Pest control firm's year breaks records as extremes unleash plague of wasps
PUBLISHED: 06:41 26 January 2019
Pest control can be an unpredictable business.
In 2017, call-outs for problem wasps plummeted for Suffolk-based Command Pest Control. Last year, they were at unprecedented highs.
It turned into a record year for wasps’ nests in East Anglia, says Mark Ward, the firm’s founder. “We were taking in the region of 200 phone calls a day at the height of the season and I’m proud to say that 90% of those calls would have been dealt with within two days,” he says.
A year of weather extremes, including a two month heatwave, provided a potential breeding ground for a range of pests, with farmers battling to get their grain harvests cool enough to prevent infestations of problem insects such as saw-toothed grain beetles. Once cooled, grain heaps needed to be fumigated to prevent infestations taking hold. As a result, the firm broke records on that side of the business too.
“It was an excellent early harvest – down on yield because of the dry summer we had. The grain came in quick and it came in warm, and farmers couldn’t cool the grain it was warm for a very, very long time. Grain above 10C is ideal for insect reproduction and escalating infestation really, and a lot of the grain sat at 20C plus for a long time. It was a hot, hot summer. A lot of the grain was coming in at 20C to 30C,” says Mark.
Grain storage on farm varies, but it is often set on concrete floors, without cooling vents, and stacked 3m-plus high, he explains.
“If that grain is very, very warm, it can actually start to cook. We have been to grain that’s 40C, and that’s seriously hot and it starts to decompose at that stage.”
The firm, which employs more than 80 staff, sent out staff with screw-in fans to farmers’ grain heaps to cool them prior to fumigating them - if the grain is too hot it will push away the gas, rendering the fumigation process futile.
“What farmers don’t understand is some grain storage insects can live for 12 months without food. The saw-toothed grain beetle will climb up onto the building roof and wait for more grain to come into the store and drop on it.”
Every fan the firm possessed was out last year, and it had to purchase a lot more to cope with soaring demand.
Command, started more than 25 years ago by Mark, covers Sussex to North Yorkshire. It goes into Wales, and also fumigates grain in Scotland.
“We don’t do much else in Scotland, so we are almost a national service, but not a national service for everything we do,” says Mark.
“I don’t want to run a national pest control business because we have quite enough to do. Our emphasis is to try and maintain the personal and quality service we orginated with in 1986. What I don’t want is a company I have no control over – I want to know what’s going on.
“The bulk of our work is in East Anglia. We have only really gone out of East Anglia through customer demand. It’s spread by word of mouth, which it still does today.”
Grain fumigation is a very specialised field, explains Mark, with very few companies in the country able to do it.
“You can have years where there’s incredibly little work, so it’s difficult to estimate how much work you are going to have in one season because it’s weather dependent and market dependent,” he says. “It’s surprising how many farmers don’t sell all their grain in one season, so they end up putting old crop up against new crop and that’s really asking for trouble.”
One of the firm’s most successful diversifications over the past three years is a gutter cleaning business, Command Guttersnipe. Using equipment which can be operated from the ground up to 14m, the firm is now carrying out gutter cleaniing for commercial, agricultural and domestic clients.
“That’s done incredibly well. It’s a small proportion of the business. We have got three full time people on that now. We just saw the idea because health and safety is a big issue nowadays.”
But the biggest part of the business is centred on rat control. Last year was a busy one for rats, which can cause all kinds of problems for farmers and food producers.
“It’s where we started. But also, of the many thousands of farms we look after, it’s really centred around rat control – mouse control as well, but rats is what we are really after. Farmers are growing and storing a food product, and it’s unacceptable for the grain to be contaminated with rat urine and droppings.”
Demand for Command’s services has grown over the years, as standards within the food and farming industry are raised.
“I would say that in the 33 years that I have been in business, the market has changed. The grain market has changed and now demands for farmers to produce a quality, safe and contaminant-free food stuff has become more important,” he said.
The business remains ‘first and foremost’ an agricultural pest control business, although it does do domestic work, and Mark, 54, is the proud owner of his own farm business, M A Ward Farms Ltd, comprising 530 acres of arable land at Preston St Mary, Kettlebaston and Hitcham. It’s contract farmed for him, but he takes a keen interest.
“I love farming – we are putting a new grain store up at the moment.” he says. Farming is an “absolute pleasure”, but he also loves the pest control business. Having started out as a one-man band all those years ago, he is still very hands-on, but acknowledges he can’t do everything.
“I wanted to do everything. Nowadays I don’t get to do the pest control, but I do miss it dreadfully.”