Norfolk farms stop growing wheat, barley and sugar beet - to focus on energy crops instead
PUBLISHED: 08:51 22 February 2019 | UPDATED: 14:40 04 November 2019
A Norfolk farming family has ditched its traditional crop rotation to grow maize for energy instead - part of a future-proofing partnership to reduce business risk amid uncertain times.
The Paterson Farming Partnership is a joint venture between Worstead Farms, run by brothers Gavin, Bruce and Alex Paterson, and Bindwell Ltd, run by their second cousin Luke Paterson.
The neighbouring farms, both based bear Stalham, have stopped growing any wheat, barley, oilseed rape and sugar beet, after winning a contract to grow 980 hectares of maize and rye for the anaerobic digestion (AD) power plant at nearby Scottow.
Luke Paterson, the partnership's arable manager, said growing a crop with known costs and a guaranteed pricing structure on a five-year deal gave the business more long-term stability to cope with the future uncertainties of Brexit and the phasing out of direct payment subsidies.
In particular, he said the loss of crop protection chemicals such as neonicotinoid pesticides - banned by the EU due to concerns over their impact on bees - increased the financial risk of growing oilseed rape and sugar beet.
READ MORE: Future-proofing family farm stops growing arable crops to focus on livestock and butchery business
He said other advantages of growing maize include simplified agronomy, using 70pc less applied active ingredients on the ground compared to sugar beet, and the ability to use the digestate by-product from the energy plant, reducing the farms' reliance on artificial fertilisers by 80pc.
"It really simplifies the farming, we have streamlined our fixed costs, and it de-risks the business because we have got a five-year contract," said Mr Paterson. "We know where we are going in the next five years, and I know what our costs are going to be.
"We were looking at our cropping and we didn't know what the currency risks are going to be in the future, or whether tariffs will be imposed [after Brexit]. There is also the removal of crop protection products and the effect of that on yield is unknown.
"With neonicotinoids going, rapeseed is now high risk, and sugar beet is looking very high risk because of virus yellows. When you put all these things together, the status quo looks quite risky to me - so we had to look at alternatives.
READ MORE: Pesticide ban could threaten viability of East Anglia's sugar beet industry, farmers told
"Our family has been farming in this area since the 1920s and we need a long-term view on things.
"Together we are stronger. I couldn't have gone and got this contract individually, but together we could. There is strength in numbers."
Gavin Paterson added: "This is a big sea-change which I think a lot of businesses would balk at. But we are really excited about seeing the maize go into the ground - although, equally, we have not had a harvest yet. A lot of people see maize as something they grow on marginal land because it is not their core business, but we are growing it on Grade 2 land, so we are hoping for some good results."
He said another benefit was more predictable working hours for staff, who could now take holidays with their families in July and August, which would not have been possible during the hectic harvest period of a mixed cropping enterprise.
The partners said the simplified farming operation also freed resources for other diversifications outside conventional farming: Worstead Farms has Wagyu cattle, higher-tier stewardship, 30 acres of solar panels, a property portfolio and planning permission for a wedding venue, while Bindwell includes agricultural broker Paterson Ag, mid-tier stewardship and camping and glamping sites.
MACHINERY AUCTION SUCCESS
The restructuring of the two Paterson family businesses prompted a major sale of surplus farm machinery last week.
More than 500 potential buyers from as far afield as Wales and Northern Ireland turned out for the joint machinery auction at Church Farm in Smallburgh near Stalham, where the star lot - a 2014 Case Axial Flow 9230 Combine Harvester - fetched £130,500.
The sale, organised by Brown and Co, featured more than 400 lots of modern and vintage equipment, including a collection of heritage farm machinery amassed by the late Gavin Paterson, including tractors, horse-drawn implements, and hand tools. Among the key lots sold was a Field Marshall tractor which fetched £9,200 from a buyer from Wales.
Worstead Farms and Bindwell Ltd have already been farming together for the last six harvests, sharing machinery and labour resources to drive down costs. The partners said the restructure and the re-focus on maize production had allowed "substantial machinery rationalisation" - further reducing the risk in their capital reinvestment programme.