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Cereals Live: Going against the grain with alternative crops

With the UK’s plant-based food market estimated to be worth £443 million in 2018, this has opened up potential new opportunities for UK arable farmers.

Agrii’s Skye Van Heyzen told a Cereals Live specialist crop markets webinar that Agrii are investigating alternative crops in a bid to improve rotational options and potential profitability on-farm for arable farmers.

 

He said: “The market for chickpeas in the UK is substantial. We have trialled a series of different varieties across a number of years. We are now upscaling these trials to determine any potential pitfalls on a field-scale. End use is very positive but there are some key agronomic things we are trying to address. One of them is maturity.”


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Trials

 

This is the third season in which Agrii has trialled haricot beans, a crop which Mr Van Heyzen said it is hoping to reintroduce into UK rotations sooner rather than later.

 

“Again, the challenge is getting this to scalable production on-farm. We have done canning tests which were very positive from the end user.”

 

Oat-based drinks, which were worth an estimated £36 million in 2018 could also present new opportunities, but a key challenge is understanding the true market potential, he said.

 

“How many oats does it take to make a litre of oat drink? We are still investigating that, but this market does exist, and we have managed to secure in trials a specific set of material to assess the needs of this market.”

Quality

 

Offering advice on marketing specialist crops, Andrew Probert, managing director of Premium Crops added: “Expectations are very different to when growing feed wheat or barley.

 

“I cannot stress enough that quality needs to be absolutely paramount. In many specialist crops, we are displacing imported material, so it [quality] needs to be better. For example, in canary seed, our buyers do not want to see ergot or straw.”

Marketing

 

With most specialist crops not being traded as a commodity, this also means growers will need to ‘hunt down’ opportunities that are out there for them, he added.

 

“The whole point of it being on contract is to ensure that particular products will not be in oversupply.

 

“Expectations for when crops are moved is also different. With a relatively small market, there is not the capacity to move all of those products in September at the grower’s convenience. A lot of contracts we have may be 12-18 months’ supply so we have to manage the offtake of material on farm.”

Organic thinking

Organic farmer, Sophie Alexander told the webinar that it is a ‘comfort’ to be part of the organic sector during this time of uncertainty for the farming industry.

 

She said: “Organic is a growing market that aligns to planet centric thinking. It can deliver public goods and remain simultaneously profitable.”

 

Ms Alexander turned the Dorset arable farm organic in 2014, citing some of the key drivers as premium prices, low variable costs and profitable gross margins.

 

“However, we also suffer with competing with cheap imports,” she said. “A good solution to mitigating the effects of the highs and lows, and the worst of the volatility is to agree contracts and grow what our customers want.

 

“There has been limited funding for crops that are well suited to low input systems, but this priority is beginning to get traction. Wakelyns population wheat, due to its diversity, I understand is doing really well in this extremely dry season.”

 

Spelt has become a favourable grain and legumes and pulses are becoming more in demand, she said.

 

“This year we have started growing quinoa for the first time with some success.”

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