Christmas is a busy time for Middlesex arable farmers and culinary mint producers, the Williams family.
When Brian Williams, along with his cousins Howard and Adrian, joined the family farm in the 1980s, the farm was running a ‘pick your own’ soft fruit business and growing continuous wheat.
But as the three of them settled in, the idea of growing mint and setting up a small diversification enterprise at Cattlegate Farm, Enfield, started to evolve - in spite of the fact the cousins had no experience of growing herbs. Now the farm in Middlesex is home to a thriving mint production enterprise and the Williams’ eye for diversification opportunities has seen them expand their business into other areas as well.
The mint idea originated following difficulties with the pick your own business in terms of balancing what was being picked with what was being paid for.
An opportunity to grow mint on contract arose and in 1999 the Williams planted their first 1.6 hectares (four acres). By 2001, soft fruit production on the farm had stopped and mint production had increased to 8ha (20 acres).
After becoming a member of the National Herb Centre, the Williams obtained some help in choosing the varieties of mint they would grow; one variety was selected for its leafiness and smaller stalk, while the other was less leafy with more stalk.
In comparison to the arable crops on the farm, the mint crop is in the ground for a much longer period. Mint ‘plugs’ are planted and remain in the ground for 10-12 years, re-growing after two cuts per year, the first being taken in May and the second in August. After two cuts, the crop is cut with a mower/collector which clears all the crop residue and old plants and helps minimise disease.
Agronomy support for the crop is provided by an independent agronomist who specialises in herbs and salad crops.
Brian Williams says: “The agronomy on mint is constantly changing and there is little R&D, so we just have to rely on our own and our agronomist’s experience and knowledge.”
In many ways mint is no different to a conventional arable crop; it needs warmth, sunshine and plenty of water. “The 2013 crop came out of winter so backward [because of the cold],” says Brian.
Mint’s demand for water is such that irrigation is essential, amounting to about 1 inch (25mm) a week if there is no rain.
Howard adds: “If mint is too dry it tries to seed quicker and has less height and then weeds become a problem.”
The family uses SOYL Precision Farming to monitor soil nutrient levels - mint uses a lot of nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and lime.
Weed problems are no different to those affecting their arable crops, say the cousins. And although the herbicide armoury for the crop is reasonable, hand weeding is often used. Rustsmake up the main disease threat, although the Williams say their crops are not too affected by disease because of regular cutting, which takes place just before the crop is in flower and is about 250mm (10in) high.
The mint crop yields an average of 4.94 tonnes per hectare (2t/acre) and in the early days, harvest, which fits in around the cereal harvest, was a slow affair. But the cousins soon developed plans to speed things up, first of all purchasing a grass plot combine and converting it for whole crop mint harvesting.
Further progress was made with a shift from loading the harvested mint into boxes, which were then transported back to the packing area, to loading into trailers pulled by quad bikes.
In a more recent development, a Claas combine equipped with a stripper header has been used for customers who prefer their mint to be ‘stripped’.
For ‘stripping’ the crop needs to be taller, so the mint leaves can quite literally be stripped off the stalk, leaving the stalk intact. The Williams grow all their mint on contract and say the type of cut depends on customer requirements.
In 2004 the farm installed a purpose-built processing shed, replacing a lean-to which had sufficed for the first few years of production.
After coming into the plant, the mint is washed before it is chopped and barrelled, again according to customer requirements.
The Williams’ customers include Tesco, Sainsbury’s and condiment manufacturer English Provender, which supplies other supermarkets.
Brian says: “We deliver barrels on customer demand, but there is usually a surge around Christmas and Easter.”
With the mint enterprise successfully established, the family has turned its attention to further diversification projects. They are currently engaged in the lengthy process of installing an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant, run on food waste from the area - a project Adrian is overseeing.
The AD plant will generate one megawatt of electricity per hour and will take in about 25,300 tonnes of waste annually, producing enough biogas to power 1500 houses. The plant will also produce about 25,000 tonnes of nutrient rich digestate a year to be spread on the farm’s arable and grassland areas.
Adrian says: “We now have full planning, and funding is approved. It will be nice when it’s all up and running.”
In addition, the business is looking at investing in another green waste compost plant - there is already one plant in operation on the farm - which takes in garden waste and shredded paper from the local area.
After a long process of being turned, shredded, heated and composted, the green waste is tested by NRM Laboratories to determine its nutrient status before it is spread on the land.
Brian, Adrian and Howard are farming for the future. With three families to support innovation is important to their future success and security.
But while new ideas may be a driving force in the business, decisions are nonetheless made with a close eye on the balance sheet.
The company uses Key Advanced Account software, designed for multi-enterprise rural businesses like the Williams’ to use alongside Gatekeeper software. The level of traceability provided by the programme is an important feature for the business, say the cousins.