Elvedon Farm is one of the largest lowland arable farms in Britain, with an impressive portfolio of crops and diversification ventures. Jack Watkins visits Norfolk to find out more about the vegetables found in its fields.
Other operators may have a larger overall amount of land in production, but at 9,300 hectares (23,000 acres), Elveden Farm, Thetford, is the largest single-unit lowland farm in Britain.
The estate is home to a mix of enterprises, from arable and heathland-grazed livestock, to forestry and a variety of retail initiatives.
The Guinness family bought the estate in 1894, but it was Rupert Guinness, the second Earl of Iveagh, who started to transform Elveden into a profitable farming enterprise in 1927.
Frances Fleming, Elveden’s head of marketing, says: “He was responsible for laying it out in the structure it is today. The fields here still seem large to us now, but their scale would have seemed enormous back then.
“An irrigation system was laid out for the entire estate. Even in those early years the earls were thinking about how to improve the land and make it more fertile.”
The focus on soil care and water conservation - with two vast reservoirs which have a combined capacity of 840,000 litres - was practically a requirement for success.
Elveden is situated in the remote, windswept area of the Brecks, which straddles Norfolk’s border with Suffolk.
The unpromising nature of the Breckland’s quick drying, sandy heaths is reflected in the name, Brecks, literally meaning ‘broken land’.
Returns from farming were historically weak owing to nutrient-poor soil.
But Andrew Francis, Elveden’s senior farm manager, says farming here has its advantages too.
Years spent studying the soil’s natural dynamics has enabled Elveden to optimise yields, particularly from root vegetables.
He says: “Because it’s relatively free draining, most of the land can be worked all year, allowing us to hit planting start dates and be reliable for off-the-field harvests.
“The soil is relatively non-adhesive, so if we lift onions and they get wet, they are less prone to staining.
“It’s also free-working - apart from a few stones which we separate out - so good for vegetable shape, producing straight carrots and round potatoes. In its natural state, the soil is on the acidic side and it does dry out quickly, so water management is absolutely key for us.”
Because of its soil type, onion production is a speciality of Breckland, with a significant amount grown in the region. About 6 per cent of the UK’s onion crop is grown at Elveden, totalling 28,000 tonnes of red and brown onions each year.
Andrew claims he can spot an onion grown in the Brecks in a supermarket pack without looking at the label.
“There’s a specific finish to the shine on the skin because we don’t get the soil adhesion at harvest. And we have developed a bespoke storage complex, involving minimal handling, helping retain the skin’s bloom.”
Most are from seeds drilled from the end of February and harvested in August and September. These are ready for sale from the end of September and can be stored at Elveden through to the following June.
However, a small number of onion sets are planted in October and some planting is done in winter months. “What we are trying to do is develop a year-round onion,” explains Andrew.
The onions are sold to supermarkets, wholesale and processing markets, as are most of their 25,000 tonnes of potatoes.
Andrew says seven or eight soil gradings across the farm enable targeted production for a range of markets.
Coarse-grained sand with a high stone content is planted with potatoes for the processing market and sand-rich land with a chalk content used for pre-pack potatoes.
The farm’s softer, sandy soils with smaller particles cause less abrasion, making them suitable for growing salad potatoes.
A proportion of the potato crop is specially grown for the farm’s own Garden of Elveden line of branded boxes and bags. These are sold to food wholesalers and retailers nationally and internationally, as well as in the farm’s own food shop.
Potatoes are graded and packed at a neighbouring plant, owned by Frederick Hiam Foods.
The Elveden brand name has, Andrew says, grown to the point the farm cannot keep up with demand, so agreements have been reached with other growers in the area to produce supply potatoes for them.
Another major product is carrots, with about 10,000 tonnes grown for the value-added processing markets, going via Alfred G. Pearce processors, Downham Market, and much of them ending up in Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.
Elveden Livestock, through its associate company Heathland Beef, and under the management of livestock manager Andrew Foulds, finishes 1,500 plus Aberdeen-Angus and Hereford cattle, going as unbranded meat for Waitrose.
But with 5,000 acres of heathland on the estate, a 60-head herd of pedigree South Devons are grazed to allow rare Breckland flora to retain a foothold against competition from more vigorous species. Andrew also runs his own flock of Scottish Blackface ewes on the heath.
Like many of the staff at Elveden, Frances lives in one of the three estate villages. She says the current Lord Iveagh is seen by many as the ‘head of the community’ there, involving himself with every section of the business.
Anyone travelling though the Brecks will confirm the Scots pines which line field boundaries contribute to the area’s visual appeal.
“We have them throughout the estate,” explains Frances. “Farmers planted them in the 19th century to stop the wind; their high canopies acting to shield the soil.”
Today, the Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group is encouraging the planting of a new generation of the trees.
Another of the area’s signature sights is the rare stone curlew - a brown, crow-sized migratory bird.
“Their protection and monitoring by Elveden staff involves much co-operation between co-ordination, as the species nests on the arable fields and heaths,” explains Frances.
“Once a nest is found on a field, which can be tricky owing to the birds’ camouflaging plumage, the eggs are protected from potentially damaging on-field operations by either working round the nest or by its temporary removal, under special license. Such work has led to good long-term chick survival rates.”
Many of the farm’s own products are sold through the Elveden food hall and restaurant, created out of former estate workshops and opened in 2006.
It has an in-house butcher and chef and carries an array of their chutneys and jams, plus a particularly popular speciality, Elvedenilli, a piccalilli made from carrots, onions and parsnips.
“We are also keen to support other local producers and stock their products, from bakers to meat producers,” says Andrew.
“We invite them in to a taste test first, but we never take it for granted everything locally produced will taste delicious.
“We will remove a product from our shelves if the public do not want it. We feel it is essential to offer a true showcase of the best East Anglian products.”
As a measure of their commitment to the area, one of Frances’ major projects is the annual Big Onion Food Festival, staged on-farm for two days in September. The event gives local producers and chefs the chance to showcase their offerings and meet the public, while offering tours of the farm and giving an insight into production methods.
“People had this perception of Elveden as a nice place for a cup of coffee, without realising there was this huge farm behind it. It has been a way of keying them into the working farm ethos.”
The estate has also been growing and selling Christmas trees for large display and domestic use for 40 years, including for high profile locations including St Paul’s Cathedral. The woodland around the estate produces sawlogs for the timber industry and firewood for estate employees and nearby villages.
Andrew says: “Elveden is an good model of a diversified business, and achieving this in the least hospitable of spots is no small achievement.
“Sure, it is difficult to grow things on the Brecks, but we have shown with the right care and attention it can be done.”