The Mack family farm in the heart of the Norfolk broads is home to an arable unit, thriving rapeseed oil business, farm shop, timeshare swimming pool and more recently a beef enterprise. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
Returning the family farming business in Surlingham, Norfolk, to a mixed farming enterprise was a priority for William Mack, 31, when he came home to join the business six years ago.
Farming, however, was not his first career choice.
After school he had originally decided to train as a chartered surveyor and headed to Oxford Brookes university to study for a degree in real estate management.
But after taking a summer job on a neighbouring farm, he ‘fell in love with farming’ and his mind was made up.
Will says: “My parents never pushed me to come back to the farm. They very much wanted me to make my own way back if that’s what I wanted to do.After finishing my degree, I realised that I did.”
Before returning to the family’s 325-hectare (800-acre) farm in 2014 to work with his father, Tim, Will worked on a farm in Wiltshire and then went on to study for a graduate diploma in agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester for a year.
The diploma, Will says, broadened his horizons, particularly to livestock. “I hadn’t had much experience of livestock until then,” he says. “Although Dad had kept cattle a long time ago. When I came home to the farm, I knew I wanted to start a herd here.”
The beef enterprise started with Will rearing British Blue dairy cross calves, which arrive at around five months of age in batches of 20. Grown on grass for six months, they are then finished in the farm’s roundhouse on a home-grown maize based diet plus rapeseed cake from the farm’s rapeseed
oil business, with 90 finished annually now.
He has also established a small herd of Belted Galloways, with the purchase of five animals from a breeder in Cumbria. The herd is now up to 20 breeding females and is purely grass-fed.
“The Galloway is a slow burner, a lot slower growing breed. We have just started selling to butchers,”
he says. Will also enjoys the showing scene, winning breed championship at last year’s Royal Norfolk Show with his Belted Galloway stock bull, Barcode.
“He is producing some lovely calves and is very easy to work with. I’ve had a few offers, but I won’t be parting with him!” Will says.
The arable enterprise, though, remains the mainstay of the business, where the rotation is based
around potatoes, wheat, barley, parsley and maize.
“The range of crops suits the sandy loam soils,” says Will. “Potatoes are our main cropping income, with parsley close behind. This year, we are growing Asterix and Fontane with the majority going for processing.
“We came out of pre-packed recently, but still do a few to go into our farm shop.
“Parsley has a deep rooting system so we can get a wheat crop in behind it and don’t have to do much to the soil. We can get three cuts of parsley, so the margins do stack up, but it is a lot of work.”
Hand weeding would usually be done with some extra agency labour when required, but this will not be possible this year amid Covid-19 restrictions. Thankfully though, Will says they have the option of a local contractor with an inter-row hoe which would knock out about 60 per cent of the weed burden.
Oilseed rape has also been grown on the farm for many years, although Will says it is getting more challenging to grow. “We have had problems with flea beetle for the first time, so won’t be getting a good crop this year,” he says.
And with a limited choice of chemicals to combat the pest, he thinks yields may be affected by as much as 40 per cent.
“The pyrethrum sprays we can use are only about 15 per cent effective,” he says. “The problem stemmed from
lack of rain after drilling so the crops didn’t have a chance to get away before the flea beetle set in, also leaving them more prone to pigeon and rabbit damage.
“It was a combination of factors, but the flea beetle annihilated it. We need to make sure to do better next year. We will have to look differently at moisture retention and perhaps variety and see how we move on from there.”
Cover crops are a relatively new addition and the farm will drill about 60 hectares (150 acres) of these before spring crops.
“I started cover crops the year after I came back,” says Will. “We felt that due to the soil type, it needs a bit of help as it doesn’t hold nutrients well. It does need a bit of muck on it, so we apply the cattle muck and have a straw for muck agreement with a neighbour who has pigs We use a radish, vetch and black oat mix. The radishs helps with drainage.”
They have trialled mustard this year to see if, once ploughed in, it will help with potato cyst nematode (PCN) and have also been looking into under sowing maize with grass.
The family’s cold pressed rapeseed oil business is also growing well. The idea for the diversification came initially after Tim installed a biomass boiler and straw burner as a way to heat the farm’s timeshare swimming pool 13 year ago.
Will says: “On the side of the boiler was a pelleter. We started putting rapeseed through a press and pelleting it to feed the boiler. Oil was a bi-product. When we became more aware of the health benefits of cold pressed rapeseed oil we invested in a bigger press for oil and started bottling it to sell.”
The Yare Valley Oil business really took off when Glenn Sealey joined the business as sales and marketing manager in 2010. Since then the range of products has been developed to include different flavoured oils, dressings and related products. “Glenn has been such a hero,” says Will. “He has really moved the business on.”
Investments have included a new pressing system five years ago which increased capacity to 40,000 litres per year, and a new building with help from an EU grant which now means bottling and storage can all be done under one roof. Another two team members have since also joined, to help with bottling, labelling and sales.
“We sell to a range of different outlets from wholesalers, farm shops, delis and, in normal times, to a range of catering outlets too,” Will says. “It’s a big part of our overall business. We think there is a big future with it and is definitely a growing market.”
The farm shop, which opened soon after Will returned to the business in 2015, has also been busier than ever since coronavirus associated restrictions were announced.
Will says: “When we started producing rapeseed oil and beef, we had three strong products from our farm. We had a wooden shed and thought it would be nice to do something with it, so we started the shop using an honesty-based payment system and thought we’d see how it goes. We hope to be able employ someone in there but at the moment it still makes sense to do it this way and people do tend to be honest.”
As well as their own beef, rapeseed oil and potatoes they also sell lamb from a flock which grazes on the farm and a range of bought-in vegetables alongside other products including locally produced flour.
Developing the Galloway herd, improving soil health and adopting precision farming methods are top of Will’s ‘to do’ list for the near future. This will include further use of soil analysis and investment in precision technologies such as Real Time Kinematic (RTK) system, he hopes.
He says: “We have definitely got enough different enterprises and crops, and we now just want to make the best of the whole farm. These [precision technologies] will all incur capital costs but hopefully save money in the long term.”