May the best farm plan win

If there’s one type of farmer who seems to epitomise the direction we all should be going in, it’s intensive veg producers.

Unsupported by subsidies and highly organised about their marketing, they have strong brands and professional management.

Importantly, too, they seem one of the few farming sectors able to cope with tough 21st century market conditions.

The host farm for this year’s Farm Planner of the Year competition is a good example of the genre.

Waldersey Farms at Southery, Norfolk has 3200ha (7900 acres) of some of the best peat and silt land in the Fens and can grow more or less anything it wants brilliantly.

Its two most important crops are 635ha (1570 acres) of potatoes and 120ha (300 acres) of onions, but the 300ha (740 acres) of sugar beet are pretty impressive, as are the 210ha (520 acres) of oilseed rape and 120ha (300 acres) of dried peas.

And 1340ha (3300 acres) of winter wheat, even though it’s considered just a break crop in these parts, is no small beer either.

And they don’t just grow it and sell it either.

Waldersey Produce, the processing and packing arm of the operation, produces potatoes and onions for identified markets.

Only premium value varieties are grown and they focus on salad potatoes, pre-pack ware potatoes to supermarkets and chipping varieties to McCains and chip shops.

They also have their own Royal Norfolk brand which aims at the top end of the market.

With onions, too, they have boosted production of red varieties, which yield less well but get a better price.

Finding a way to improve this no doubt highly efficient farming powerhouse even more will be no small task for the six teams of students.

But that’s what they’ll have to do.

For the remit of the competition, now in its 14th year, is very clear:

They must produce a five-year development plan for the host farm that is every bit as carefully argued and costed as an expensive report from a farm consultant.

Though almost all the students are in the final year of agriculture and business management courses, many have never encountered a big vegetable producer like Waldersey Farms before.

And getting your head around this sector if you’re used to regular arable, livestock or mixed farms won’t be easy.

The two people at the helm of the organisation – chairman Richard Clarke and managing director Robert Loxton – point out that while the organisation is good at growing potatoes and onions and has gone some way down the path of adding value, they are still essentially commodity producers.

That means they are still subject to the vagaries of the marketplace and prices which can vary alarmingly from year to year.

This is also a high-cost sector.

Cold stores are expensive to build and increasingly expensive to run.

There is £1.75m invested in machinery and the annual diesel bill comes to £200,000.

Drainage rates (most of the land is at or just below sea level) cost more than £100,000 year.

They put on up to 250mm (10in) of water a year so irrigation restrictions are a worry despite the back-up of a 450m-litre reservoir.

So here are some of the difficult questions the students will have to answer:

  • Though the farm already sells salad potatoes under its own Royal Norfolk brand, there must be some way of expanding this potentially lucrative side of things. But how do they go about improving the brand and boosting sales?

  • Should they expand the area of onions grown? And rather than selling in bulk as they do now, should they enter the high-value netted onion market?

  • With 300ha of the crop grown, sugar beet is an important money-earner. But changes in the EU sugar regime mean that prices will fall sharply. At the same time, the local beet factory at Wissington is planning to start producing ethanol shortly. Should they cut back the crop or stick with it?

  • Although the farm already grows some 3500 acres of cereals, there is scope to take on more land. Could increased economies of scale make this stack up financially, or are they already as efficient as they could reasonably expect to be?

For the answers, you’ll have to wait for the follow-up article when the winner is announced in July.

Farm Planner of the Year is organised by the Institute of Agricultural Management, sponsored by HSBC Agriculture and Farmplan and supported by Farmers Weekly.