Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Premier Seed Services: Grow your own

June 3, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Suffolk-based mobile seed processor Premier Seed Services is ready for another busy summer helping the region’s farmers. Judith Tooth reports.

Come harvest a fleet of lorries will be criss-crossing Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Visiting up to three farms a day, each of these mobile seed processing units will clean and dress combinable crops from barley to beans ready for next season’s sowing.

Premier Seed Services, based near Saxmundham, is not the only option for farmers saving their own seed, but it is one with a solid foundation in engineering. Founder Joe Stollery set up in business in the 1980s when farm saved seed was in its infancy.

By innovating and developing the processing machinery, he established what has become the industry standard, using de-awner, screen and aspirator, gravity separation and seed treater as the mobile processing line.

Today, there are four directors of the family business: Joe, his wife, Nicky Stollery, in charge of finance, their son, Alan Stollery, works manager, and daughter, Jenny Eaves, who runs the office and looks after sales and customer support.

Down in the workshop – where full manufacturing facilities are being further expanded this year to bring the total workshop space to 13000 sq ft – a team of six engineers and fabricators are putting the final touches to a gravity separator ready for export to Canada, one of a dozen or so to be manufactured every year.

“We make a variety of machines, but we specialise in gravity separators,” says Alan. “They separate the same size particles down to different specific weights.

“As well as agriculture, they are used in many other industries such as recycling of rubber and plastic. We’ve just completed one separator for a gypsum (plasterboard) recycling plant in Northumberland.”

Hard-won reputation

“We also make mobile seed processing units for other companies,” adds Joe. “OK, there’s a risk they might encroach on ‘our’ area, but we would rather work with them and thus help to protect the hard won reputation of farm saved seed with quality machinery.”

Three of Premier Seeds’ mobile units are fitted with GS12 separators, which can process up to 10t of wheat an hour, while the fourth has a GS18 with a capacity of 12-16t an hour. Alan heads one unit, and the workshop staff provide the other three team leaders to run the very machines they spend the rest of the year making and maintaining.

“Growth in manufacturing has strengthened our business and means we can employ well-paid, full-time staff who take their in-depth knowledge of the business on to the farm,” says Joe.

“We always strive to have an overcapacity of machinery rather than sweating our assets at 100%. There’s nothing worse than saying we’ll be late: what the farmer wants is for us to arrive on the farm when required, and to carry out the seed processing professionally and efficiently.”

Farm saved seed doesn’t appeal to every farmer: it requires an extra element of organisation, especially at harvest, and an area to store the saved seed and keep different varieties separate.

Bespoke service

“You need to treat it like a seed crop and look after it. But we say it’s worth the hassle. Why not put the effort into next year’s crop?

You look at which varieties are growing well, and call us in to clean, process and treat the seed. We don’t have to just meet the minimum HVS standard: you can dress seed harder on the farm. It’s a tailored, bespoke service.

“Last summer, for example, there were lots of low thousand grain weights, and, if you were buying in seed, that’s all there was. But if you’re retaining your own seed, you can keep the  very best part by choosing the best field and the cleanest crop, and then having the gravity separator on-farm to select the best grains.”

Ben Hadingham of Retreat Farms at Flixton is growing seven varieties of C1 wheat this year, which he will save and use to grow all of next season’s wheat – except for the C1 varieties he’ll be growing for the following year’s crops.

He tries to use first year wheat land to reduce the risk of volunteers, in fields clean of blackgrass and where barley hasn’t been grown in the previous few years.

“Trying to guess two years’ in advance what the end market will want can be difficult, especially with some of the newer varieties, so we’ll grow a tonne and see how it performs. Sometimes we’ll end up with one that’s not so well suited, but at least we are trying it on our own land, and if it doesn’t do so well we’ve only grown a bit.”

The combine is cleaned in the field and the trailers swept out before harvesting the seed crops ready for Premier Seeds to come to the farm for two days of processing, and again later in the season as needed.

Ben sees a number of benefits to farm saved seed: “Timeliness is the main thing: we have that seed on the farm in our control from the day it’s combined. If we don’t want to drill until the middle of October, that’s ok, but there’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for seed. This way everything is in our hands.

Grower choice

“Also the quality of our seed is a lot better than we could buy in – bought in seed has strong germination but might not be the boldest grain, which is what you want to give the plant the best start. We try and grow on heavier land less likely to have droughted out by harvest – last year we still had nice samples.

“Farm saved seed does come up cheaper, too, by about £100 a tonne.”

Germination testing can be carried out by Suffolk Seed Laboratory at Earl Soham, either by farmers sending grain samples direct or Premier Seed Services collecting from customers’ farms.

Loss of chemicals, particularly of neonicotinoid seed treatment in cereals, is provoking a diverse range of responses: on the one hand, says Jenny, some are advocating multiple treatments and additives to to ensure early vigour, while on the other, some are planning to abandon seed treatments altogether.

“For us, it’s all about grower choice, allied with what’s best for the quality reputation of farm saved seed in the long term,” she says. “We’d urge farmers to use a fungicide seed treatment where available, at the very least, on their main seed crop.

“We all tend to think that bunt and smut are in the past, but, as seen with measles, diseases of the past can reappear in under-protected populations. Single purpose seed treatments remove the risk factor, protecting you and your seed from avoidable losses, at very low cost.”

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