'Economy of scale' needed for new crops to succeed in UK, say Essex experts
PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 March 2019
UK farmers may well look to new crops to grow in future – but will need to hedge their bets, an Essex crop expert says.
Neal Boughton, director of Crop Development Services Ltd, Colchester, says growing speciality crops may become a useful option for UK farmers, but won’t place commodity crops in the near future.
He has worked with crop pioneer Andrew Fairs of Fairking at Great Tey, near Colchester, to bring unfamiliar crops to UK soils, rather than importing them.
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These can require specialist equipment and need good crop knowledge to succeed, he said. But together he and Mr Fairs have achieved commercial production of ‘sweet quinoa’, a variety which requires no post-harvest processing to make it palatable, and of chia. Other crops are already being grown on a small scale for the cosmetic oil industry.
“We also harvested our first test plots of chickpeas last year and learnt a lot about their potential in the UK. This project may well continue if someone comes along and gives Fairking a commitment to place an order for them to justify the expense,” said Mr Boughton.
But new or alternative crops won’t replace the commodities we already grow to a large extent, he warned.
“Although it is difficult for the UK grower to compete with other countries in the production of wheat, barley, oilseed rape etc, we will continue to do it because there are markets for these crops and they are consistent and reliable, which some of the alternatives are not,” he said.
“What the UK grower needs are some small scale, speciality crops that make one hectare of land as profitable as 5ha, thereby allowing them to improve their profit margins whilst retaining a good level of security.
“These, by their very nature, will be of a very limited crop area, need much more management time and sometimes an investment in specialist equipment.”
However, UK growers needed to be aware that consumer tastes are changing, with a move away from meat consumption, particularly red meat, in the west. As this happens, crops grown for animal feed will also decline.
“Markets for vegetable proteins from human grade pulse crops, soybean etc will increase and these crops should be further developed in the UK to take up the slack,” he said.
The problem, he explained, was who pays to develop the alternative crops, and, once developed, anyone can jump on the bandwagon, and undercut the grower.
Farmers need consistently profitable crops to stay in business, and if the crop doesn’t provide a consistent yield, the price has to reflect the poor years, said Mr Boughton.
It must also fit into rotations without reducing the profit of succeeding crops, so a late harvest is not a good characteristic for an alternative crop if that is to be followed with an autumn drilled species.
“Farmers in the UK will always struggle to compete with their foreign counterparts due to economy of scale,” he admitted.
UK farmers are expected to have relatively small field sizes compared to their counterparts in the Ukraine, Hungary, USA and Canada etc, where 100ha and 200-plus ha fields with no hedgerows are the norm.
Soya is a viable crop in certain seasons provided the soil isn’t too light and there are no irrigation problems, he said, while 10had of lupins would be sufficient for a couple of years’ worth of feed for a sheep farmer.
“The size of these alternative commodity crops will expand in the future as the temperatures rise and they become more suitable to be grown in the UK, but it still doesn’t get over the ‘economy of scale’ issue,” he said.
Irrigation was also set to be a big topic in the near future as to compete with commodity crop producers in other parts of the world, UK farmers will need to have much higher yields off small land areas, and the big limiting factor will be water.
“This is where the UK farmer with his attention to detail can win over his large scale competitor. The farmers in New Zealand learned this the hard way, but they did learn it and quickly, when faced with having to make a profit with no subsidies,” he said.
As meat consumption declines in favour of high protein plant-based foods for humans, demand should grow for crops such as quinoa, chickpeas, sweet lupins and lentils, he said.