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Farmer’s ‘fantastic’ echium crop a sharp contrast to his wheat amid weather woes

PUBLISHED: 08:10 19 July 2020 | UPDATED: 14:50 20 July 2020

Fairking's Andrew Fairs inspects a crop of echium which is in full flower inThaxted  Picture: JOE GIDDENS/PA WIRE

Fairking's Andrew Fairs inspects a crop of echium which is in full flower inThaxted Picture: JOE GIDDENS/PA WIRE

It’s turning out to be a harvest of two halves for north Essex farmer Andrew Fairs.

Fairking's Andrew Fairs inspects a crop of echium which is in full flower inThaxted  Picture: JOE GIDDENS/PA WIREFairking's Andrew Fairs inspects a crop of echium which is in full flower inThaxted Picture: JOE GIDDENS/PA WIRE

While his more conventional crops have been disappointing so far, his specialist crops for the pharmaceutical and beauty industries are looking much more healthy.

After a nightmare growing season for farmers, lurching from ceaseless rain over winter to no rain at all during the vital seed germination period, East Anglian farmers have been scratching their heads.

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In the end, with rains arriving just in time, it looks as though they will emerge with either an average or just below average cereal harvest.

“We have done the (oilseed) rape and we have done a few peas,” says Andrew, who runs Fairking, his speciality seed operation, from the family farm at Great Tey, near Colchester.

Fields of echium and borage in full flower in Thaxted  Picture: JOE GIDDENS/PA WIREFields of echium and borage in full flower in Thaxted Picture: JOE GIDDENS/PA WIRE

“The rape has not done particularly well but I’m not surprised because we had very little rain up until about three weeks ago and pod fill on the rape was before then. But I’ve got a crop - a lot of people have lost theirs because of cabbage stem flea beetle (a pest which attacks the plant in its early stages). We had cabbage stem flea beetle but not to the same extent as other people.”

In the end his oilseed rape yielded 1.15t/acre compared to an average of about 1.4t.

He’s expecting to return to harvesting his peas soon and is more hopeful for the later varieties. “We have done some peas but there were a very early variety – they were poor,” he says.

Fairking is particularly well known for its echium crop, now in full flower near Thaxted.

Rape swathing on Andrew Fairs' farm in north Essex  Picture: ANDREW FAIRSRape swathing on Andrew Fairs' farm in north Essex Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

It has been growing crops like echium and borage for more than 30 years and now farms more than 6000 acres of the flower.

These are harvested for their seed and the oil extracted to be used in cosmetics, food and nutraceuticals to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, rheumatioid arthritis and skin conditions such as eczema.

The success of the crop relies solely on the natural pollinators in the area including bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

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He also grows other specialist crops not normally grown in the British isles such as quinoa and chia.

“The echium and the early sown fields of borage went in fairly early (in mid to end of April),” he says. “They had 20mm of rain which mean they got really established. They are looking really good.”

Some of the later crop isn’t as promising, but the majority of the echium “should be fine”, he believes. “I actually think some of the borage and echium are looking fantastic.”

“Quinoa and chia we drilled them into dry seed beds and whether they extracted water from the atmosphere, they got established.”

Fairking swathing lucerne under contract for Dengie Crops  Picture: ANDREW FAIRSFairking swathing lucerne under contract for Dengie Crops Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

But while these crops are looking good, it’s the traditional farmer mainstay crops which are the real disappointment.

“I’m very disappointed with my peas, my rape and I think my wheat looks terrible, but they were all autumn or spring drilled,” he says. “It’s been strange this year. Anything I haven’t wanted to come up like blackgrass and weeds has come on remarkable well.

“Borage is phenomenal. It does tend to grow anywhere in any conditions.”

He is now all set for the swathing season.

Fairking swathing lucerne under contract for Dengie Crops  Picture: ANDREW FAIRSFairking swathing lucerne under contract for Dengie Crops Picture: ANDREW FAIRS

“Some of these plants don’t actually senesce and dry like wheat,” he explains.

Borage will continue flowering while other parts of the plant start to seed so the farmer must choose the optimum moment to cut it down. It will then be left on the ground to dry.

“We have to stop it in its tracks we think that moment has been reached (of producing the most seed). A machine cuts the plans and lays them in narrow rows. We leave it in the rows (or swaths) to dry out so it goes from green to brown.”

Later, a farmworker will come around with a combine to harvest the crop.

Andrew believes that with restrictions on the types of chemicals farmers can use that swathing may once again become more commonplace.


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