Light land and plenty of irrigation make Home Farm a great place to grow vegetable crops, but it is not without its challenges, says farms director Andrew Williams, who has been with Home Farm for 22 years.
He and his team of 48 permanent staff produce some 35 different crops, carefully balancing customers’ needs with high labour requirements, weed, disease and pest challenges and reduced options of agro-chemicals.
He says: “Production is intensive with a lot of double-cropping. Weather permitting, we are potentially harvesting or planting something every day of the year.”
The farm’s base is on the Orwell Park Estate, Ipswich, which is owned by the Orwell Settlement Trustees. The farming business, however, has grown significantly beyond the 500 hectares (1,236 acres) rented from the estate.
With 1,900ha (4,696 acres) now in total, the business has grown by taking on neighbouring blocks of land as others retired or restructured their businesses.
Overall, 10 per cent of the land is certified organic and farmed to Soil Association standards.
Andrew says: “We started converting in 1998 when there was an increasing demand for organics and a lot of our customers were asking if we would consider converting.
“The owners liked the idea of organic production, as fewer inputs and a more sustainable approach fitted with their thinking. Land which had just been connected to the irrigation system, so had not grown vegetables and was free from soil-borne pest and diseases, meant it just all added up. We produced our first organic crops in 2001.”
Potatoes and onions are the business’ main output, with potatoes contributing the largest part of its turnover. The rotation is typically potatoes followed by cereal, sugar beet, another cereal crop, then vegetables, including onions, brassicas, leeks or herbs, cereal and then back to potatoes.
“That’s the plan, but it does vary a bit,” says Andrew.
All potatoes are sold through East Suffolk Produce (ESP), a marketing co-operative of which Home Farm was a founding member.
“ESP negotiates the contracts, organise loading schedules and haulage, as well as managing credit insurance and payment. All of this helps us manage such a large and complicated business, given all the other crops we have to deal with,” says Andrew.
“It also means ESP can supply the market all-year-round, so we can be a more important supplier to our customers. It has been a real plus for us in the past few years.”
Most potatoes are sold from the field in summer, with about one-quarter stored for marketing through winter. All the farm’s onions, if they meet the required quality, are sold to Stourgarden, Essex, which packs for Tesco and serves a number of processing customers.
Andrew says: “Stourgarden walks the crop and manages the stores with Jason [Smith, production manager]. The company is very involved with the crop and knows exactly what’s coming in to them.”
Remaining crops are sold by Home Farm, meaning they are still dealing with a large number of buyers.
Andrew says: “We have pallets of vegetables collected by wholesalers to go down to London markets most weeks of the year.
“We also supply two national organic box schemes and a small quantity is sold direct to local customers via a pop-up shop in the lead up to Christmas.”
Having predominantly light or very light sandy loam soils means the team can get on to land early in the year and can operate most days of the year.
This, along with the slightly warmer coastal temperatures, makes the farm a viable producer of earlier crops often requested by supermarkets which are keen to reduce reliance on the main vegetable growing areas and imports.
Some heavier land towards Felixstowe adds some variety and is farmed with a more traditional rotation of wheat, sugar beet plus some potatoes, onions and herbs ‘where they dare’.
There is another project in the pipeline too, in connection with four other landowners, which is looking at taking the water currently being pumped into the River Deben by the local drainage board.
Andrew says: “We are looking at pumping it back up the peninsula for us to put into reservoirs.
There is a lot of goodwill behind this project, but it is taking a long time to get there, because it is partly funded by Europe, so Brexit is slowing it down.”
Andrew and the team are also committed to making the most of their water. Soil moisture meters dotted around the farm measure moisture in crops at three different depths and report back via email on a daily basis.
Most of the farm’s hose reels have booms now, rather than guns, and all have a phone monitoring/control ability, while some of the higher value crops have drip or sprinkler irrigation systems.
Andrew says: “We do quite a lot of work to keep water in the field and have been using a wheel track roller to break up the wheelings. This helps water soak into the ridge rather than running off.”
The three-row bed potato planter is fitted with an Aqueel roller and is particularly useful in fields where there is a slope, and Andrew says these procedures make a visible difference to run-off and associated wastage.
The business is a well-operated machine. James Cunningham is the assistant manager working mostly on potato crops. He joined the farm nearly two years ago from a farm in Leicestershire.
Production manager Jason manages the tractor drivers and oversees most farming operations.
Andrew says: “Jason also walks fields with the agronomists every week.”
Gavin Prentice is field labour manager. Andrew says: “He manages a team of about 15 Eastern European workers all-year-round and organises agency labour requirements too. This can vary from one or two up to 100 depending on what we are doing.”
The hand-weeding, planting, harvesting and taking crop covers on and off means labour requirements can be very high, but vary hugely day-to-day.
But sourcing labour has become more difficult in recent years and Andrew predicts it will become more so.
He says: “Quality of labour is not what it was five years ago. Those with real drive and ambition have worked up the ladder and are now working elsewhere in Europe, closer to home, where they can earn more due to the weakness of the pound.
“Politicians tell us to mechanise and use local labour, but the mechanisation is not there yet. For example, with cauliflowers we go through the crop four or five times, cutting them when they are ready, trimming them and putting them in a cup. The technology to do that mechanically is simply not there yet.”
The challenges of finding labour has already led to changes in cropping decisions with Andrew and the team deciding to grow fewer leeks. They have gone from producing 24ha (59 acres) of organic leeks six years ago to just 8ha (22 acres) this year. Similarly, they have reduced the area of brassicas by 25 per cent.
Other challenges at Home Farm include the ongoing battle to keep conventional crops protected with an ever-shrinking armoury of active ingredients. Organic spinach is the latest addition to the portfolio, as well as some early and late crops.
Andrew says: “We can’t grow profitable cereals on our light land here, as we just can’t get the yield or quality. And we do not have the specialist equipment for some crops, such as spinach.
“When we were approached by a specialist, it was a good opportunity for us; another string to our bow. We provide the land and do the cultivations and they do the rest.”
The farm is also part of the Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement, with buffer strips, field corners and uncultivated areas to encourage wildlife. It is also part of a group of farms on the Felixstowe peninsula put together by Suffolk Farming and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group.
Andrew says: “The different aspects of the work we do complement each other, so it is more of a joined up approach.”
Together the farmers are making efforts for many species, including brown hare, turtle dove and skylarks, as well as looking at techniques to improve soil management.
Andrew says he has gained a lot from being part of the group and working in co-operation with other farmers is something hugely beneficial for him and the business.
He says: “Before I didn’t know much about growing wild bird seed or pollen and nectar mixes and trying to encourage wildlife in that way, but working together and being trained, we are seeing the results, which encourages you to do more.”