Delegates at the two-week Nuffield International Triennial event will be able to visit a farm which is embracing change while also educating the public. Farmers Guardian reports.
Over the past 10 years, Claire Bragg and her husband Nick have transformed their 324-hectare (800-acre) farm from a predominantly arable enterprise to a business which produces one million broilers annually.
Also featuring an artisan cookery school and various renewable energy installations, Frogmary Green Farm, Somerset, has a strong ethos of educating the public about food provenance and celebrating British agriculture. Having travelled to pursue her interest in poultry production, Claire completed a Nuffield Scholarship in 2013 after questioning how the broiler industry needed to change to feed an increasing population.
One of her key findings pointed at the need to educate and engage with consumers. Claire says: “My research taught me the farming industry needs to adapt to consumers’ ever-changing dietary requirements to meet the population’s demand, so we have tailored our farming operations to help do this and to educate the public on food production.
“While we started to diversify the farm more than 10 years ago, my research showed me the importance of educating the consumer and farming in a sustainable way.” Claire’s travels included Australia, Tasmania, the US and France, as she met farmers who offered an insight into different farming practices, with ideas to take home to Somerset.
“My journey gave me the confidence to run the business as we do today, always keeping consumer perception in mind, and showed me we need to be efficient in our use of resources, particularly land and water, as we can’t produce any more of them.”
The couple modernised the old chicken houses they inherited when they took over the family farm in 2006, and have subsequently built more sheds to sustainably grow the poultry business to produce one million birds each year.
The farm has a contract with the 2 Sisters Food Group, supplying all the day-old chicks for the standard broiler enterprise. “Each house of chicks arrives on a separate lorry and protocol is to make sure factors including temperature, light, food, water and humidity are all set up perfectly to ensure they’re out of the trays as quickly as possible, for minimum stress,” explains Claire.
To optimise growth and development, ABN, Hook2Sisters and the breeder company create a balanced chick diet, from a starter crumb through to a withdrawal pellet. Chicks are reared on-site for 39 days, at a stocking density of 38kg per sq.m. When they are fully developed, weighing 2.2-2.3kg each, they are sold back to 2 Sisters for processing and sale to retailers.
Sustainability and welfare are key focuses for the farm, and 10 per cent of the flock is produced to the Freedom Food standard.
“While the birds are all housed, they have a lower stocking density and are reared more slowly than Red Tractor standards. They’re also Hubbards, a different breed to the standard broiler,” says Claire.
“Nick and I feel it is our duty to explain to the public how and where their food is produced to show the UK has exemplary standards of food production and they should have confidence in buying British produce. “We often find there are common misconceptions indoor chickens are reared in cramped, dark cages, so we aim to dispel this belief with a glass viewing gallery for visitors to look into our newest chicken house.”
As with all poultry units, biosecurity is extremely strict, not only to minimise disease spread, but also to maintain the health and welfare of the flock. “Rearing birds indoors greatly reduces the risk of disease coming in from wild birds, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t implement other biosecurity measures,” she says. “The only people allowed in the chicken sheds with us are our two stockmen, who are suitably trained. Boot barriers are positioned in the entrance to each house, with specific sets of boots and coats for each house to minimise the risk of transfer between sheds.
“So far, our biosecurity measures have paid off and though its implementation costs money and takes time, it’s invaluable to our business. We are yet to have any issues with disease at Frogmary Green, but you can never take your eye off the ball, especially with high risk of avian influenza at the moment.” Claire and Nick have also implemented various environmental initiatives to conserve and enhance the natural wildlife and demonstrate this to the general public. “We are members of Linking Environment and Farming [Leaf], which encourages responsible farming practices and measures.
We were honoured to become a Leaf demonstration farm in 2014.” More than 1.8 miles (3km) of new hedges and 1,600 trees have been planted on-farm to provide habitats for birds and mammals. “We have organised the regeneration of the old apple orchard with eating, cooking and cider varieties, as well as planting an adjoining site with an arboretum and about 37 different tree varieties,” says Claire.
“The farm’s part of Entry and Higher Level Stewardship programmes. On top of the standard six-metre margins for the stewardship schemes, we’ve established an extra 10 acres of special wildflower nectar and pollen mix margins, providing the perfect environment for bumblebees and other insects. A later-sown margin also provides an abundance of feeding for birds in winter months.”
In line with the farm’s environmental ethos, the Braggs decided to come out of potato growing when they started making huge losses on production. While controversial, Claire found growing cereals, maize and fodder beet for energy, rather than food, has supported the growth of the business and helped secure the farm’s future.
“For us, the energy crop market has proven to be less volatile and more profitable than traditional food markets.” Claire says they lease land to a separate company which has built an anaerobic digestion plant on-site as a part of the agreement. The Braggs then sell all their crops to them for biogas production.
“We can’t actually produce enough feedstock to fuel the plant ourselves, so we also buy crops from other local farmers to keep up with the demand. “In 2010, we installed a 300kW biomass woodchip boiler and, thanks to its success, we have added in another 540kW boiler.
All the on-site heat is generated by the boilers, heating water by burning timber from local woodlands. “This ensures our buildings are as efficient as possible by avoiding the need for fossil fuels, greatly reducing our carbon footprint, which is another key consumer concern,” says Claire.
While leaving potato production was a big decision for Claire and Nick, they are now reaping the benefits, thanks to the stability of selling crops for energy and the broiler enterprise. However, they are also taking their desire to engage with the public further.
“In 2014, we converted an old potato store into an extremely successful cookery school, with conference and function rooms, overseen by our functions manager. “Aiming to educate, entertain and enlighten visitors, we had about 400 people attending the courses last year,” she says.
“Our courses are tailored to the needs of our customers. They cost between £20 and £80 and are run by professional tutors. For example, the local butcher and baker run sausage and breadmaking courses and our neighbour, a dairy farmer’s wife, runs an artisan cheesemaking course.”
Claire is always on the lookout for interesting new tutors and courses, with the latest being a preserve making course, running this September.
Farmers Guardian is media partner to the Nuffield International Triennial Event. Running from June 3-15, delegates will have the chance to explore Britain’s leading farm businesses on tours across the UK.
Leading industry experts will also discuss how the farming industry can evolve to meet the demands of future consumers at the Farming Fit for Food conference on June 8 at the East Midlands Conference Centre.
Tickets for the conference start at £90 and can be booked at www.nuffieldinternational2017. org/conference-day/how-to-book The event is also encouraging prospective Nuffield Farming Scholars to enhance their applications, with July 31 the deadline for 2018 submissions.