Thursday, August 22, 2019

Growing on the coast

November 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

A Suffolk potato grower is making the most of mild coastal conditions, light soils and marketing skills. Judith Tooth reports.

The last of the potatoes – salads, reds and seed – have been lifted and the winter barley and wheat that follow them sown. Spring greens, grown between onions and potatoes, and lettuces, after vining peas and before sugar beet, are dotted around the farm, grown on short term land licences.

Maize has gone to local anaerobic digester AgriGen. Sugar beet has yet to be lifted, but – after an intense growing season – things are quietening down at Capel St Andrew Farms on the Suffolk coast.

The farm office has five desks: one each for Andrew Greenwell, his wife, Becca, sister, Davina, mother, Serena and father, Jamie.

Working together extends beyond family, though: a contract farming agreement with Guy Hayward at Wickham Market is actually much more than that, with Guy looking after the cereal harvest across the farms, and his son, Ethan, about to start an apprenticeship at Capel St Andrew.

Outdoor pig production is the result of longstanding working relationships with Dingley Dell Pork and Rattlerow Farms. And Andrew is chair of farmer-owned potato marketing group Three Musketeers and sister company, fresh vegetable cooperative Suffolk Produce, collaborating to make the most of the mild coastal conditions and light soils in highly competitive markets.

This year the marketing expertise within 3Ms and Suffolk Produce has been more important than ever, with the drought cutting the onion harvest, 95% of it contracted, in half; and potatoes, with 80% contracted at 75% of normal volume, and irrigation costs far higher than usual.

Farm management

“I have a really good manager James Reeves, who runs the irrigation, and our guys worked really hard,” says Andrew. “We rent a lot of land as far up as Lowestoft, and those farms did a fantastic job, too. We had to keep phoning them to ask them to put on more water.

“We were ok until the second week of July, but with the temperature so hot, we were losing canopy on the onion crops and later planted potatoes, and were just keeping the crops alive and not building yield.

“We’re prepared for watering all the way through from emergence to harvest, but that doesn’t usually happen; we’ll get two or three rainfall events during the 10-week key growing period, which gives a bit of downtime for the guys and a chance for the reservoirs to recharge. This year they ran out.”

Suffolk Produce crops manager James Pearson adds: “Our onion customers have been understanding and are paying more, so we’re back to the same return per hectare – though we’re down a bit in terms of gross margin as it’s cost more to grow the crop.

“The bigger influence in the market is that the drought was across Europe; if not for that they would have gone to France or the Netherlands instead. But everyone’s stuffed this year: we’ve all suffered the same weather event.”

Last year, 3Ms farmer members invested in a new potato grader at their Bentwaters base. The new equipment has camera selectors to remove stone and mud robotically, and vertical sizing screens that can be changed relatively quickly so that customers get exactly the size of potato they want. And traceability is in place to ensure the right grower gets paid.

New capacity

Andrew grows 400ha potatoes, 150ha of them at Capel St Andrew Farms. Choice of variety is very much market-led and changing all the time, while agronomic factors also play a part. This year’s list included salad varieties Maris Peer, Bambino and Charlotte; Piper for baking; Marfona, Lanorma and King Edward.

Seed potatoes, mainly salad varieties, are grown on 45ha for on-farm use. Some potatoes are chitted before planting and some early crops are fleeced, but most important, he says, is the microclimate: growing for that early market.

With more extremes in weather, investment in more reservoirs seems likely. In fact, the process has already begun: one reservoir was extended by 50% earlier this year, to 140,000 cubic metres, but it wasn’t quite ready in time to take full advantage of the new capacity for the growing season. And another was built last year – although being in an area rich in archaeological remains, there are constraints and the planning process can be costly.

Investment in irrigation infrastructure is also planned, with upgrading of pumping equipment to make moving water more reliable and energy-efficient. Beyond that, though, without wanting to mention Brexit – the ‘B’ word – there’s a lot of uncertainty.

“We’re positive about the future, but for now we want to make sure what we’re doing we do really well. So we’re not in an environmental scheme at the moment; we were in ELS, but there’s so much uncertainty – we’re waiting to see what happens. But we’re very lucky here: the farm runs down to Butley Creek SSSI, and there’s a lot of wetland we don’t really do anything with.”

Pig enterprise

Focusing on core activities rather than diversifying into new activities is not a new philosophy. Three years ago the family decided to give up the outdoor pig herd that they had worked closely with brothers Mark and Paul Hayward of Dingley Dell Pork to establish. The pigs are still on the farm, but now they are owned by Dingley Dell, rather than being supplied to them, with the land let on annual grazing licences.

“With everything going on with growing vegetables, potatoes especially, and a second baby on the way – my wife, Becca, was running the pigs – and the Haywards keen to carry on working with us, they bought the herd as a going concern.

“We supply straw and they give us muck, and we grow some potatoes on their farm, so we’re cooperating a lot. With relatively free-draining ground we can avoid issues of run-off, and having pigs in the rotation gives the land a break and allows soil indices to build up.

“But trying to make the pigs work at the same time as producing high quality potatoes was a real struggle. Now we can focus on a really intense time between March and the end of October and then have some downtime over the winter, and get all the machinery through the workshop.”

One new project is taking shape, however: this time last year blueberry bushes were planted on 3.5ha, and the first harvest will take place next summer. There’s growing demand for the crop, says Andrew, and a lot of it is imported. He’s been to Oregon and the Netherlands to look at production, and plans to supply the processing market.

“It’s a bit of a punt, but if you sit on the fence for ever you don’t get anything done.”