Measuring greenhouse gas emissions is nothing new at Jack Buck Farms, Lincolnshire, where the process has been underway for more than 15 years. Angela Calvert reports.
Celeriac, potatoes and daffodils are the main crops grown by Jack Buck Farms, at Moulton Seas End, Lincolnshire.
These are interspersed with many others, some mainstream, some niche, to ensure that the maximum output is achieved from top quality land, while at the same time, fully utilising machinery, buildings and staff.
Company director Robin Buck says: “As well as the main crops, we grow onions, wheat, peas, fennel, and recently have added squash.
Over the years we have tried a lot of other niche crops, such as kohlrabi, pak choi, Jerusalem artichokes, and globe artichokes.” And while carbon zero might be the current buzz words, measuring greenhouse gas emissions has been underway on the farm for a long time.
Robin says: “Our carbon footprint and the need to reduce it is something which has been on our radar for many years.
“So, as a starting point, I developed my own system to record our greenhouse gas emissions, as we work towards reducing them.
“We use gas oil [diesel], electricity and propane [North Sea gas] on the farm and so I convert the litres or kilowatt hours of each to the carbon dioxide equivalent of each fuel.
“Diesel is by far the biggest contributor at about 63 per cent, which is used for tractors.
“The major use of electricity is for chilling, drying, washing and grading so crop yields and ambient temperatures during storage have an enormous impact.
“December is the peak time for electricity use and last year the combination of a mild winter and a wet harvest saw electricity costs increase by £30,000.
“However, last year, we changed to a new supplier of all renewable electricity, so that should make a big difference to our emissions figures in the future.
“These figures can then be charted against each tonne of farm output.
As this increases, so do emissions, but not at the same rate, which shows the overall trend is downwards, as a result of the changes we put in place.
“For us, one of the biggest changes we can make is increasing output from the same or less inputs, but these figures do give us a means of comparing emissions year on year and we can build on this.
“I appreciate that this is not the full story because we import on to the farm, among other products, nitrogen fertiliser, which demands high energy from gas to produce and, therefore, contributes to CO2 emissions.
“Farmers are under the spotlight, but perhaps it is time we started to ask some of our suppliers to show their policies to their customers.” Jack Buck Farms is probably best known for its celeriac, marketed under The Ugly One brand, with about 160 hectares (400 acres) grown each year, of which a bit more than half goes to DGM Growers, which markets it to all the major supermarkets, while the farm sells the remainder to wholesalers and processors almost all year round.
Robin says: “We started with two acres of celeriac in 1989 and it has gone from there as awareness of the crop has increased.
Celeriac is low carbohydrate and has half the calories of potatoes.
We have worked hard to grow the market and promote it, providing recipes, working with chefs such as Rachel Green and attending the BBC Good Food Show.”
Celeriac planting starts in April, with plants which have been raised under glass and are initially grown under plastic.
The remainder of the crop is planted in the open in May.
Lifting starts in August/September and is completed by November, with the crop going into store to be sold right through winter.
Taking a long-term view, the company has just completed a £2.7million project to build a celeriac washing and packing facility.
Managing director Julian Perowne says: “You have to plan ahead.
Demand was growing and we were beginning to find pinch points in our existing system at peak times.
“We currently produce about 8,000 tonnes of the raw product, but this will enable us to take production up to 20,000t a year.” The new facility soaks, washes, polishes, dries, grades, weighs and packs the celeriac and has been built with the focus on energy efficiency.
It has a water treatment plant which recycles all the water, meaning no waste water, but, Julian says, this means the celeriac is now being washed in cleaner, sterile water resulting in a cleaner vegetable.
The new weighing system provides more accuracy and reduces the amount of waste.
There are solar panels on the roof, as there are on many of the other buildings, and 80 per cent of the electricity produced is used by the business, with the remaining 20 per cent exported.
Julian says: “Fortunately, we were able to start using the new facility in mid-January as we had a massive spike in sales during the first three weeks of the pandemic when there was panic buying.
“Food service sales did fall but retail sales made up for it and, although things have settled down somewhat, sales are still at higher than usual levels.” Daffodils are one of the other main crops, with about 101ha (250 acres) grown, specialising in the early variety, Tamsyn, which is unique to the business, as the entire stock of 10kg was bought in the 1980s and now three million bunches are sold every year.
Cropping of the daffodils begins in January, depending on the weather, and goes through to April.
Robin says: “Because of the varieties we grow we are one of the first to market.
The UK is already three weeks ahead of Europe, so a lot of the crop is exported and there is some uncertainly, as a result of Brexit, how this will be affected going forward.”
Cropping is all done by hand with an additional 250 staff taken on for the season.
Most of these are regulars who come from Romania for the 10-week season.
“It is all piece work and although hard work, a good cropper can earn more than £1,000 a week,” says Robin.
“Another consequence of leaving the EU is that it is unlikely these people will be allowed to come so we will have to rethink what we do as automated cropping is not an option for daffodils.
“We have a workforce of 14 regular staff but sourcing seasonal staff is becoming increasing difficult and we have, along with a neighbour, Matthew Naylor, set up a labour agency.” Historically, daffodil bulbs have been left in the ground for two or three seasons and then lifted in June and July, after the flower season, with the bulbs graded and some are sold.
The remainder are hot water treated for pests and diseases, then replanted in September.
However, this practice is now less common and the bulbs are often now left in the ground for up to five years and then destroyed.
Robin says: “There is less demand for bulbs than there used to be, with less interest from parks and gardens, so we are selling less.” Another crop facing challenges is potatoes.
Robin says: “We grow about 121ha (300 acres) of potatoes but we see are seeing a difficult retail market.
Meat and two veg is no longer the staple diet, which is a worry.
“In addition, growing potatoes is becoming more difficult due to the withdrawal of a number of chemicals.
This season we have had no chlorpropham for sprout suppression and no diquat for haulm destruction.
This is a problem facing many other crops.
Julian adds: “All we are asking for is a level playing field.
It is unfair we are unable to use certain products when other countries can.
“There possibly will be alternatives available in the future but one problem is that the UK is very slow at licensing new products.” Robin explains that the farm has had to look at other methods of weed control and has taken an interest in a weeding robot company.
“While there are some mechanical options, these do not work for all crops and hand weeding without good herbicides is very expensive, about £120/acre,” he says.
Other options are being looked at, both in terms of improving efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of the farm.
This year a self-propelled harvester will be used for lifting celeriac and potatoes which will save four tractors. GPS is also helping.
The purchase of a rewinder is also enabling plastic crop cover to be reused for longer and rainwater is collected from buildings and reused.
Robin says: “One of the next things we are looking at is carbon sequestration in soil and improving organic matter.
We are growing more cover crops, but we cannot leave them in over winter.
We have to plough and we need frost and weathering on the plough ready for the spring crops.
“We now only grow about 300 acres of wheat and it is good cleaning crop for us.
Sometimes we chop the straw but we are also being encouraged to bale to help out livestock farmers.
We have also planted a lot of hedges and trees.
“Although we have been keeping our own unofficial records, the next step is to move to an approved carbon audit system which will allow us to directly compare ourselves to other farms.”
With a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2040, there is still a long way to go.
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