Growing for the health food market can yield healthy profits – if its done the right way. Gilly Johnson seeks the best ways with borage.
BORAGE was the most profitable crop on the farm for Cambs grower Michael Picton last year – but hes not that keen to shout about it.
Thats because with niche market crops, profits are dependent on supply and demand. If everyone jumps on the bandwagon, then prices inevitably suffer.
This is just what happened a few years ago, when the Chinese disrupted the UK borage market by overproducing evening primrose, which is an alternative source of the special oils demanded by the health and pharmaceutical sector. Some UK borage growers had their fingers burnt as a result; at that time Mr Picton steered clear.
Nowadays Essex-based merchant Kings of Coggeshall, specialist in the more obscure, high value crops, protects its growers from this trap by only offering borage buy-back contracts when an end user is already committed to take the tonnage.
This takes away some of the risk – but puts a limit on the acreage available. For commercial reasons, Kings director Stewart Green shies away from revealing the total area of borage last year in the UK. "Its a niche market. Returns depend on maintaining a small but stable acreage."
But he does confirm that gross margins can be "around the £700/ha mark". This is a conservative estimate; other sources suggest that growers were seeing over £800/ha (£324/acre) last year.
Sounds attractive – particularly when you take into account the fact that borage is not supported by IACS. These returns do not include any aid element. Borage can be grown profitably on either IACS registered land – without claiming aid, or on non-registered fields. However, it does not qualify as an industrial crop for set-aside use.
Mr Picton grew his 11ha (28 acres) on IACS registered land, as part of a wheat/rape based rotation on predominantly heavy clay soils at Townsend Farm, Easton, near Huntingdon.
Following better returns than any of his other mainstream arable crops, hes happy with this first foray into borage, though aware that it could be a risky crop without careful management. But as a long term seed grower, Mr Picton has had wide experience of handling more demanding crops. This is last years successful strategy.
The borage was drilled into one of the farms more easy working, lighter fields, on 2 April. The seed has a rather unfortunate resemblance to mouse droppings, with a rough surface. This leads to problems with flow through the drill. Mr Picton used a Massey Ferguson 510 air drill. "It was tricky – the seed kept bridging. Next spring we intend trying a modified Bettinson instead."
The seedbed was rolled after drilling to save moisture. Sown at 17.5kg/ha (15lbs/acre) with variety Gladiator, seed emerged promptly and established well, despite some unevenness. The young borage grew vigorously and quickly, smothering weeds. No herbicides were used in the crop.
A nitrogen treatment – 120kg N/ha (96 units/acre) was applied mid May. This was to encourage a slight lean to the crop canopy, which helps harvesting. "At the time I wondered whether wed been a little too mean with the nitrogen, but the rain in late summer led to lush growth, and tilted the crop over anyway."
As a product destined for the health sector, pesticides are strictly limited. Mr Picton used just two sprays with liquid sulphur (5l/ha with each) for summer mildew.
A non-determinate plant, borages ripening process is extended and erratic, so its difficult to decide when best to cut the crop. Seed heads will shed readily, losing yield if left too long.
Mr Picton placed plastic bags under the plants, and when dropped seed was becoming obvious, sent the swather through, slowly and smoothly to prevent blockages. The timing for this operation fitted in well, coming at the end of July between the rape and wheat harvest.
The crop was then left for about two weeks. "The swath is fleshy and takes longer to dry than rape," he recalls. "Within a day it shrinks, and goes absolutely flat on the ground." During this time the weather was kind. "If it had been wetter, then we might have had more problems. When we lifted the borage off, you could still see the damp ground underneath."
Combining such a flat swath was a challenge. Mr Picton used a draper header combine. The borage came in at 600kg/ha (4.75cwt/acre), after being put through the farms own dresser – a somewhat nerve-wracking experience, given that the seed is worth about £2,000/t. Although happy for growers to do their own pre-cleaning, Kings has the specialist equipment necessary for full cleaning.
Mr Pictons yields were a good average, according to the companys experience with other growers. No drying was necessary; seed was at the required 8% moisture standard.
Yields might have been greater, believes Mr Picton, if the cold summer had not stopped bee activity in the crop. "At the time we were worried about pollination, and had some hives brought into the field in an effort to limit any possible damage to yield." Losses at combining might also have been improved upon, he adds.
This spring Mr Picton plans to stay with the crop. With inputs limited to only two sulphur sprays and a little nitrogen, borage is cheap to grow. But it does need care and attention. "It is a risky crop – perhaps we were lucky last year. Im a little concerned about borage volunteers this season – well have to work out how these might be eliminated."
Kings of Coggeshall still has some borage contracts open for this spring. "This isnt a crop for speculative growers – were looking for reliable people who are prepared to put a little time and effort in, and who will work with us on a regular basis," says Mr Green. Borage is tolerant of a wide range of soil types, and could be grown from the south up to Yorkshire.
"Anyone who is interested in new crop developments is welcome to contact us – we have other options in the pipeline."