We know how our varieties perform in trial but what’s even more important is how they perform on farm, and that’s where our Growers Club comes in.
We would like to introduce two of our Growers Club members, Ken Goodger and Jack Smithson, who are sharing their insights and experience with some of our varieties.
Ken Goodger Farming, Pates Farm, Tipps End, Welney, Norfolk.
Area farmed: 320ha
Soil types: Silt and skirt fen.
Key crops: Winter wheat, potatoes, winter and spring barley, sugar beet, herbs for essential oils.
Cultivations: Varying, depending on soil type and weather.
RAGT varieties: Wheat: RGT Gravity.
Ken started his farming career with just 30ha and soon became a diversification pioneer when support payments were switched away from production and became area based.
“The future suddenly started to look very uncertain so I decided it was time to look at an enterprise that didn’t rely on payments from the public purse that left us at the whim of politicians,” says Ken.
That marked the beginning of what is now a well-established business, Norfolk Essential Oils, which grows and processes herbs mainly for the aromatherapy market and cosmetics.
Chamomile and Yarrow account for the bulk of the 80ha down to herbs at Pates Farm. Hyssop, Melissa and peppermint are also grown. These, plus additional supplies from local contract growers, are processed at Pates Farm’s purpose-built distillation plant.
Ken also grows a range of more conventional crops on the rest of the farm, which has grown to 320ha over the past couple of decades through various tenancy and contract farming agreements.
Wheat accounts for about 110ha, potatoes 45ha, while sugar beet and barley make up the balance.
RGT Gravity is a key wheat variety on the farm, accounting for about half the area this autumn. This is partly due to its excellent performance last season, when it averaged 10t/ha despite being drilled in late November after potatoes, and also because Ken has given up growing milling wheat due to difficulties in achieving protein levels.
“We’re not early drillers as we are tied up with herbs and potatoes in the autumn,” says Ken. “We don’t usually start sowing wheat until the end of October or beginning of November, which also helps keep blackgrass under control.”
Cultivations for cereals are based on deep tines and discs, using a Vaderstad TopDown and Carrier ahead of a 3m Rapid drill.
“We may plough late if the weather changes – it’s important to have that flexibility given our variable soils and because we drill wheat so late.”
Stubbles are usually left untouched once straw has been cleared (everything is baled and goes to a nearby straw-fired power plant), especially in dry autumns, partly due to workload. Glyphosate is applied pre-cultivation to kill off chitted grass weeds. “We also think we get better chit and control by leaving soils alone in a dry season,” says Ken.
To help keep overheads in check, Ken shares his equipment with son Sean, who farms an 85ha council tenancy about 10 miles away near Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire. “Most of the herbs are perennial, which reduces our machinery requirement, and we keep things as straightforward as we can on the rest of the farm, so this arrangement works well.”
Ken admits his job is his hobby. “I love every aspect of farming. Every season brings different challenges – we have to work with the weather, conditions and soils as much as we can.”
He believes family farms like his have a good future. “The trend is for bigger units, but the wheat price is the same as it was when I started. There is only so far you can go down that route.
“Family farms can operate at a lower cost base and pay more attention to detail. Big farms can do a good job, but I think family farms can do as well if not better. We’ll be around for a while yet.”
Sycamore Tree Farm, Hunmanby, Filey, North Yorkshire.
Area farmed: 40ha
Soil type: Deep sandy loam over chalk
Key crops: Winter wheat, spring barley, oilseed rape
Typical rotation – As above
Cultivations: Varying, depending on soil condition, weather and timing
RAGT varieties: RGT Alizze.
Attention to detail is paramount when you are farming a relatively small area, says Jack Smithson.
“We are very conscious that even the smallest mistake can have a disproportionate effect compared with a bigger business and, conversely, little tweaks here and there to improve performance can add up significantly over our limited acreage.”
The family farm near Hunmanby runs to 40ha, so Jack’s father works part time on a neighbouring farm while Jack, who graduated from Bishop Burton College last year with a degree in agriculture, has been working in ADAS’ crop trials team.
“The farm is currently not big enough to support us full time, but we have just submitted plans for a 1300-place bed-and-breakfast pig unit, where we will fatten pigs from four to eight weeks of age before they are moved on for finishing.
“That will enable me to be fully employed on the farm, splitting duties between the pigs and the arable enterprise. It will also provide us with some valuable manure which will help us reduce our fertiliser bills while hopefully improving our soils.”
The farm sits on some good, deep easy-working Wolds loam that supports a straightforward rotation of wheat, spring barley and oilseed rape.
Last season Jack tried RGT Alizze oilseed rape for the first time.
“It had an excellent year and yielded 5t/ha. It looked good all the way through and RAGT’s Cathy Hooper suggested we enter it into ADAS’ Yield Enhancement Network, which we did.
“We will have to wait to see how we did – we didn’t do anything particularly special to the crop. “It was certainly very vigorous in the autumn and also in the spring – it grew away quickly. We did tweak the nitrogen from 190kg/ha to 210 to make sure it didn’t run short.
“It was also very good on light leaf spot – our agronomist carried out a Bayer SpotCheck and our crop was clear, while other varieties in the area showed up to 20% infection. Overall, our Alizze produced a terrific result – we’d normally be happy with 3.75t/ha.”
He is hoping for a repeat performance this season. The crop was combi-drilled on 8 September after chisel ploughing, at a lower rate than last year’s 40-50 seeds/sq m which was judged too high. “Plant numbers look about right and it is now growing away well after two sprays to control flea beetle.
“We used to plough ahead of rape but it’s been so dry the past two seasons we min-tilled instead to conserve moisture. It seems to have paid off.
“We don’t believe in drilling too early on this land and we don’t apply autumn N – we’ve not seen any difference. Provided the crop has a decent rosette going into winter we’re happy.”
Introducing spring barley into the rotation has cleared up background levels of blackgrass and other grass weeds. “We were getting more trouble from bromes, but with more time to create stale seedbeds and chit weeds we’ve been able to clean up fields successfully.”
Sharing a combine and the grain dryer with neighbours helps to contain costs, as does buying smaller second-hand machinery which bigger farms don’t want.
Although no longer in an agri-environment scheme after the closure of ELS, Jack keeps an ear to the ground for further opportunities.
“We are living in very uncertain times and we just don’t know how profitable crop production will be in the future, so we may well have to supplement it by doing a bit more for the environment.”