolism, and is also used in skin creams.

The borage harvest had just begun when I visited the family farm in late July. Sown from mid-April to mid-May, the crop takes around 100 days to mature. When the blue star-shaped flowers fade to a washed out pink, it’s time to harvest.

“Borage is an excellent break crop on all but the lightest soils,” says Peter. “Being spring sown it gives farmers a good opportunity for cultural control of blackgrass. The other thing I like about it is that it has very few pests – rabbits and pigeons don’t like it at all.”

It has a consistently good return – Peter budgets on 380kg per hectare and the crop is worth £3.50/kg to the farmer. “Volunteer borage is easily controlled in cereals and, apart from beans, there are herbicides available to give satisfactory control in most crops.”

The crop has to be swathed and, as it’s a very fleshy crop, it needs to dry out for 10 to 14 days. Then the combine needs an attachment to pick it up. Alternatively, contractors can be recommended.

“The downside of the crop – and every crop has them – is that it’s a garden plant, and a very natural plant, that sheds its seed at the first opportunity, so timing of swathing has to be accurate. You have to lose some to get some, but the modifications we’ve made to the swather, which make the seed heads fall to the middle of the swath and the stems to the outside, hold the seeds within the rows and minimise losses.”

Andrew agrees there are big advantages to growing borage: “There is a lot of talk about grass weeds, especially blackgrass, and no new chemicals of any great significance coming through. As borage isn’t sown until the end of April or beginning of May we are able to use Roundup right up to the end of April. I’m not saying we haven’t got blackgrass or brome but it’s made a difference.”

The crop is also great for bees, and bee keepers. One grower near Norwich told Andrew he couldn’t believe how many bumble bees were foraging in it, and a visiting bee keeper said he thought borage crops were doing more for bees than all the pollen and nectar strips and wild bird cover put together.

Andrew runs the farm with the help of assistant farm manager, Chris Barron, two full time operators, and four extra staff at harvest, and feels very lucky to have a team with such enthusiasm and experience.

The main crops on the farm are wheat, oilseed rape, borage and peas, with 1300 acres left fallow over winter. Practising non-inversion tillage, the land is not left as stubble, but the resulting surface – rough but level – is enjoyed by the local shoot and, hopefully, some overwintering birds.

“Our aim is to have a limited amount of really good machinery,” says Andrew. “We use a Vaderstad Topdown or Keeble Progressive cultivator and then, for wheat, a Rexius twin press. For oilseed rape we attach a biodrill to the Topdown and follow with a heavy roll.”

Using liquid nitrogen fertiliser allows a more accurate spread, he says, and, along with pesticides, is applied using GPS-linked equipment. The farm has been tested by SOYL for P, K and lime to give a soil nutrient level summary for each field. And soil testing is being rolled out to determine variations in soil type and produce establishment maps for each field so that seed rate can be manipulated to produce a uniform number of seed heads per hectare on every hectare.

“We do all our own combining and, as we have lots of alternative crops that come ready at the same time, and five contract or share farming agreements, and outside contracting of oilseed rape and borage, we run three smaller Claas Lexion combines rather than one big one.”

Grain storage and drying facilities have been installed at a new farmyard at White Colne by Andrew’s brother, Roger, who runs Tey Farm Systems. It’s part of an overall move away from the original farmyard at Great Tey, which, in the centre of the village, is now more suited to small work units. At White Colne, 4000 tonnes of wheat storage and a continuous flow dryer, running at up to 50 tonnes an hour, allows flexibility at harvest.

“The key to the contract farming operation is that everyone benefits,” says Andrew. “Having the drier means we can start combining earlier, and combine for an extra three hours a day. We cooperate for common benefit.”