Composting for new growth

Jim Strathern and his wife Catherine farm 566ha (1400 acres) of partly owned, partly rented Essex and Boulder clay land near Colchester, growing oilseed rape, wheat and beans.

But just as important now is the 12,000t of green waste, slowly turning into compost.

“Diversification is not for the faint-hearted,” says Mr Strathern.

“You have to really want to do it, and maintain that enthusiasm all the way through.

“Back in 2001, the county council wanted to encourage farmers to look at on-farm composting, providing more localised sites for green waste disposal within the county and reduce haulage distances.

“We thought, OK, so where could we do it?

The obvious choice was the existing airfield hard-standing, about 40m x 40m, with its own access road.”

And the end product would be very valuable, too. Since composting began, Mr Strathern has successfully improved some of the heaviest, least productive land on the farm, in some areas boosting yields by as much as 0.5t/acre, and reducing wear and tear on machinery.

“It was clear we needed to learn as much as we could about the job, so we visited other sites and researched the necessary space, drainage and equipment.”

But before he could start composting anything, Mr Strathern had to win a county council contract, seeing off competition from other, established commercial tenders.

“The tendering process is quite stringent and our transport costs had to be exact.”

An exemption from a waste management licence from the Environment Agency allowed Mr Strathern to accept and compost up to 3000t of green waste a year.

“With any project like this, you have to start slowly, and set a pace that doesn’t affect your core farming business – that is what’s paying for it in the early stages,” he says.

First came planning permission, to change the site from agricultural to commercial use, and parish meetings to convince local residents the project would not mean lorries rattling their windows.

Mr Strathern also faced the task of improving the road surface and entrance to the site.

This required special civil engineering consultants and contractors, all project-managed in addition to the farm, and a bill of about 12,000.

So far, the project costs had been successfully managed without the need to borrow extra capital.

But no one can just go round digging up roads and the county council wanted a bond from Mr Strathern should his project fail.

This added about 37,000.

Talking to his local NatWest agricultural manager, Mark Cheadle, Mr Strathern was able to arrange his bank to stand surety over this bond, effectively acting as a guarantor.

And while the Environment Agency wanted explicitly detailed drainage plans and contingencies, they also wanted assurance that in the event of serious pollution, Mr Strathern could turn the site over to landfill.

Again, the bank was able to underwrite this risk.

It is a good example that banks do not always mean loans, says Mr Cheadle.

“In some cases, a bank can help with potential, if planned for, liabilities, so the farmer does not necessarily have to commit so much capital that it threatens the project.

And continued dialogue with a local agricultural manager means a framework for borrowing can be put in place, making lending easier and quicker should it be necessary.”

Mr Strathern now has a full waste management licence and is building his capacity towards 14,000t a year.

“A Rural Enterprise Scheme grant has made the expansion possible and allowed us to provide employment for another member of staff.

Working with my bank, my son Andrew and I had to draw up business plans and projected cash flows to show them the grant was necessary,” he says.

Now with a major McCloskey screener on site, Mr Strathern is looking to develop new outlets for his compost.

“We’re looking to grade it finer with the new machine and supply organic growers.

It’s a slow-release fertiliser and a good soil conditioner, as we’ve seen on our own land.”

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