A major borage grower and processor for the UK is celebrating a big boost after investing in a £1m-plus new plant.

Peter and Andrew Fairs unveiled their new borage seed processing facility to 68 farmers from across Suffolk and Essex at an event on Tuesday (February 7).

The father-and-son farmers, based at Great Tey, near Colchester, are highly specialist growers - and work with other farmers to help them produce niche crops through their company, Fairking.

They grow unusual crops such as borage and echium which provide stunning displays in the summer as their fields are transformed into blankets of blue and purple flowers filled with pollinating bees and insects.

Borage seed oil is used in a range of products including food supplements, cosmetics, medicines and skin disorder treatments.

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Together with the farmers the Fairs work with, they provide about 90% of the UK borage crop each year.

Although also grown in China, the UK seeds are highly sought-after as they contain more Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) - an omega-6 fatty acid - because of the particular growing conditions here.

The Fairs operate as farmers and seed merchants and represent New Holland Extractions, encouraging other farmers to contract grow borage for their extraction plant on the farm. They currently have 100 growers working with them and held two open days this week.

Their family farm - HJ Fairs - grows 450ha of borage, which produces 180 tonnes of the crop.

Overall, the group of farmers grows 2,000 tonnes of the crop over an area of 5,000ha every year under contracts with DeWit, a Dutch speciality oil company which has an extraction plant in North Lincolnshire.

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"We are their representatives," explained Andrew. "We help farmers grow the plant. We supply them with the seed and help them with agronomy advice, swathing (cutting) advice and harvesting advice."

Borage crops need to be harvested carefully to ensure the seeds aren't lost, he explained. If they are cut too late, the seed pods will shatter and disperse. So just before that happens, the plants are cut down using a process known as swathing using a specialist machine.

They are laid in tight rows, or windrows, and stay like that for about two weeks or more. Then a combine harvester with a pick-up header on the front picks the windrow up and separates the various parts of the plant reserving the seeds, which are fairly large and black.

The seed then has to go to be cleaned as it comes with a lot of excess plant material, explained Andrew.

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"It all comes to Fairking," he said. Each year around 2,000 tonnes of borage seed will be processed there.

Each farmer's crop is kept separate in 750kg lots in order to ensure the highest standards and traceability, he said, as occasionally batches of crop can go rancid.

"We want the oil from the seed. It goes into food supplements and cosmetics and a lot of it is used cold-pressed. We have to make sure every quality about it is correct," he said.

The new processor replaces one installed by Andrew's father 35 years ago. "It's got more throughput and it's got an extremely efficient dust extracting system so the operator has got a much better working environment."

The dust off the crop is made into briquettes which are then delivered to the power plant at Eye in north Suffolk, along with any other burnable borage waste.

They were both "absolutely over the moon with it", he said, after the machinery was test-run this week.

After it leaves the farm, the seed goes to one of the largest hexane extraction plants in Europe - the New Holland plant at Barrow-Upon-Humber - where it is cold-pressed.

Most of the oil (70%) is extracted that way, but about 29% is extracted from the meal which is produced during the pressing process. The meal goes into warm hexane and is then distilled off. The Fairs and around 30 other growers headed up to see the plant in action on Thursday (February 9).

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Growers supplying Fairking cover a wide area including Hampshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and East Yorkshire.

The growers like borage as a break crop, he said. It helped them where they had particular problems with blackgrass and required few inputs. The seeds are drilled late - at the end of April or beginning of May.

As the flowers need to be pollinated, the fields are filled with beehives and much honey is created from the crop. Some beekeepers produce as much as 100 jars of honey per acre.

Farmers can also benefit from growing it under one of the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) schemes. 

Growers visiting Fairking were given a tour of the new seed cleaning facility and listened to experts about how the crop was grown and processed.

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