Being innovative and facing change head on has been central to success for Leicestershire arable farmers Leigh and Donya Donger. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
There has been a theme of growth and change for Leigh and Donya Donger as they rise to the challenge of arable production at Muston, Leicestershire.
Adapting the business has included changes to cropping, balancing the portfolio with contract work and the addition of several successful diversifications.
Leigh is the fifth generation of his family to farm at Muston. His great great grandfather started the farm with about 20 hectares. Subsequent generations added to the acreage and in the 1990s Leigh’s father, Geoffrey, and uncle, William, started taking on contract work as well.
Leigh left school in 1995 and joined his father on the farm after completing four years at Brooksby College, studying for a National Diploma in agriculture.
William left the business at around the same time, leaving Geoffrey and Leigh as partners. By then, Geoffrey had already started the farm’s first diversification business, a DIY livery yard.
Now the business manages 607ha (1,500 acres), 202ha (500 acres) of which is a lifetime tenancy, 162ha (400 acres) is family-owned and a further 243ha (600 acres) is a farm business tenancy, plus some additional land which is farmed on contract for two landowners.
Geoffrey officially retired in 2018, leaving Leigh at the helm with Neal Halliday as his right-hand man.
The farm is also home to Muston Meadows, a Site of Special Scientific Interest which the Donger familys manage alongside Natural England. The meadows are home to the green-winged orchids, with as many as 55,000 blooms in a record year.
Cropping consists of winter wheat, spring wheat, spring barley, spring beans, winter oilseed rape and spring oats. Winter OSR has proven particularly difficult in recent years and Leigh has resigned himself to growing considerably less next year.
He says: “We had previously grown 500-600 acres every year, then just 400 this year and next year it will be less than 100, probably only 60-70 acres.”
Once the most profitable crop on the farm and the farm’s main break crop, in recent years it has been ‘terrible’ says Leigh.
“Harvest 2017 we were £70,000 down on revenue from OSR. Last year about 50 per cent of the crop was lost altogether, with the rest fairly poor.”
“Last year we made 170lb of honey which is about 1,000 jars and. We plan to keep building the hives up and see how we go”
The loss of neonicotinoids is partly to blame, but isn’t the whole problem, he says.
Without neonics, damage by cabbage stem flea beetle has been rife, but weather has also played havoc.
“It was too dry at drilling and then we had too much rain,” Leigh says.
“All the roots grew out flat and shallow, so it died off in the spring drought.”
Add in the untreated cabbage stem flea beetle as well as problems with pigeons and slugs, and 2020 will be a ‘really bad year’ for OSR, he says.
He will however continue to grow some spring OSR as he and wife Donya have developed a rapeseed oil business.
“We will grow a little and rotate it enough and hope it will be ok,” Leigh says. “The margins will make it worthwhile. In a perfect year it is twice as profitable when we press it ourselves.”
Soils on-farm are medium to heavy, with some very heavy, mostly clay, soil.
“In contrast we have a couple of fields which are very sandy, which is good unless we have a hot dry summer when it bakes like concrete,” Leigh says.
“The heavy soils have been helpful this year with the dry spring of 2020.
“A lot of our wheat hung on because of the clay in the soil. We will still be affected but not as much as others. We drilled into wet clay soil which was not ideal, then it dried out quicker than the crop could grow out of it.
“A couple of our neighbouring farms did not get winter crops at all. The winter wheat crops are looking OK but the only crop looking really good is the spring beans.”
Opportunities to increase their farmed area further have arisen, but Leigh has come to the conclusion the current acreage is enough.
“It would mean more work and more stress, and I would rather develop the diversifications with Donya,” he says.
“Most of our income is from the farm at the moment, with about 5 per cent coming from diversification. In the future, our aim would be to increase this to 25-30 per cent.”
Donya first started looking into pressing rapeseed oil on the farm after becoming a mother. The couple now have three children Catherine, 7; Christopher, 5; and Jennifer, 2.
“I decided I wanted to stay at home but I do not do sitting still,” says Donya.
“I was looking into doing something for myself on-farm and rapeseed oil was the obvious thing.
“We bought a £25 hand-cranked press just to see how it worked. We then bought an upgraded machine from China, an electric machine which we set up in our home pantry.”
This enabled them to make larger volumes, but it still took two hours to press one litre of oil which then had to be filtered once it had settled.
Nevertheless, they were able to start supplying a local shop.
Donya says: “We got to the point where other shops were asking to stock it, so we then had to invest in an Alvan Blanch industrial machine.
“The machine will crush a tonne in an hour. People like the fact we are growing it, pressing it and selling it. We started using handmade labels but when we stepped it up, I discovered there was a school parent who designed logos and packaging so they did that for us.”
More recently they have also invested in a briquette machine to press the leftover rapecake into briquettes for wood burners and they are experimenting with adding sawdust to the rapecake so they are not so oily to handle.
“The rapecake briquettes produce less smoke and ash than wood products and are also carbon neutral and fully renewable,” says Donya.
The second diversification to be introduced was keeping honey bees and after joining a local beekeeping society, Donya got set up with her first hives.
Now she has 21, including 15 on the home farm, three on Langar wildflower farm plus a further three with other family members. Her passion for bees has grown and she is now swarm co-ordinator for Grantham, meaning she is the point of contact for any swarms which need collecting.
“Last year we made 170 pounds of honey which is about 1,000 jars and we plan to keep building the hives up and see how we go,” she says.
“We sell out every year and are reluctant to take on new shops in case we can’t meet demand.”
Alongside this, Donya has also marketed her own blackberry vinegar, which her grandmother and mother made before her.
“A friend said she thought I should start selling it, so we gave it a go and it’s been popular.”
The vinegar, which won two stars in last year’s Great Taste Awards, is sweet and vinegary and has a multitude of uses, says Donya.
“Some people have it on pancakes or Yorkshire puddings while others like it in salad dressings or even with gin or as a tonic for sore throats when mixed with water,” she says.
She also set up a small flock of laying hens and sells eggs from an honesty box at the farm gates.
Another enterprise has been their Best of Belvoir hampers at Christmas, complete with their own products and other locally made treats, such as Melton Mowbray pies, Stilton cheese and Belvoir fruit farm drinks.
Using their website and social media platforms, they sold 250 hampers last year. From the first local shop, they now supply a range of outlets with oil, vinegar and honey, including farm shops, butchers and delicatessens.
“Our largest customer is a Blue Diamond garden centre,” says Donya. “Most are smaller than that and all are within a 15-20 mile radius of the farm.
“We don’t push the diversifications hard at the moment because we want to see what works and what the demand is. We are growing businesses slowly now. Once the children are all in education, we will have more time to expand it.”
Covid-19 challenged the diversification businesses with some outlets cancelling orders abruptly after lockdown while others wanted to increase their orders.
It prompted Donya to set up an honesty pick-up point for their products while also offering a delivery service for those who were self-isolating.
“It started when I decided to go and collect milk and yogurt from a dairy farm and asked locally if anyone else would like some,” she says. “I ended up collecting and delivering 70 litres a week.”
Sharing stories from the farm is something Donya is passionate about and she was disappointed that June’s
Open Farm Sunday had to be cancelled due to Covid.
“I was really looking forward to taking part for the first time,” she says. “We had planned to offer tractor and trailer rides, a live hive experience and planned to have eggs hatching and chicks of different ages to see.
“I would love to have school visits here one day. I already do a lot of school talks and we’ve done things such as take tractors into schools. I think our kids have a great upbringing here and understand where their food comes from, but lots of children don’t.”