2016 Farmers Weekly Awards: Specialist crop producer finalists revealed

The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British farming by recognising and rewarding innovation, hard work and passion for agriculture.

To successfully produce specialist and high-value crops requires professionalism, precise management and technological innovation. Our three finalist deliver on each of those levels.

From left to right: Joe Cottingham, Nathan Dellicott, Antony Snell

From left to right: Joe Cottingham, Nathan Dellicott, Antony Snell

See also: Read all the latest news from the Farmers Weekly Awards

Joe Cottingham

Hill Farm, Kent

A constant quest for new lucrative market opportunities has seen Kent-based Watts Farms expand its product range to a dazzling array of fresh produce since the start of the millennium.

In 2000, the business was confined to just 70ha at Farningham, just south of Dartford.

Joe Cottingham

Joe Cottingham © Liz Finlayson Vervate

Now the diverse enterprise is spread across 10 sites in three different counties, comprising 600ha of outdoor, protected and glasshouse production.

Keeping track of the 60 lines of brassicas, herbs, baby leafs, legumes, onions, asparagus, courgettes, spinach, chards and more recently chillies is no mean feat.

Charged with that task is managing director Joe Cottingham – who works alongside fellow directors Mike, Avril and Ed Gray – and he has been instrumental in the recent success.

It is easy to see why, with Joe showing tremendous passion and enthusiasm for the business as he talked the visiting Farmers Weekly judges through their innovative marketing strategy.

“We are always looking for new and interesting crops with nutritional value and also growing them here in the UK helps the environment by cutting food miles.
That’s where we differ from other traders,” he explains.

The perfect example is the farm’s now-thriving chilli production, which started off as a few plants in a polytunnel in 2012 and one year later was shifted to a 2.5ha glasshouse in Bedfordshire to extend the growing season and increase yield.

Judges liked

Tremendous energy and enthusiasm for the industry

Willing to expand by taking risks and accepting the challenges of developing new products and supply chains

Impressive management of a highly complex business that is punching above its weight in competitive sector

The enterprise now supplies 5,000kg of a number of varieties of chillies to various outlets and end users and this year Joe is trialling 110 new varieties – the largest trial of its kind in Europe.

“I want an edge, so we have done a deal with a breeder to carry out their trials.

“We get to help develop new varieties and if we like them, we get exclusive access,” he adds.

Pushing for other new markets, Joe and his team managed to successfully grow a commercial sweet potato crop and this season, production is increasing 300% in an attempt to reduce reliance on foreign imports.

Joe also has his eyes on expanding the farm’s legume range and is developing a market for UK-grown borlotti beans, with the intention of pre-shelling and selling in ready-to-eat packs for the booming health food trade.

And the innovation doesn’t stop with product development – the farm recently developed a machine that allows mechanical harvesting of fresh cut herbs, with 50% expected to be cut this way during 2016.

“It won’t necessarily save us money, but it will take out the difficulty of finding staff and cut the amount of time it takes to get the herbs from the field to packhouse.

“We also hope to add refrigerated trailers to the harvesting operation to ensure that the herbs arrive in the packhouse in the best condition possible,” says Joe.

Walking into the packhouse, the first thing that hits you is the powerful aroma of freshly cut herbs and you see further evidence of investment in technology to optimise the company’s offering.

Farm facts

600ha of outdoor, protected and glasshouse production in Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire

Crops include leafs, herbs, legumes, brassicas, salad onions, chillies

Supplies major retailers, online retailers, wholesalers, other packers and more than 600 restaurants and hotels

A “high-care” unit with high-tech washers and driers enable ready to eat products such as bagged baby leaf salad to be offered and an optical sorter to grade leaf lines ensures top quality with least labour input.

Software is also becoming increasingly important to the Watts Farms operation in an age where traceability is paramount.

Muddy Boots taking care of all cropping information from seed to the packhouse door, where a bespoke version of Produce Star takes over, which has been rolled out over the past 12 months and will be working to its full potential in the near future.

