7 June 2002

No cereal and spud blues by the Danube

Cutting all ties with the UK

and moving to eastern Europe

to farm is no mean feat. But

after five years in Hungary,

Edward Jackson is doing

well. Charles Abel reports

WHEAT net margins over £180/ha and £2000/ha from potatoes sounds like a blast from the past, but for British farmer Edward Jackson they are a reality right now.

Five years ago he flew to Hungary to see if the chance to farm there appealed. Now he is farming 800ha, growing up to 7.5t/ha wheat for export and is a favoured supplier to a new crisping factory.

Growing costs for last years wheat destined for Iraq at £62.50/t were just £225/ha, including variables, labour, machinery and rent, leaving a healthy margin.

Better still is the potato enterprise. Marketed yield was 40t/ha, worth £100/t on contract to German crisper Chios new factory in Hungary. Growing costs, including irrigation, were £2000/ha.

His involvement with Hungary started with the chance to work as a self-employed farm manager for a consortium of UK farmers developing an east European potato enterprise. "I flew out to have a look one weekend and drove back the next," he recalls. Continuing on the family farm in Northumberland with two brothers was not a viable option.

When the consortium withdrew a little over a year later Mr Jackson decided to stay on. He now has a Hungarian wife, Emese, and is running a profitable arable business on predominantly rented land.

So what has been the key to his success? "Having the right land is essential," Mr Jackson stresses. "Average rainfall of just 400mm limits production, so I wanted somewhere near the Danube where we could irrigate."

He now farms land in a 40km radius around Harta, beside the River Danube 120km south of Hungarys capital, Budapest. Most of the land is rented and with over 50 owners for one block of potato land, an agent is used to negotiate terms.

Once the right land has been found, farming is relatively straightforward, Mr Jackson notes. A short, fast growing season limits weed competition, fertile soils support reasonable yields and dry harvests protect quality.

Bureaucracy and restrictions on farming practise are far less onerous than in the UK. "There is absolutely no environmental protection, people use helicopters and spray on windy days. Agriculture is a big vote, which nobody wants to upset." There is no quality assurance scheme.

Machinery is up to western standards, Mr Jackson running a Claas Challenger bought second-hand on low hours from Germany, plus nine other tractors. A Vaderstad 4m drill ties in with the 20m trailed Berthoud sprayer. Labour includes three full-time workers, Mr Jackson, his wife and seasonal staff.

Wheat

Quality is the key for the 400ha of wheat, all destined for milling. "Feed wheat trades at £45/t, so there is no money in that. Luckily the climate favours milling quality, which sold for £62.50/t last year."

Profitability is good thanks to low labour and land costs. Skilled workers cost 75p/hour. Fertile silt land can be bought for just £120/ha and fresh potato ground with irrigation can be rented for £50/ha a year.

Wheat husbandry is simple. Austrian milling wheat Brutus, half certified, half farm-saved seed and all dressed with a broad-spectrum seed treatment, is drilled in late-September/early-October, all as first wheat following sunflowers or potatoes.

Seed rate is about 280kg/ha, equivalent to 560seeds/sq m, to allow for severe winter-kill. Temperatures drop to -30C, making UK varieties completely inappropriate.

A break-neck spring means crops rush through their growth stages before summer temperatures of +40C bring harvest in early July. A single herbicide/pgr mix goes on in late April and a solo ear fungicide in late May at flowering, to guard against late foliar disease and fusarium.

Harvest conditions are normally ideal, safeguarding premium quality, including 300+ Hagberg. Grain is cut at 14% moisture using a 7.5m Claas Lexion.

There are no storage costs, grain being sold through an Austrian trader directly off the field into a barge on the Danube. Nothing leaves the farm until it has been paid for. "Ive been stung before," Mr Jackson reflects.

An independent agronomist visits weekly, providing impartial advice for 75p/ha a year. Obtaining chemicals is no problem, including the latest products, at prices similar to the UK.

But diesel costs 50p/litre, Hungary having no subsidised red diesel system. "We aim for wide kit and fast workrates to compensate," Mr Jackson comments.

Potatoes

The key to potato success is irrigation. "With it we manage to get 40t/ha of 30-70mm marketable tubers. Without it we would only get 10t/ha."

Growing on fresh land and delivering to spec also help. "We are a preferred supplier, because we deliver what they want. It means we have a very attractive contract."

Varieties include Lady Rosetta, Lady Clare and Tomenza, seed coming from Germany and the Netherlands. Home-chitted seed is planted in early March, harvest starting in late July, after 12 irrigation applications of 30mm of Danube water each, costing 11p/cu m, with no limit on quantity.

PCN is not a problem, but Colorado beetle demands Gaucho (imidacloprid) seed treatment. Severe blight pressure means a factory-dictated blight programme using Amistar (azoxystrobin).

With demand for crisping potatoes growing at 20% a year and supermarkets eager to source locally the future is bright. Mr Jackson is ploughing last years profits into a new packing facility to exploit that.

He has also imported potatoes from the UK to meet the burgeoning supermarket demand. "With the market down to £30/t in the UK and over £200/t here weve made a fortune on them."

Prospects

"We will never get 10-12t/ha wheat in Hungary, even with UK techniques and inputs. The growing season is just too short." But land ownership is set to become lucrative as EU accession approaches, says Mr Jackson.

He owns 40ha. "After five years of residency you can buy 300ha legally and there will be a free market in the future. Finding the right land is the difficult thing."

Meanwhile, life in Hungary remains attractive. It has its headaches, including mosquitoes and summer temperatures rising to 40C. And Mr Jackson admits to missing British rugby and a pint of Guinness. But he now considers Hungary to be his home.

Whether his farming continues to profit remains to be seen. "The neighbours are watching with interest to see if I go back to England with a small suitcase," he quips. Current form suggests that is unlikely. &#42

Potatoes and wheat eran good money for Edward Jackson alongside the River Danube in Hungary,. Cross-border produce trading amnd land deals promise further profits, particularly as EU accession approaches.


Wheat Potatoes

Area (ha) 400 300

Yield (t/ha) 6.5 40

Value (£/t) 62.50 100

Output (£/ha) 406 4,000

Total costs (£/ha) 225 2,000

Net margin (£/ha) 181 2,000

2001 figures. Costs include variables, machinery, labour and rent.

&#8226 Five years in Hungary.

&#8226 300ha potatoes, 400ha wheat, 100ha sunflowers.

&#8226 400mm rainfall, short season.

&#8226 -30C winter, +40C summer.

&#8226 Irrigation from Danube.

&#8226 70ha average field, 120ha max.

&#8226 Fertile silt £50/ha rent, £120/ha purchase.