Effort is worth it for leek growing couple
LEEKS, with a gross output of up to £8000/ha (£3200/acre), are proving money-spinners for a husband and wife partnership in Lincs.
But getting the best from the diversification crop, harvested from July to May, demands much more attention and investment than anything else they produce.
Mervyn and Marilyn Caseys leek production skills, recognised recently in their nomination as finalists in the 1999 Hallmark Vegetable Grower of the Year award, were born in 1991. Prospects for mainstream arable farming on their original 73ha (180 acres) of light sand at Dogdyke, near Coningsby, were far from rosy, Marilyn recalls. "We had to grasp the nettle and look at other enterprises." The farms location ruled out tourism.
With only sketchy knowledge of the crop, but ideal soil, irrigation and dedicated casual labour already employed on early potatoes, they opted for leeks.
Starting with 2.4ha (6 acres), they now grow over 40ha (100 acres) and recently doubled the farm size on the strength of their success. All the leeks are sold through Tesco supermarkets under the Natures Choice banner.
A key aspect of the business, which included a 1996 outlay of £120,000 on a cold store and packhouse, is that it offers more continuous work for the staff of 35, about 75% of whom are employed on a regular basis.
The leeks, grown in a four-year rotation with sugar beet, potatoes and cereals, are raised in several ways to suit various harvest dates.
Earliest crops come from peat block seedlings from specialist nurseries, transplanted at the end of March, says Mervyn. Modular plants follow. "We start lifting the module crops about the middle of August."
Next to harvest are early March fleece-covered drillings, followed by main crop sowings made from the end of March to early May.
Getting to grips with leek husbandry was a stiff challenge, Mervyn admits. "It was a steep learning curve." Valuable advice along the way came from local independent agronomist Dave Thomas, ADAS and three visits to Holland.
"We decided to go the quality route before the volume road." In 1995 they trialled some of the first hybrid varieties, from Nunhams Seeds. Now only 10% of output, for the latest crop, is in traditional open-pollinated types.
"It wasnt long before we realised that the benefits of hybrids – uniformity and up to 25% less wastage – are considerable despite the higher seed price."
Competition has helped reduce the cost gap. But this years hybrid seed, at £2000/ha (£800/acre), is still about five times as expensive, he says.
The Caseys were among the first growers to use liquid starter fertiliser, a 7:20:0 solution, just below the seed in early sowings. "The idea was originally developed at HRI Wellesborne for onions and we have been getting some pretty good results. It gets crops off to a better start."
Leeks have a maximum two-day shelf life so it is vital to keep them as fresh as possible, says Marilyn. "From the start we had the idea of introducing plastic tray liners to reduce dehydration." Holes in the sheets help counter excess humidity and rotting, she explains. "Now Tesco insists all its leek suppliers use them."
With all their leeks in one supermarket basket and no contract do the Caseys not feel a twinge of vulnerability? "We are not unhappy with the current arrangements," says Marilyn. Prices inevitably fluctuate, largely determined by market forces, adds Mervyn. "But I have to say we have a good relationship with Tesco, which I believe is because of the quality we produce. *
One big hurdle with leeks, like many other so-called niche crops, is the limited choice of approved pesticides. Natures Choice rules restrict that even further. "Most of our chemical approvals are off-label, and we are very grateful for the work that HDC does to support them," says Mr Casey.
Growing the crop in 500mm wide rows rather than beds permits inter-row mechanical weeding to reduce herbicide needs.
"Thrips is probably our number one pest and there are very few chemicals available to control it." Another threat, especially to late sown crops, is bean seed fly. "We have had to re-sow two fields because of it." Recent on-farm trials suggest fipronil insecticide, as used in cat flea collars, could prove a valuable seed treatment against both pests, he says.
• Arable diversification.
• Eight-year development.
• New technology embraced.
• Crop protection challenges.
• Sole outlet no concern.