A young farmer from Cambridgeshire started small but is now thinking big. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
Selling three kilo bags of potatoes grown on a two-hectare (six-acre) plot to fish and chip shops was where it all started for Luke Abblitt.
Seven years later he is farming more than 130ha (320 acres) and selling consignments of grain to large conglomerates.
After leaving school at 16, Luke attended Moulton College, Northamptonshire, to study agriculture. But his father took on more land shortly afterwards, so Luke returned to the family farm to help out, attending college on a day release basis.
His father allowed Luke to grow potatoes on small strips at the edge of fields and he gradually rented other pieces of land locally.
“I would go round the local fish and chip shops and greengrocers and sell 3kg bags for £1.50,” Luke says. “My potatoes were always slightly earlier than other suppliers so I could sell them before others were ready.”
Initially he would hand dig all the potatoes, but he used a harvester when he was eventually growing larger areas. Then another opportunity arose.
“My cousin offered me a 24-acre field of wheat and I farmed this alongside the potatoes,” he adds.
“Then the chance to apply for the tenancy came up; I never thought I would get it, but I applied to get my name in there with Cambridgeshire County Council.”
Luke was just 21 years old when he applied for the tenancy of Daintree Farm in Ramsey St Mary’s.
“I applied online and I had to provide proposed cropping rotations, projected budgets for the cropping, a three-year business plan and a projected cashflow to coincide with this,” he says.
“I was really surprised when I got a first interview and knew the second interview would be tough.”
One of the biggest challenges Luke faced was opening a business bank account and finding a bank manager to act as a referee for his application. With no mortgage, prior business history or credit record, the banks were unwilling to take him on.
“Eventually one bank agreed to take me on and this really helped me through my second interview,” he recalls. “When I was told I had been awarded the tenancy, I could not believe it.”
The tenancy extended to just 49ha (120 acres), so Luke needed to work off-farm to earn enough money.
“Maintaining cashflow was a big deal for me so I carried on working for my dad and other farming neighbours as well as farming in my own right,” he says.
To minimise outlay, Luke borrowed and shared equipment with his father and as he built up some capital, he gradually invested in additional machinery.
“If I need to upgrade something, dad will trade in his old kit as his share and I will pay the difference to buy the new equipment,” Luke explains.
He admits he is never shy to ask to borrow equipment from friends and relatives, joking that ‘a bottle of whisky goes a long way when begging a favour’.
A similar arrangement works well when helping each other out at busy times.
“I do not employ anyone and we all help each other out around here. We tend to operate on the basis of a day for a day and it works really well,” he adds.
Although the farm is now entirely arable, Luke ‘dabbled’ in cattle initially as a short-term investment.
“I bought in a few steers and reared them before selling them on for finishing. It made great use of what are normally wasted by-products from the farm,” he says.
“I fed them small potatoes which would not make the grade, sugar beet tops, or I fed a few waste tonnes of sweetcorn from a neighbour, and for a dose of protein I would grind up a couple of spare tonnes of wheat or barley we had at the back of the grain store. I would like to have cattle again at some point.”
The arable business is the core enterprise and the rotation of winter wheat, winter barley, sugar beet and oilseed rape works suits the fen land at Ramsey St Mary’s, although Luke says this fertile Grade 2 land will grow anything.
“We choose to drill in the autumnbecause it fits in better with the off-farm work I do, but we could opt for spring cropping if we wanted to.
“I now have my Class 1 HGV licence, so I drive lorries for a local firm in the winter months once we have finished drilling,” he adds.
Blackgrass is a problem, but Luke is now relying on cultivations to deal with the weed. “I plough in front of the drill so this buries the blackgrass seed,” Luke says. “If I plough cross ways across the field and deep enough it tends to get rid of it.
“I choose disease resistant wheats such as JB Diego or Relay and this means we use far less sprays. They produce a hard wheat and so I am always paid a premium.
“Although prices are not as high as for milling wheat, my costs are considerably less than they would be if I was growing milling varieties.”
Luke Abblitt and his fiancee Caroline Key
The high fertility of the fen land and the clement climate means keeping ahead of the weeds can be a problem, but it does reduce fertiliser costs.
“I apply very little fertiliser to the cereals because the land does not need it,” he says. “This year I have applied two applications of 120kg/ha and 110kg/ha, because I have to be careful not to apply too much as the crop will fall over.”
Understanding how to farm the land to achieve its potential was one of the first challenges for Luke.
He regularly attends farm walks and field days to learn about new varieties, cultivation techniques and approaches to weed and pest control and is happy to listen to advice from others.
“As soon as I took on this land I went to speak to the person who farmed it before and found out as much as possible,” he says. “If anyone gives me advice I will remember it. I might not apply it straight away, but it is there when I need it.
Luke has plenty of experience of selling from his days touting his potatoes but says dealing with the major grain buyers is different, although his YFC contacts have proved helpful.
“I sell to Dalmark, Fengrain and Frontier. Negotiating was a novelty at first but I found most of the time I was dealing with former YFC members which made it easier.”
Under Luke’s council tenancy plan, his holding increased by 48.5ha (120 acres) after five years. This allowed him to stage the initial capital outlay and made the transition to farming over 130ha (320 acres) a little easier. “Cambridgeshire County Council has been very supportive,” says Luke.
“We are lucky to have such a good council; seven of my farmer friends locally have secured council tenancies since I started here. It is a great start for us.”
Facing the challenge of uncertainty following the Brexit vote, Luke is positive. Although he does not dismiss the seriousness of the situation, he is pragmatic about the impact on his business.
“I think the fall in the value of sterling will help in the short term. I am concerned about who will be negotiating on behalf of farmers in Europe and whether they will fight our corner.
“I had to pay a lot of money for my entitlements and I am not sure whether they will be worth anything soon. I guess I will have to wait and see,” he says.
Putting aside the current challenges facing his business, Luke is an enthusiastic ambassador for the industry and is involved with the East of England’s ‘Kids Country’ initiative to promote agriculture in schools.
“I go into schools to talk to the children about farming. They are so enthusiastic about what I am saying and they ask lots of questions. I tell lots of jokes but always tell them to buy British,” he says.
Luke’s passion for the industry shines through his conversation and it seems farming was what Luke was always going to do and he has no regrets.
“All my family are farmers. I have never known anything else. I moan about it on a regular basis but I still wake up and do it every day. After all, I am working for myself and I am my own boss.”