Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Fledgling beet group beats challenging weather

June 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles

The Benacre Estate is proud to be part of the newly formed Cantley Beet Group, which produces 40,000 tonnes of sugar beet. Judith Tooth reports.

Appalling harvesting conditions last season tested the mettle and machinery of many of the region’s sugar beet growers. But for some in north east Suffolk, there was an extra challenge: working together as the newly formed Cantley Beet Group.

“It was very difficult,” says Jonathan Mitchell, farms manager at the Benacre Estate. “We had atrocious, absolutely awful harvesting conditions. So it was a bit of a baptism of fire for the group – but I think we’ve kept everybody on board.

“Ironically it was one of our best harvests – although it was wet, it was not as wet here as everywhere else, and it was an outstanding year for us.”

The Cantley Beet Group has 23 growers and hauliers growing 40,000 tonnes of sugar beet. Its administrator is Jamie Gwatkin, who helped set up the much larger Bury St Edmunds group, and it has a committee of four.

“I felt it was very important that we as growers retained as much control as we could,” says Jonathan. “British Sugar is good at processing; we’re good at growing and getting the crop to the factory.

“There are tremendous pressures at harvesting: the heavy land farmers want to get their sugar beet out of the ground early, and with the permit system they can’t do that. So we pool all the permits and the income from the sugar beet.”

This allows the heavy land to be cleared under reasonable conditions – for which growers pay a levy – and leaves the lighter land to be harvested last for a financial advantage. Cash flow is crucial – even if a farmer doesn’t harvest any crop early, he will still get cash on a monthly basis.

“To make the group work we need a percentage of light land and of heavy land – ideally two lights for one heavy. If only – we would like more light land growers to join us.”

Peter Butler of Yoxford drills the crop on the estate – and works with several of the group’s growers – while his brother John, based at Darsham, is haulage manager for the group.

Conditions for drilling were no better than they had been at harvest, says Jonathan: 200 acres of light land, sown in the first week of March, were subjected to bitterly cold winds, two inches of snow and three inches of rain.

Finally the new crop is emerging happily. Minimal cultivations and a fairly rough seedbed with straw lying around to anchor the surface and slow the wind down are key to a successful crop on the largely light coastal soils.

The estate itself is 7000 acres, a family business run by estate manager and director, Lucinda Hutson. Her mother, Lady Gooch, is chair and sister and fellow director is Victoria Vere Nicoll, whose husband, Edward, looks after its properties.

For Lucinda, who worked for the Royal Collection at St James’s Palace for 20 years before coming home four years ago, her new role has been quite a learning curve. Working alongside Jonathan is a big help: he was born on the estate and his father was resident agent.

Running from the River Hundred in the north to Potter’s Bridge Marshes in the south, west to Henstead and east to the coast, the estate includes the 800-acre Benacre national nature reserve, a coastal strip of heathland, woodland and reedbeds managed with Natural England, and SSSI heathland.

In all there are 600 acres of woodland and three-and-a-half miles of coastline – and, with, on average, 10 metres of land being lost to the sea each year, what’s drilled in the autumn might not be there at harvest.

There are five tenant farms, largely arable but with some livestock, and around 90 residential properties ranging from small cottages to Benacre Hall, which is divided into 12 apartments. There are also some commercial units at the Wren Business Centre.

The home farm runs to 2700 acres, with around 700 acres of stronger land west of the A12 and the rest light land. Along with 350 acres of sugar beet, feed wheats, malting barley, oilseed rape, peas, maize – for the soon-to-be-built anaerobic digester at Ellough, potatoes – grown by a third party, and asparagus complete the rotation.

“The potatoes we used to grow via our co-op, Wrentham Veg, with carrots, parsnips and so on, but the land got tired and we wound it up,” says Jonathan. “But the co-op was marvellous, the experience of working together with the tenants, and that co-operative thinking has lived on. We’re always discussing over the farmgate how we can do things better.

“Our water company is an interesting concept – in the early days when irrigation was put in by Lucinda’s grandfather each farm had its own irrigation system pumped out of dykes or well points. Her father had tremendous foresight to dig three reservoirs and link them, and then plug various underground mains into the reservoirs.

“Now we have ‘pooled’ all the water and all the farms are interlinked so that we can move water about, giving us tremendous flexibility. We can abstract 500,000 cubic meters in the winter and can also pump quite a bit during the summer months.”

Lucinda goes on: “Over the next five or six years we will see a major investment replacing the underground mains – they’re 50 years old, so it’s a big project.”

Lucinda’s late father also encouraged school groups to visit, and around 20 groups  continue to come each year free of charge to find out where food comes from, using the restored Wood Farm Barn on the estate as their base.

And, each May, there is an open day for 300 children organised with Natural England, showing them a wide range of farming and countryside activities.

“Since last year you can also get married in the barn, or hire it for a party,” she says. “The money generated is ploughed back into the buildings.”

Another example of working together is seen in the estate’s environmental policy. The home farm and nearly all the tenants are or soon will be in Higher Level Stewardship, providing buffer areas to the national nature reserve and trying to link the mosaic of habitats across the estate with wildlife corridors.

With the help of Tim Schofield of the Suffolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), hedgerows are being improved, field margins established, and wild bird and pollen and nectar seed mixes sown.