Archive Article: 1997/08/02

2 August 1997




It is always interesting to find out how a new owner changes a farm business. Never more so than when it is a large Lincs estate.

WHEN Paul and Anne Clarke bought the 2,800ha (7,000 acre) Nocton Estate in Lincolnshire they hadnt set a foot on the place.

Eighteen months on, with a new set of air-conditioned offices, a new 6,000 sq ft house nearing completion, two and half miles of concrete road, new administration staff and radical changes to the way the estate is managed, their individual footprint is all too clear.

The Nocton logo, a wheat ear, greets visitors at all the estate entrances. Its there again on the sweaters Paul Clarke and his staff are wearing. It embellishes the spare wheel cover on the 4X4, the side of a tanker and the farm tackle.

What imprint then is being made on the farmland itself? Some changes are being made to the cropping, but it is the marketing that will have the most radical overhaul.

Which is exactly what Mr Clarke did with Winchester Bulb Growers the company he and his wife Anne took from a turnover of just £2,000 to £13m "by aggressive selling". Along the way he bought Tomlins Brothers, part of the Geest empire in Cornwall, built up the familys original 560 acres to 3,000 and acquired most of the foundation bulb stock from the Rosewarne experimental station.

Beet contract

Lying in an oblong block, Nocton Estate runs from limestone heath on the west to 1,215ha (3,000 acres) of fen on the east and encompasses high alluvial peat, stiff skirt, black sand, and clay. "Not easy," acknowledges the new farm manager, Martin Reams, "but I prefer this diversity, you just have to vary your cropping and manage it right."

The estate has a large irrigation system; 190m gallons piped to every field from the River Witham on the eastern boundary where the Bardney sugar beet factory so conveniently lies.

Buying as a company purchase, Mr Clarke has kept the entire sugar beet contract at 20,700t it is thought to be the third largest in the country. This is one crop that the farm manager hopes to lift current 45t/ha (18t/acre) yields on. "We are adopting the FAR herbicide regime, and may go to tramlining in order to improve weed control – and reduce our total input bill."

He has inherited the first seasons cropping – wheat, sugar beet, peas, potatoes, barley, winter carrots and linseed. As well, 850 breeding ewes are run on 139ha (343 acres) of permanent pasture.

The system has been retained apart from the carrots – 30ha (75acres). The first season they were grown on contract for another grower who this year undertook the work himself for the last time.

"No problem with carrots – its the straw. Theres so much you just cant get rid of it. All you can put in afterwards is linseed, and it doesnt thrive. Just look at that field," says Mr Reams with regret.

The second major change is with the peas and potato marketing, inevitable with Mr Clarkes experience of direct selling bulbs and cut flowers to retailers. He is founder member of two new grower groups. In ASA Peas (As Soon As Possible) he partners Deeping Pea Growers, W Dennis and Sons and Parker Dean Produce. The latter growing for JSR.

Between them they are growing 1,497ha (3,700 acres) of 150-minute peas; "You either grow ASA or bullets and theres no money in the bullets."

He is growing in all 543ha (1,340 acres) of vining peas, 126ha (311acres ) on the cropping licence.

He was instrumental in the formation of the Spearhead Potato Association with four other growers, Greens of Soham, British Field Products, the North Norfolk Potato Group and C E P Potatoes. Administrative manager David Longmate, one of the original Nocton staff, was seconded to help set up the group. Crisping and chipping varieties will therefore dominate the potato acreage – Lady Rosetta, Hermes and Morene.

With land across Lincs, Norfolk, and Cambs/Suffolk, the Association will be supplying 75,000t starting with the lifting on the early sands in Suffolk, 54,000t will be from stores. Eelworm, however, is a major problem: "We hope to use GPS to identify hotspots – and extend the rotation to perhaps one in 14 years," explains Mr Reams.

Value-added

The other agronomic problems are wheat bulb fly, manganese deficiency and severe infestations of wild oats. So, a wild oat eradication programme has been introduced, overseen by the companys agronomists from Aubourn Farming. Hand-roguing has produced some extremely clean crops this year.

Mr Reams is hoping a new seed dressing (tefluthrin), which is awaiting approval, will control wheat bulb fly. Until that is available he will apply insecticide in January followed by egg hatch sprays.

The first wheat area is staying at its current level with current split of feed and milling varieties. "On some later sowings following beet, we will be going for value-added wheats, such as Charger," adds Mr Reams.

Standing power is important and the varieties currently being grown – Brigadier, Ritmo, Vivant and Hereward appear to have stood the rain well. Wheat averages 8.5t/ha "Given the range of soils, that is reasonable and I wouldnt expect to be able to improve on that across the whole farm", says Mr Reams.

Spring barley, however, has been introduced into the rotation following sugar beet on heath land. "Last harvest it was wheat, but we have gone for the malting barley variety Optic, which seems to be looking good," he says.

This year 2.2ha (5.5acres) of daffodils are being grown – to retain some of Mr Clarkes foundation stock. But this is likely to expand at the expense of second wheats "I shall be looking for another business interests and almost certainly I shall grow daffodils."


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