Farming Insight: Elveden Estate’s Countdown to Christmas

HAVING battled through one of the hardest growing seasons in living memory, our attentions are drawn towards the run up to Christmas and the further demands asked of the team, writes Andrew Francis, senior farms manager at Elveden Farms, near Thetford.

Before looking forward we should look back on some details. We started the year faced with a second dry winter and the possibility of very real restrictions on supply of water for irrigation. Several hours were spent deciding whether we had access to enough water to support the viable growing of our vegetable crops. Back and forth discussions with the Environment Agency and several contingency plans had to be thought through before the cropping plan was finalised. At this point availability of food for the new season would appear to have been most at risk from a lack of water. Little were we to know that it would turn out to be impacted so strongly by too much water!

As Mother Nature tends to do, she decided to correct the shortfall of rain in the previous 18 months by sending us 350% of our average monthly rainfall in April. All talks of drought disappeared as June, July and August continued wet, each averaging 150% of average rainfall.

During this key period for crop growth, when we rely on sunlight and warm temperatures to boost size, yield and quality, the dull damp weather left an unrecoverable impact of late, small and low yielding crops. Combinable crops such as Wheat and Barley fared well on our light Breckland sands, but nationally suffered severely. Early potato crops suffered from low tuber numbers and small size, giving rise to a 20% loss in yield, with early carrot crops being similarly affected. Possibly the hardest hit was our onion crop, a crop which thrives well in bright sunny, hot conditions, probably had the worst growing season it could possibly have. The legacy of which was late maturing crops, of highly variable bulb size and very uneven harvest maturities.

With such a difficult season come huge demands on a very hard working team. The modern farm worker is moulded from tough stuff. Working in small weather windows from dawn to dusk and longer, they give their all to ensure each crop is nurtured, managed and harvested in the best condition possible. Often sacrificing precious social and family time to ensure us as a nation have food to eat.

The advent of Christmas tree harvest on the estate signals the countdown to Christmas, and perhaps some well earned rest?! The woods and retail teams rev up to capture their harvest and the seasons bounties. On the farm attention turns to holidays and some much deserved down time. First though there is the pre-season rush to be dealt with.

Five weeks to go; our onion grader starts to whir at full pace. Retail customers want the best product, with the best keeping ability to start to build a head stock of product ready for the consumer blitz on shelves. Finding the necessary volumes with such a variable crop means long hours and high wastage levels. A necessary evil to produce a prefect onion for retail. How perfect does it need to be? How would a customer view a different size, a variable shape? A debate for another day!

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Four weeks to go; the onion grader continues to work apace. The carrot and parsnip team busy harvesting away. Early mornings to enable produce to hit the factories and processors as fresh as possible. Scrapping the ice from the windscreen, low lying lingering fogs creeping through the pine trees, giving the landscape a hidden creepy undertone, the haunting bark of a deer stag cutting the air with a knife like action.

Three weeks to go; a deluge of holiday request forms! Time to give the team a well earned rest. Have we got enough to man a skeleton crew over the holidays? Relying on the same faces to give up valuable time to keep the wheels turning. The onion grader starts to tick down, with most of the produce for Christmas now at the packers, and safely secured for the last minute rush, the demand starts to slip. Christmas tree retail in full swing, the Christmas theme at the shop and restaurant giving everyone a warm feel good factor, everyone is in the holiday spirit. Plans are made for which carrot and parsnip crops can be lifted in any weather to satisfy the uplift in demand.

The last two weeks; carrots which were snugly tucked away under a blanket of polythene and straw, to keep them warm and in prime condition during November, are rudely exposed to the winter air ready for harvest. Deer hunting for something to sustain them through the winter months sense the sweet smelling carrot for miles and home in to banquet on the orange marvel. A stark splash of colour in an otherwise grey and dour backdrop. The harvesting continues apace. Up to and including Christmas Eve. Have we got enough lifted to keep the pack houses going?

And then it stops. An abrupt halt. No slow down, no warning, we have enough! Time to lock everything away, perhaps going via a welcoming watering hole on the way home. Time to reflect on another year of tests and challenges. Let’s hope the new year is kinder to us. After all we start again in two days!!