Saturday, August 24, 2019

Suggitt Farm Services: From go, go, go, to grow, grow, grow

August 8, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

A change of direction for a Norfolk contractor has led to a new range of garden fertilisers. Judith Tooth reports.

When Norfolk farmer and contractor Steve Suggitt started spreading digestate from the local AD plant on his land, he was amazed at the greenness of the crops that followed. It got he and his wife, Sarah, thinking about the potential for a new product for the nation’s gardeners. But, first, they had to make time to develop the idea.

“I’m all for go, go, go, let’s do more,” says Steve, who set up in business with a tractor and muck spreader. He and Sarah built up a clientele – helped in part by taking over another contractor’s foraging business, added baling straw to their services, and became a one-stop shop for livestock farmers. At their busiest, they were foraging 4000ha maize.

“I’d never do that again,” says Steve. “We couldn’t be everywhere at once. It was time for change. We decided to be kinder to ourselves, to make things more manageable.

“We’ve always been expanding our business, and it’s very hard to cut back. But you can be a busy fool, and I’ve worn that hat. I was out on farms hearing customers say, ‘Thanks, Steve, great job!’, but Sarah was in the office looking at the figures. She has a level head, a lot of common sense, and she said, we’re chasing around, wearing ourselves out, and not earning a lot of money. Sarah’s always right; I should listen to her more.”

Growth in the business had also been boosted by working in partnership with two local AD plants, and then by developing their own plant, but now they have stepped back from these commitments.

“It was a good time to reassess: we were finding it hard to manage all our staff, and our partners were keen to use some of their own staff. Now we have a team of 12, and it’s a lot better.  We now have one forage harvester instead of four, and the main focus [for our farm services] is on muck spreading and forage handling.”

The huge increase in machinery costs was also a significant factor in the change of direction for the business: a forage harvester costs £200,000 more than 10 years ago, says Steve. Charging rates for foraging work also played a part.

“Foraging is so cut-throat: we invested in bigger machinery so we could work more quickly, rather than charging more to our customers. But none of us is charging enough. I think the milk price has kept the foraging price low, and that set the level for pricing on harvesting maize for AD plants, so a lot of AD maize is set low.”

Muck spreading, by contrast, is not such a labour intensive operation, and the charges are about right, he says. Suggitt Farm Services offers a mucking out, haulage and spreading service for farmers from north Norfolk across to the M11, as well as trading in muck and spreading LimeX for British Sugar. Four Bunning muck spreaders are used: two wide body conventional machines for long straw cattle and pig muck, and two Lowlander disc spreaders for poultry muck and LimeX. A Joskin tanker with 24m dribble bar is used for slurry and digestate application.

Mucking out and machinery maintenance keep the winter months busy; then, in early spring, there’s muck spreading – which continues almost all-year round – applying liquid digestate on farms from local AD plants, and land preparation for drilling maize. During April and May 1200ha maize is drilled, half for forage, half for AD plants, including some on Steve and Sarah’s land rented in and around their base near Attleborough. Late spring and summer are busy foraging grass for dairy farms, and then baling straw and servicing machinery ready for the maize harvest in September and October.

As well as maize, they grow rye, lucerne, grass and a bit of sugar beet, all for local AD plants. Digestate returned to the land has replaced all fertiliser inputs and reduced spraying costs for maize to one herbicide applied three weeks after drilling.

“It was seeing such good canopy cover and such healthy growth that made us realise there was such an opening in the market for a natural garden fertiliser, and we wanted to put time and effort into developing a product.”

After a lot of research, and countless tests and meetings, they set up PlantGrow, a soil conditioning natural fertiliser made solely from maize and rye digestate. Already they are supplying 600 stores in the UK, they have had enquiries from France, Spain and the US, and have just loaded their first export to the Netherlands. Steve’s brother, Daniel, looks after the day-to-day running of the venture, while Steve and Sarah are steering its future direction.

“We squeeze the digestate using a Bauer screwpress to produce a solid and a liquid. We then store the solid for a couple of months before putting it into 10-litre buckets to be sold in garden centres and stores such as Homebase. We also supply the solid in 1-tonne bags and in bulk for use by customers such as the Royal Parks in London.

“As well as being a completely natural product, it’s a fantastic peat replacement, there’s no burning effect, and it has anti-drought properties because it holds moisture and so less watering is needed.”

The liquid is filtered and bottled for sale as a liquid plant food for flowers, fruit and vegetables and indoor plants. A natural lawn food, a rose food, and a slug repellant, made from drying down the solid digestate component, complete the current PlantGrow range, and a plant stick is in development.

“There’s massive potential for growth,” says Steve. “We’re now planning to build our own AD plant dedicated to PlantGrow production.

“I enjoy farming and love seeing crops look well, and applying digestate paints them green and keeps them healthy. I’m out of my comfort zone selling to a whole new market, but with something as exciting as this, it’s been a good time to cut back and try something different.”