Resourceful farming on west Suffolk’s sandy soils

TYPICALLY, we are in the middle of a deluge as farm manager Matt King shows the drought-beating measures adopted by Upton Suffolk Farms to address the challenges it faces from lack of rain.

Drought, not deluge, is the nightmare which lurks behind everyone welcome rain cloud on the free-draining sandy soils on the large 2,000 acre estate at Herringswell, near Bury St Edmunds where he works.

It’s perfect soil for growing onions, parsnips and potatoes as well as sugar beet and some cereals which make up its annual crop haul.

But water - as well as the sun - is a key ingredient in its growing success.

Being in an area where water is at a premium, the estate is perhaps more conscious than many farms of the importance of safeguarding resources. As well as water-saving measures, it has its own biomass boiler serving a small collection of properties around Herringswell - mainly estate houses but also some villagers - which is fuelled by wood from its yearly hedge and tree cuttings. There’s also a solar array on top of the onion stores. It’s a beautiful estate with wildlife corridors, three SSSIs, (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) over-wintering stubble, areas of woodland and a mixture of ELS (Entry Level Stewardship) and HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) schemes.

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The estate is part of the Lark Abstractor group and takes a keen interest in matters relating to water. Both Matt and Hugo Upton, part of the owning family, are on the committee.

In March this year, at the height of the drought, it was one of the growers which unanimously agreed to voluntarily cut its water usage by a fifth with immediate effect.

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“It’s a proactive approach to a potentially worsening situation. It’s good to see growers joining together and agreeing to take this step,” said Matt at the time.

“We were aware that the aquifer was not re-charging. It was the second dry winter in a row. We wanted to come through with a proposal so we had enough water for the summer.

“We said if there’s is a problem, let’s have it out in the air and talk about it.

“We finally agreed to a voluntary 20% cut and every farmer signed up to it in the group. That’s 20% of our total for the year.”

It was then up to each individual farmer to manage that and eke the reduced water out over the growing season.

Ironically, given how the season developed, in anticipation of reduced water availability, the farm reduced its onion crop from 100 hectares down to 70 hectares. It also planted 50 hectares of parsnips earlier than usual to try and reduce the need to irrigate.

But come rain or shine, in the long term, Matt knows that his priority has to be in conserving as much water as he can so that he can mitigate the effects of drought.

He demonstrates how water booms (irrigation devices on long ‘arms’) help distribute scarce water supplies as evenly as possible to ensure a little goes a long way.

“Booms have much better application than guns (which ‘squirt’ water),” he says. “It’s sandy soil which doesn’t hold water.”

Other measures also help: the parsnips are initially grown under polythene to give them the best start.

“Water is critical to this farm because of the soil type we are on. We are very well suited to growing a lot of vegetables, root crops and in essence part of the struggle is that the soil doesn’t hold a lot of water on top,” says Matt.

The farm could be fully saturated with water now and in a hot spell, that situation will change quite rapidly, he explains.

Matt has been at the helm at Upton Suffolk Farms for three years. Sliced in two by the A11, navigating to all parts of it involves a car or tractor journey through a series of roads and roundabouts.

The Upton family used to own part of an agricultural machinery manufacturing firm based at Barton Mills, but sold its shareholding. The first generation to own the farm was Robin Upton, who has retired and passed on the reins to businessman son, Hugo, who looks after the estate side while Matt is employed, via farm management firm Velcourt, to manage the farming business. Robin retired nearly three years ago, and that coincided with the retirement of the previous farm manager.

Matt, 28, is originally from Bedfordshire. Although not from a farming family, his interest was fired, unusually, through an interest in horse riding.

“It was enjoyment of the outdoor life,” he explains.

He studied agriculture at Writtle College in Chelmsford and worked on several farms around Essex, then two years back home on a large onion and potato operation. After that, he joined Velcourt and went to work on a farm in Kent.

“I was on a management programme so they put me through a lot of training. I must have shown glimmers of being decent and I got promoted when I moved here. This is my first manager job as opposed to assistant or trainee manager. I like the area of the country,” he says. “I enjoy the type of farming we do here, root crop farming rather than just cereals. I have never been a stockman.

“Within Velcourt there’s a big ethos on accelerating youth and their trainee manager programme is renowned in the industry. the industry as a whole doesn’t have masses of youth entering it,” he says. “At the time, I was the youngest manager in Velcourt but that’s now changed.”

Realistically, he knows that he couldn’t afford to own his own farm - a recurring headache in that it’s very difficult for would-be farmers to reach those heady heights other than through inheritance. However, it is his dream, “If I won the Lottery”, he says.

In terms of size, the estate is probably ‘average’ for this part of the country, he says, but higher than average in terms of turnover.

