Gallery: Farmers digging in for spring after long winter
- Credit: Andrew Partridge
SPRING has finally sprung and everywhere looks bright and cheerful. But what does the late spring mean for Suffolk’s farming sector?
James Marston visits Home Farm, Nacton, to find out. Farming is a gamble on one thing - the weather. While last year’s wet summer caused problems for many of the county’s farmers, this year’s cold and prolonged winter is already creating challenges for Suffolk’s farms.
At Home Farm in Nacton, farm manager Andrew Williams is in charge of 2,500 acres of crops. Mr Williams, a former Kesgrave High School student, has been in charge of the farm for the last 16 years.
He said: “We farm 2,500 acres of predominantly sandy soils and we grow a very diverse range of crops.”
In fact the farm grows about 30 different crops, including potatoes, malting barley, onions, brassicas, herbs, peas and sugar beet. The farm has no livestock but does have about 300 acres of organic land.
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Mr Williams added: “We have about 30 full- time staff and we recruit a further 20 or so casual staff during harvest.”
Home Farm has close links to Nacton Primary school, supplying the school’s vegetables. It also supplies all the major supermarkets, as well as organic wholesalers in London.
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Mr Williams said: “The organic market has been stagnant since the downturn started in 2008. Everybody realised it would be a casualty of the recession, but we have stuck with it, though many other farmers have gone back to conventional farming.”
Though last year’s wet weather resulted in a poor cereals crop for many farmers, Home Farm’s well-drained soils worked in its favour.
Mr Williams said: “We had the best cereals harvest we ever had, probably because we are on lighter land. We were subject to the wet weather but the water drained away more quickly.
“The cold winter has caused us problems, though, with our cauliflower crop. Cauliflowers have to be perfect and white, or they cannot be sold, but the cold weather has caused crop damage from frost and lack of growth.
“The weather drives the bottom line and can cause different problems for different crops. We have a diverse crop base, so if one crop does not do so well, another one does better.”
In terms of turnover, potatoes provide the biggest slice for the farm, while malting barley is grown on 600 acres.
This year the farming industry will face new problems. Mr Williams said: “It is a very late spring and we would normally have started planting in early February so that crops would be growing steadily and provide a continuous supply of crops coming to market.
“This year it is as if everything has been planted on the same day and is growing together. Everything will be ready at the same time.”
He added: “I suspect there will be a big shortage of vegetables going into June. Normally supermarkets programme their imported vegetables up until June 1, before moving over to the UK crop.
“With the crop likely to be two or three weeks later this year the challenge will be to fill the gap between the import season and the UK season. The race is on to have as much as possible ready in early June.”
The 50-year-old lives on the farm so keeps a close eye on what needs to be done. When I visited there were various jobs under way:
• drilling sugar beet
• transplanting broccoli
• hoeing organic carrots
• planting potatoes
• adding fertiliser and spraying barley
• muck spreading on organic sweetcorn
Mr Williams said: “We are heavily audited by the supermarkets to ensure we reach certain standards and protocols. We also manage the farm in conjunction with the Natural England Entry Level Stewardship scheme, which means we create buffers around water courses and manage parkland and woodland to encourage wildlife. We also ensure there are some field corners left for wildlife.”
Though farming will always face challenges – not least, Mr Williams said, encouraging younger people into the profession there are some perks to the job.
He added: “I like being outside and watching things grow and I enjoy the organic farming because it is a challenge. This is my favourite time of year. You get a clean slate and the chance to get everything right. It is a job in a million.”