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Diversification special: How one British dairy farmer is making slurry into money

Diversifying into renewables has given Jim Shanks an outlet for slurry produced by his dairy cows, and is also fuelling his growing tomato enterprise.

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The area around Hawick in the Scottish Borders is rightly famed for its livestock farming but is less known for its horticulture.

 

It is a real surprise then to arrive at Standhill Farm and see 1.6 hectares (four acres) of brand new glasshouses sitting alongside the farm buildings.

 

It may seem incongruous but it is all part of an immaculately configured renewable energy project.

 

In simple terms it starts with cow slurry from the dairy herd and ends with 25 tonnes of tomatoes per week, but there is far more to it than that.

 

Jim Shanks farms the 202ha (500-acre) unit with his wife Kerry, mother Annie and father Jim.

 

He realised when he came home from college in Edinburgh in 1998, that diversification should be part of their business plan.

 

Mr Shanks said: “Like most families in the same position I realised that I would be getting in Dad’s hair and vice-versa, with each of us thinking we were right and the other wrong.

 

“I went on a Young Farmers exchange to Canada in 2002 which opened my eyes to doing things differently.

 

“We revamped the dairy in 2004 but it was actually mum and dad who had the foresight to diversify.

 

“Following a trip to New Zealand they started making cheese and before long they were employing three full time workers and making 10 different types.

 

“It was hard work including attending farmers markets but they enjoyed cheesemaking, before retiring from it in 2014.”


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Renewable energy

 

In the meantime, Mr Shanks had started to take a real interest in renewable energy and applied for a Nuffield Farming Scholarship.

 

His initial idea was to look at wind power as a way to reduce energy requirements in the dairy.

 

By the time he had visited Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the United States his horizons had lifted considerably.

 

“I quickly realised that producing renewable energy on a large scale was a real money making opportunity,” said Mr Shanks.

 

“I had plans for nine turbines – one here at the farm and the others on a windier site 20 miles away."

 

The planning process however turned into a war of attrition between a group of determined objectors and an equally determined but ultimately unsuccessful applicant.

 

Bruising as it may have been, the process did uncover opportunities.

 

Mr Shanks said: “It looked like I would have to move into biogas.

 

“Planning permission was possible, but Scottish Power told me the Borders was the worst area in Scotland for grid connections and we were in the worst 1 per cent of it.

 

“It looked bad but then I became aware of an EU scheme which would allow me to input up to 200kW to balance the local supply.”

 

Mr Shanks, who is currently Scottish chairman of the Nuffield Farming Scholarship group, is a firm advocate of using travel to accumulate knowledge.

 

He realised that using the heat produced from a biogas plant was important and that using it to grow a greenhouse crop such as tomatoes would be an ideal fit.

 

He had seen similar set-ups on his 2008 study so he set off again to tour Europe and find out what he could about tomatoes.

 

“I realised it was something I really wanted to do,” he said.

 

He eventually settled on a twinstage process to provide the heat needed to grow tomatoes.

 

The first stage involves an anaerobic digester which is fed on slurry from the farm’s 180 dairy cows along with whole crop silage made from 73ha (180 acres) of winter rye.

 

The gas fuels an engine connected to a 200kW generator with the electricity produced used on the farm or fed into the grid.

Surplus heat

 

The surplus heat produced is ducted to an adjacent building and used to dry wood chip produced from bought-in timber.

 

This is then fed into two 2kW burners which produce enough hot water to heat the 1.6ha (four-acre) greenhouse.

 

Essentially, the woodchip fuelled boilers multiply up the heat produced by the biodigester.

 

Some might think cow slurry was a partly depleted feed stock for biodigestion but Mr Shanks says it complements the rye silage due to the high level of bacterial action.

 

“It really works well. I have an electric Tesla car and I enjoy telling people it might be the only car in the UK powered by cow slurry,” he added.

 

The major challenge, however, was mastering the tomato growing and marketing. The renewable energy plant cost about £1 million to install, the glasshouse, another £2m and the establishment of the crop, £500,000.

TOMATO GROWING AT STANDHILL FARM

 

WITH such a large investment every detail of the enterprise has to work.

 

Initially Mr Shanks employed a manager to supervise the growing and harvesting but when that arrangement came to an end he took on the management himself.

 

A consultant based in Holland remotely monitors every aspect of the environment in the glasshouse including ventilation, temperature and carbon dioxide level.

 

Biodigestion

 

In a neat twist this is enhanced from 300 parts per million to 1,000ppm using carbon dioxide from the biodigestion process.

 

The Dutch consultant also visits Standhill every three weeks during the growing season which lasts from March to November.

 

A team of 10, all locally recruited, harvests and maintains the crop using electric trolleys with scissor lift platforms.

 

The growing system allows the tomatoes always to be harvested at waist level.

 

The tomato plants are replaced every winter.

 

Although the growing system is not organic, parasitic wasps, are used to control aphids and bumble bees introduced to aid pollination.

 

Finding ways to market 25 tonnes of tomatoes per week was another challenge.

 

Supermarkets were keen to hear of the project, but simply said ‘let us know when you are up and running’.

 

The first arrangement to sell through a Scottish based packer faltered after the first season but a subsequent deal with Southport based Len Wright Salads has proved successful.

 

Tomatoes are collected from Standhill twice a week, packed in Southport and then distributed mostly to Scottish depots of Morrisons and Asda.

 

Wholesale

 

Jim is proud to be one of only two commercial tomato growers in Scotland with the other based in the Clyde Valley and mostly supplying wholesale markets.

 

It is far removed from dairy farming although the farmer maintains a real enthusiasm for the 180 high performing Holstein cows in the herd.

 

“I reckon the dairy herd represents 80 per cent of the work for 10 per cent of the income but it is what we do,” said Mr Shanks.

 

“I always say, if you can do dairy farming, you can do anything.”

 

With his ability to turn his hand to tomato growing, it seems he has proved the point beyond doubt.

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