Protecting assets is important

Given the drop in demand for fresh potatoes and uncertainty surrounding agriculture, realist Richard Solari enters 2006 finding it hard to see bright spots for the family business at Heath House Farm, Beckbury near Shifnal.

Current policy for the farm, considerably re-organised five years ago, is to continue growing familiar crops that suit the mainly light land as well as possible.

In the volatile economic climate it makes sense to remain ready to take advantage of any potential upswing in arable fortunes, explains Mr Solari.

“It’s really a matter of protecting our assets.

When you farm you are really only looking after the land for your lifetime, and you are morally obliged to pass it on in better condition than you found it.”

When he took over from father Philip, in 1983, the farmed area was 365ha (900 acres), mostly in big blocks created by 1950s hedge removal in a drive for efficiency.

By 1999 he was running 770ha (1900 acres), buying and renting as opportunities arose.

“We were heavily into fresh early potatoes.

But then supermarkets largely stopped promoting them so people stopped buying them.

Now the industry wants only set-skins.”

But even with irrigation it is hard to achieve a good skin finish on the sandy loam, so production shifted to the less profitable processing market for chips (75%) and crisps (25%), he explains.

That left rents being asked for some of the land he was farming excessive, so in spring 2001 plans were drastically changed.

“We made quite a few people redundant which I found very hard.”

Now, with manager Rob Waterston, five tractor drivers and part-time secretary Christine Roberts, he crops 437ha (1080 acres).

There are about 80ha (200 acres) each of potatoes and sugar beet, with the balance mainly in winter cereals and grassed-down rotational set-aside to build fertility.

About half the late July/early August-lifted potatoes, yielding up to 55t/ha (22t/acre), are on contract to McCains, through the recently formed eight-strong Western Grower Group.

The arrangement works well allowing the farm’s earliness to continue to be exploited.

“We have a nice open relationship – and get paid within two weeks.”

Sugar beet, frequently irrigated to fulfil the 6100t contract, is the other key crop.

So Mr Solari fears recently announced price cuts will have a big impact on eventual profitability.

“We are reasonably well protected for the next four years, but after then who knows what we’ll be growing?”

As part of the 2001 re-organisation the 300-sow indoor pig unit was let to the herdsman, David Edwards.

The move eased management pressure but retained the benefits of having a local outlet for barley straw and receiving muck in return.

About 49ha (120 acres) of smaller fields were also let to allow local farmer Mark Wycherley develop an organic dairy and vegetable enterprise.

Today’s unit, in one large block and on mainly level land is well equipped, with concrete access roads relaid in the mid-1990s.

All the fields can be irrigated by a linear system or hose reels.

It is also only 17 miles from British Sugar’s Allscott factory, which could be in its favour in future restructuring, Mr Solari believes.

But overall its farming flexibility is relatively constrained.

The government’s Entry Level Scheme would need too much land to be taken out of production in the shape of margins, says Mr Solari.

“Besides we can’t plan our farming future on hand-outs.”

Striving to add value to the cereals by growing milling wheat varieties is too risky, explains Mr Waterston who draws on TAG, and Agrovista’s Neil Buchanan for agronomy advice.

Although 10t/ha (4t/acre) can be achieved after wet summers, the average is only 8t/ha (3.3t/acre).

“Our crops burn up fast in June and July if we get drought.”

On the plus side blackgrass is absent, though a former beef enterprise left a legacy of Italian ryegrass.

“And we don’t have a big PCN problem.”

A recently established franchised clay-shooting venture, The Smoking Barrels Simulated Game Co, is also helping boost income.