Saturday, November 28, 2020

Solid strategy keeps farm thriving

June 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles

Peter Bennett has managed Babraham Farms for 30 years, steering a course between commercial cropping and capital growth – and always with an eye on the environment and landscape. It’s clearly a formula that appealed to the judges of the East of England Agricultural Society Farm Business Awards – the farm was supreme champion in 2012. Simon Tooth reports

“We’re not a big yielding farm and we don’t try to make it one. We cannot farm for a four-tonne crop – the soil type is just not there.”

That’s the view of Peter Bennett, who has been responsible for the management of the 623ha Babraham Farms since he was instrumental in its purchase on behalf of a pension fund in 1982. Instead, he says, he and his staff carefully monitor inputs, helped by GPS, and aim to get timing right, critical on land which varies from silty, gravelly loam overlaying chalky gravel to virtually chalk.

“We’re excited by variable rate nitrogen application which gives us much better control. We fertilise roots crops and will top up phosphates and potash using GPS placement. We use sulphur on cereals and rape to take the stress out of growing the crop,” added Peter.

But timing is not so easily controlled. He points to a field of winter wheat – late sown because the lifting of the previous crop of sugar beet was delayed by weather – only just getting established in mid-April. But he’s seen it before and he’s confident that it could still perform well on the chalky ground. But it needs water and this corner of Cambridgehsire is notoriously dry, with rainfall on the farm averaging about 610mm annually, well below the national average. “Unless we get May-June rainfall, we can struggle here” says Peter.

Wheat was until recently grown exclusively for seed but now commercial varieties are planted, too. It’s the main crop and accounts for some 340ha of the farm which surrounds Babraham village and borders the busy A11 trunk road. The rest is down to sugar beet (97ha), potatoes (67ha), oil seed rape (50ha) and barley (30ha). Potatoes, mainly Estima and Desiree for bakers, are marketed through Greenvale with seed wheat going to Frontier. Peter markets the rest on the open market.

There is on-farm ambient and refrigerated storage totalling about 1500 tonnes for potatoes and 3000 tonnes for cereals.

There’s no livestock on the farm although a layer enterprise has just restarted in buildings erected in the 70s. The tenant pulled out after traffic congestion made transporting eggs too problematic but the company returned at the beginning of the year, upgraded and re-equipped the buildings with help from  Babraham Farms, and is now producing breeding eggs on a deep litter slat system. The farm, keen to get humus into the soil, will take the spent litter to augment the horse muck it sources locally.

The farm’s shoot is let and takes advantage of the 125 acres of woodland. Badly affected by Dutch elm disease, replanting is on-going behind a perimeter strip of mature trees which are left unfelled. This lessens the visual impact and creates shelter for the new planting which is mainly cherry, beech and ash (now out of the equation as chalara spreads). “Cherry grows superbly here and has a great value both as amenity and for timber when the trees are fully mature at about 60 years,” says Peter. While deer are not a problem, hares are plentiful. Peter says they can start at one end and work their way along a row of sugar beet and there is evidence of historic damage on hedgerows which probably weren’t protected. But this year the real pests are pigeons, competing for the little food there is available because of the late spring.

Peter, a director of Savills who headed up the firm’s agribusiness department and though part-retired still works there three days a week, spends about a day a week on Babraham business. He leaves the day to day management to Michael Goody, who has worked on the farm for more than 20 years. There are two others on the staff including Michael’s son Jonathan, who won the title of regional sprayer operator of the year in 2012. They are joined by two students during the summer and by Polish casuals for the potato harvest. All farm work is carried out in hand apart from sugar beet havesting.

The farm strategy is based around three aims – trading, capital growth and farming in an environmentally sensitive way. It’s an attractive holding with game strips and 6m cultivated field margins around many fields to encourage the wild flowers which flourish on the chalk. “The wild flowers are fantastic, particularly in June” says Peter.

The farm, previously in Countryside Stewardship, is making the transition to Higher Level Stewardship. The area was settled by the Romans and one of the farm’s borders is a Roman road, well used by walkers and runners. A burial ground dating back to 2000BC was identified on the farm by English Heritage some 10-15 years ago and under HLS the 10ha site will be turned over to grass. Although there are no plans to excavate it, English Heritage wants as little disturbance as possible.

There is no principal house – historically much of the land belonged to Babraham Hall, now a science research station – but there are several smaller houses and cottages, some used by staff but the majority of which are let. With Cambridge nearby to the west and the A11/M11 corridor to the east, there is a steady demand for rented accommodation coupled with a healthy growth in capital values. A piece of the farm’s land in the village was recently sold to a housing association which is building a development of 11 houses and flats.

Peter says he’s always “on the go with projects. That could mean anything from finding new uses for redundant farm buildings to taking on new farming contracts. We’ve got an asset which we have to maintain and use.” It’s a philosophy that’s keeping this farm very much alive as a business while preserving its landscape and rural heritage.