“It allows every minute detail of every bunch, box, tray and pallet rolling through the various packing lines to be recorded to ensure it reaches the customer in tip-top condition,” says Joe.

Nathan Dellicott

Sefter Farm, West Sussex

By taking the decision to put soil health at the core of its veg-producing business, Barfoot Farms hopes to continue intensive but sustainable production across its land for generations to come.

The farm produces predominantly sweetcorn, brassica, legume and cucurbit crops across 2,430ha from Bognor Regis in West Sussex to the north western edge of Southampton in Hampshire.

Nathan Dellicott © Hugh Nutt

Nathan Dellicott © Hugh Nutt

Producing these high-value vegetable crops can often be hard on the grower’s most precious natural resource, requiring intensive cultivations and operations such as harvesting in sometimes less-than-ideal conditions.

Judges liked

Knowledgeable and focused on all aspects of a large and complex business

Emphasis on core principles of production, such as soil health, to allow intensive production

Inside-out knowledge of markets and cost of production

This can lead to significant soil structure issues that have a negative impact on production, and it’s this symptom of intensive modern agriculture that prompted farm director Nathan Delicott to make a significant change.

The farm had been using a traditional plough-based system to work its soils, which vary from gravels to silt loams, and sometimes required two subsequent passes before planting, leading to 65% of the field area
being trafficked.
As a result, Nathan and his team switched to a controlled-traffic farming (CTF) system four years ago, with

RTK guidance technology enabling every machine to work on the same 5m grid on every pass and min-till has made the plough redundant.

As such, no plant root has to push through compacted tractor wheelings, resulting in improved crop yields and in some cases increasing margins by up to 10%.

“Soil health has been the main driver and no seed goes where the wheels have been. Fuel use savings have also been a factor.

“Previously we did what we needed to do to survive as a business, but now our production is spread over more land, so we can afford to look after our soils much better,” explains Nathan.
The company has also been experimenting with overwinter cover crops since 2012, using variations of

radish, vetch, westerwold ryegrass and specialist tillage mixtures to further improve soil health, break compaction and capture nutrients.

A by-product of the Bognor Regis site’s 2.4MW anaerobic digestate plant also helps, with the plant fed by a mixture of hybrid rye grown on the farm and the waste that comes from the neighbouring packhouse.

The facility packs sweetcorn during the domestic season between mid-July and early September and imported corn grown on Barfoot’s farms overseas.

Cleaning, topping and tailing of the cobs generates about 27,000t of waste annually.

Nathan explains with this problem comes a solution, with everything fed into the digester, which in turn powers the whole site with renewable energy and also exports electricity to the grid.

The digestate has helped to cut the farm’s inorganic fertiliser use by about 30%, with the phosphate and potash requirements of every sweetcorn crop supplied by applying the liquid.

At present this is carried out by contractors using 10m dribble bars to fit the CTF system, but eventually the company wants to pump it through their irrigation network and use an umbilical application system.

Farm facts

430ha across five farms from West Sussex to Hampshire with various soil types

Cropping includes sweetcorn, asparagus, courgettes, squash, pumpkins, green beans, broad beans, rhubarb and hybrid rye for AD

Full-time staff of 28, moving up to more than 400 during peak season

“You also get some organic matter and it is absolutely full of microbes and very good for the soil,” adds Nathan.

While sustainable production practices are key in the field, the wider farmed environment is also high on the list of priorities for the business and a number of initiatives have helped to increase biodiversity.

Higher Level Stewardship environmental schemes are in place across the various land parcels and additional margins and other habitats have been created for birds, bees and other species.

Nathan explains that a recent link-up with Brighton University’s department of apiculture (beekeeping) to assess the impact of neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments has paid dividends.

Neonics have been widely used on the farm’s sweetcorn crops for a number of years and collaboration on the research project and scrutiny of its findings have enabled Barfoot’s to increase bee health on the farm – crucial for the pollination of crops throughout its rotation.

“We have learned a lot from the connection and it has resulted in us getting more pollinators into our crops,” adds Nathan.