The farm employed eight people and now has seven, including Matt after one retired. On the estate side, there are office staff and a small building team to look after the properties which number about 30. Many of these are long-term let and a certain number house staff.

Robin, who arrived some time around the 1950s, was one of the first farmers to look at irrigation, and was ahead of the pack, explains Matt.

“He was a great innovator,” he says.

The farm keeps records of its own water table readings and these go back to 1971. It means it has been able to build up an accurate picture of what is happening in terms of the replenishment of water supplies.

“We all agree that information is key, and unless you know what’s happening you can’t do something about it,” he says.

This year, in spring the water table was as low as 6m. The last time it reached that low level was 1992.

Monitoring of the water situation is highly technical on the farm. It has eight Enviroscans, or ground probes, out in the crop fields, going half a metre down, which read the water content of the soil at four different depths. In this way the farm can optimise the amount of water it feeds to the crops and ensure none is wasted. It also measures rainfall and transpiration, the process by which water that is absorbed by plants, usually through the roots, is evaporated into the atmosphere from the plant surface, such as leaf pores.

“We are trying to just use the water the crop needs and nothing more than that,” he says. “Water is one thing we can manage. Sunlight obviously is not.”

The use of technology doesn’t stop there - there is soil sampling and satellite navigation provides absolute precision in working out soil to check for nutrients and diseases to show where fertilisers and chemicals need to be used. It also enables them to create arrow-straight beds, maximising the use of the productive area, and saving fuel.

“There are quotes in farming media of anywhere between five and ten per cent savings on chemicals, fertilisers and diesel just by making it straight in the first place,” Matt explains.

“There will be giant leaps forward in the future (in farming technologies). What we face as an industry is how to have it in one easy to use package.

“It’s certainly the right way forward and I feel it’s enabling us to be more efficient as a business but outside of that it’s helping us to manage the environment.”

“We have got to strive to be the best at it and reduce our impact as a farming industry and I think we are a lot better than some people give us credit for.”

There are a lot of voluntary measures in the industry, he points out, such as in the use of slug pellets in wet conditions.

“As an industry we are quite active and in essence we are trying to deal with the water situation.”

The estate has a series of crop stores with two onion stores holding about 1,000 tonnes and another two holding about 1,500 tonnes.

It grows primarily salad potatoes for the likes of Sainsbury, Tesco, Waitrose and Asda, as well as for local trade. It sells to the packers, who supply the supermarkets.

“We have got contracts with a couple of different packers and they are the ones negotiating with the supermarkets,” he says.

Once upon a time, the farmland would have been heathland, but is now ploughed and planted with enviable precision, with every plough turn and furrow meticulously executed. Its potatoes are started under fleece.

“Basically we put them under a nice warm blanket,” says Matt.

“By doing that we should not need to put so much water on those.”

Picturesque and fast-growing pine trees grown on the estate provide a useful buffer to prevent soil from flying away or crops being buffeted too fiercely by the wind.

There are two separate pig operations and a gravel works, the older gravel pits providing a useful haven for wildlife and,in particular, for sand martins and wading birds. It’s operated by a gravel company, and the main resource taken from the pits is gravel, although sand is a bi-product.

“There’s a great array of wildlife on the farm,” says Matt.

This year, around 100 hectares have been given over to potato production and onions were over 70 hectares rather than 100 in response to the water shortage. Sugar beet covers 140 hectares and cereals 200 - predominantly wheat (160), and also rye (20) and barley (20)

“Rye is a lot more drought tolerant so we are planning to grow more of that in the future,” he says.

The pig operations help provide some organic matter to put back in the soil, and the farm routinely spreads chicken manure and compost onto the fields.

The applications must be carefully managed to ensure they are not done where a crop is being grown for human consumption.

“We go through five audits a year which require us to show our records. It shows all our information is up to date, that we are not spraying chemicals we should not be. It shows we are looking at our energy usage. It shows how we can maximise the water efficiency

“It takes a good day to do all these audits so it’s pretty intensive stuff. It looks at our integrated approach to farming. It tries to encourage biodiversity on the farm. We are looking to minimise insecticides on the farm. We use selective insecticides.”

The estate sits on the edge of the Brecklands and tries to encourage lapwings and stone curlews. It has been working with Natural England to try and come up with a scheme to maximise potential for wildlife.

“We have been in environmental schemes for over 10 years and this was renewed in as an HLS scheme in October 2011,” Matt explains.

Matt says he is in favour of the farming industry developing genetically modified, or GM, crops “with caution”.

“If we are going to keep up with the rest of the world we need to be going down that route. I don’t think it’s the silver bullet that’s going to give us the final answer to everything because nature always wins.”

There are other technologies, though, that are helping the farm now. It has invested �200,000 in booms and irrigators which apply water more uniformly.

Matt believes strongly in working together to ensure precious resources, and especially water, are used carefully.

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