More than two years on from its purchase by the Wellcome Foundation, Farmcare, formerly owned by Co-op, is pushing ahead with developments for the long term.
CEO Richard Quinn says strategy has changed a huge amount. “It’s difficult to comprehend how much it’s changed. It has reset what the business stands for. Before we never had a long term plan, now we can take a longer range perspective and focus on getting things done.”
From addressing fundamentals such as renewing drainage to better integration of data collection concerning e.g. operations, yields and weather, the business is investing for the future. “We need to address the fundamentals of farming to allow us to focus on soil health, management and improvement,” says Mr Quinn.
In a bid to improve soil health, particularly organic matter, Mr Quinn is actively looking to introduce livestock to Farmcare farms, which currently grow combinable crops, potatoes, fruit and vegetables. Stoughton, near Leicester, was the first to do so this year with a dairy herd which is planned to eventually number 600 cows. “It was historically a dairy farm until the 1990s,” he says.
However, the livestock must be right for the particular Farmcare farm in question, as well as appropriate expertise being in place, he adds.
Understanding costs better is also a key focus. “We need to understand how to produce the right food for the right market in the right way. You can’t hope the price will go up. No-one can plan a business like that.
“Markets are important but we also need to understand costs. We want to be able to stand in a field at any point in the growing cycle and say how much it has cost us to get to that point. We are competing globally.”
Farmcare’s sheer size is helpful when it comes to developing customer relationships, says Mr Quinn, who has a retail background. “Our scale means we can form relationships with large businesses. We are a major food producer. Our job is to get the best value for everything we produce. Long term relationships and programmes interest us.
“We need to think about what is important to our customers and customers’ customers and work on that.”
Although there are many uncertainties in the wake of Brexit, he believes it offers the industry an opportunity to redefine itself. “There is a lot of commentary in the press at the moment about what future support may look like. The key to answering that is to think what can we do for ourselves and how do we work differently?
“We need to make it an attractive sector for people to work in. There are exciting things people can do. We need lots of scientists and more technologists. What does the farm manager of the future look like?
“Future policy or a single body can’t represent everybody. We need to think how we can work together and collaborate and this doesn’t necessarily mean the biggest businesses.”
Regarding support payments, Mr Quinn says they need to take account of the country’s assets and agriculture’s role in managing these. “They [support payments] shouldn’t go in their entirety and whatever policy is set up needs to be appropriately balanced. Support will be challenging for any government to fund.
“Areas of the country need environmental management such as the uplands. We need to work out what the country needs and how agriculture can support it then what help agriculture needs.”
As well as being focused on commercial success, Mr Quinn also has an eye on future generations. “We are custodians of what we own and it is our job to farm it and pass it on to generations in the future. We look at how we manage and develop it so we pass on the assets in a better way.”
On a sunny day in late September, potato harvesting is well underway at East Pasture Farm, near Swinefleet, Goole. While yield isn’t expected to break any records, the crop is well suited to the grade 1 silt land between the rivers Ouse and Trent, in one of the lowest lying areas of the country.
“We started on Tuesday (September 20) one week later than average,” says farm manager Douglas Mctaggart. “We wanted to get the crop to bulk up. It’s an average yielding year, not a big crop. We could have let it go longer but the soil conditions would not allow us to harvest in the second half of October or early November. It would be too wet.”
Average annual rainfall at the farm, which is owned by Farmcare, is a mere 600mm but can vary widely during the year. While cold, wet conditions delayed planting in spring, a dry summer followed. “Rain tends to fall on the rivers and either hits the land or misses. It missed us a lot this year. We were still irrigating in August.”
Water is abstracted in winter into storage reservoirs and applied using a variety of techniques including drip irrigation, irrigation booms and rain guns. “We are looking at techniques in water reduction,” says Mr Mctaggart. “With drip irrigation we saw a 40% reduction in water use compared with irrigation booms. Water is a key resource going forward and there will be more restrictions so we have to look after it.”
However, even in the midst of a dry summer, improvements to underground drainage saw water running through newly installed drains within half an hour. The farm is all under-drained. “It can only have a positive effect,” says Mr Mctaggart.
With most land at or below sea level, drainage of 80-90% of it is managed by the Isle of Axholme drainage board.
On the heavier side of the farm, which is grade 2 clay silt loam, black-grass is a key concern, says Mr Mctaggart. “It is creeping in everywhere. In the last year or two we’ve taken a zero tolerance approach. We’ve sprayed off large sections of fields with glyphosate where it is not out of control and rogued some black-grass where it isn’t too bad.
“We are working with Agrovista using drones then sending maps to the sprayer to spray it off more accurately.”
Cover crops are also being grown as part of the farm’s strategy to tackle black-grass. “We’re in the third year of planting cover crops – black oats and vetch. The major objective is black-grass control but also to maintain soil structure over winter. We’ve been killing it off in February/March but we’re looking to do some in November/December.”
The farm is looking to increase spring cropping, including spring wheat or beans after cover cropping and to cut oilseed rape area by 20 per cent. The reduction is due to the economics of growing oilseed rape and difficulties in controlling black-grass in the crop, says Mr Mctaggart.
Sugar beet is also being reviewed. “It fits in with the rotation and we’ve grown slightly more this year than last. British Sugar want more people to grow it but the price is not fantastic.”
Rotations are also being extended in an attempt to control pests. “Potatoes are currently a one in six rotation but we are looking to move to one in eight depending on PCN levels and land availability.”
Milling wheat is marketed through Frontier and sugar beet goes to British Sugar’s Newark plant. Potatoes are box stored for marketing between April and June to the fresh market. Varieties grown are Melody, Nectar on land that can be irrigated and Vales Sovereign on land that cannot.
As well as growing high quality crops, the farm is also committed to responsible environmental management. With its Entry Level Stewardship agreement ending last year, it has applied for the Countryside Stewardship Mid Tier scheme.
“We haven’t changed anything since we came out of ELS. We’ve maintained margins and strips even with no funding, protecting water courses. It is a good area for habitat. RSPB did a bird survey this year which showed high bird counts which goes against what everyone says in the news about intensive agriculture and birds.”