Antony Snell

Windmill Hill, Herefordshire

It is said there are no secrets to success – it is the result of hard work and learning from
your mistakes.

And there couldn’t be a more appropriate way to describe the meteoric rise of Antony and Christine Snell from struggling veg growers to high-quality soft fruit producers with a healthy turnover.

Anthony Snell

Anthony Snell © Richard Stanton

With no opportunity to be involved in the family farm after leaving college, Antony’s farming ambitions had to be satisfied elsewhere.

Fortunately, just 12 miles from home, at Harewood End, a general farmworker role cropped up.

Within two years he was part of the management team at the farm, which sits on the north-western edge of the picturesque Wye Valley, producing cereals, grass seed and potatoes.

After the unfortunate passing of the owner, Antony and his wife Christine had the chance to buy 40ha of bare land of their own. They initially grew conventional arable crops and rented a house away from the farm.

With the business haemorrhaging money, they moved to intensive veg growing and then salad crops in an attempt to increase profits, but they struggled to make it work in an increasingly commoditised market.

Antony recalls a meeting with the bank manager, who likening his business to a hospital patient in an intensive care unit.

“We were in financial trouble in the early years and we had to sell half of the land and then rent some more off family and neighbours,” he explains.

Learning from their experiences, Antony and Christine made the brave call to switch to 100% berry production in 1998 – a decision that would lay the foundations for impressive growth into the booming business they run today.

Judges liked

Passion and pride for the business and its achievements so far

Professionally run enterprise that’s engaged with local community and has co-operation at its heart

Innovative technological advances and attention to detail leading to impressive crop performance

“We put absolutely everything into soft fruit, investing all our time and energy into it over the past 18 years.
“It turned out to be the right thing to do,” says Antony.

Initially planting raspberries, the couple purchased a strawberry farm and has since extended its range of crops to include conventional and organic blackcurrants, blackberries, blueberries and redcurrants for both the fresh and frozen markets.

Production is now spread across 182ha of fertile Herefordshire sandy loam soils, with about 61ha under polytunnels.

“We are not growing a commodity and we are not the biggest producer, but what we do want to do is have a reputation as a quality producer of a specialist crop,” says Antony.

That quest for quality has been fruitful, as Llysun was the first farm to win a gold award in Marks and Spencer’s own quality-assurance scheme – From Field to Fork. They also produced a class-winning Jubilee strawberry for the National Fruit Show in 2015.

Farm facts

450ha of owned and tenanted land across South Herefordshire sandy loam soils

Producing strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants

Employ 30 full-time and up to 300 seasonal staff

State-of-the-art packhouse with blast freezing facility

The adoption of new technology has been instrumental in this drive for quality, such as shifting to substrate table-top strawberry production for a proportion of the crop.

The installation of a state-of-the-art irrigation system and using weather stations to support agronomic decision-making has also resulted in quality gains and some of the best yields in the industry.

Co-operation, however, has been at the heart of the business from the start and has helped not only the production, but also opened doors for marketing of the farm’s fruit.

Antony was instrumental in setting up the Hereford Fruit co-op, which subsequently merged with Berry Gardens – now a 56-strong grower group that has forged strong links with all the
major retailers.

As a result, the business now supplies Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Tesco with its fresh berries, while a new packhouse, complete with a £750,000 blast-freezing and mobile racking system, has allowed them to break into the frozen fruit market.

Outside of the marketing group, Antony also forged links with Ribena and supplies the squash maker with conventionally grown blackcurrants.

A successful meeting with Yeo Valley bagged a contract to supply the dairy with organic

“Every berry has a home and we are also experimenting with pureeing and juicing. Two of our landlords have anaerobic digesters that take the minimal waste we generate,” he says.

Fendt logoThe Farmers Weekly Specialist Crop Producer of the Year 2016 award is sponsored by Fendt.

“All candidates show an extremely high degree of innovation, a great deal of passion for their product and are extremely customer focused. All of these attributes makes them the pinnacle of their sector.”

Martin Hamer, national sales, Fendt, UK and Ireland