Farmer of the Year Poul Hovesen looks to the next phase of Norfolk’s agricultural evolution

From left, James Beamish and Poul Hovesen of Salle Farm. Picture: Matthew Usher.

From left, James Beamish and Poul Hovesen of Salle Farm. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

The newly-crowned Farmer of the Year has set new benchmarks for efficiency and precision – and now he is calling on the scientific community to help take the industry to the next level.

It's a Norfolk farm which has become a beacon for precision and profitability – all achieved with a studied respect for the soil's delicate balances, and the nutrient needs of crops.

And the sustainable vision which won Salle Farms' estate manager Poul Hovesen the national Farmer of the Year award last week has reaped rich rewards, with enviable yields that are consistently and substantially above the national average.

But for all its successes the farm, like any other, it is still vulnerable to the vagaries of the climate, and must strive for further efficiencies to remain competitive in fluctuating global markets.

So now its figurehead is appealing to the science and research community to help take this agricultural evolution to the next stage.

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Mr Hovesen moved to the UK from his native Denmark in 1987 to take over as farms and estate manager at Salle, near Reepham.

Since then, the estate has doubled in size to 2,000ha, as well as acquiring a further 900ha in Poland. Since 2011, Mr Hovesen has also been the farming director at Holkham Estate, overseeing 3,000ha of arable crops at the home of the Earl of Leicester, ancestor of Thomas Coke, who famously pioneered the Norfolk four-course rotation 200 years ago.

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At Salle today, a modern seven-course rotation is the key to the strategy. Winter wheat is followed by winter barley, oilseed rape, winter wheat, sugar beet, wheat or spring barley and finally spring beans.

It is a system built on thorough assessment of soil conditions, nutrient needs, cultivation practices and crop rotation, and a steadfast loyalty to the long-term vision – not knee-jerk reactions to market forces or commodity prices. But there are still isolated downward spikes in the upward yield graphs which now need to be addressed.

Mr Hovesen is on the Agri-Tech East Stakeholder Group and will be part of a panel discussing the challenges of translating science into farming practice during an Agri-Tech Week event at Norwich Research Park on November 13.

'Let's start with the soil,' he said. 'Nobody has ever understood fully what makes the soil release nutrients.

'Another of the most important things we have got ahead of us is climate change and the freak weather becoming more frequent. 2007 and 2012 were two years when perfectly good wheat crops did not yield due to climatic influence and a lack of ultraviolet light in June. We had dull conditions during grain-fill which usually go hand in hand with wet weather.

'Agri-Tech can help us to understand what went wrong and can maybe help us prevent it from going wrong. We need the scientists to help us understand what we can do. Does it help to have cover crops? Does it help when we plough it? Does it help to have zero-till?

'It is about more joined-up research and development. We need teams working on soils and agrochemcials. We need to have an understanding and respect for what research can do for us, and we need to be educated enough to challenge our advisors and agronomists. If we do not, it is not precision farming.'

Mr Hovesen said the crop research at research institutes like Norwich's John Innes Centre could be fundamental for future food production.

'The seed breeding is very important to us, but it is more important than big commercial companies who try to beat each other with 25 different varieties of wheat,' he said. 'We have shown how little difference there is between varieties.

'What we need is a difference in flowering times so they don't all flower at the same time – and are they resistant to drought? When you can manipulate the ripening time to feed what we do, that is when the difference will come.

'We should be much more selective and educated about how we choose varieties to our individual climate and our individual place in the rotation – and not just because a big commercial company has done a lot of marketing to say: 'Put that wheat variety on top'.

'People who have a passion for this all look to the scientists to help them understand it. Hopefully that will be the outcome of Agri-Tech.'

Mr Hovesen said he was inspired to move to Norfolk after meeting the late Ernest Cole, founder of the Winfarthing herd of Holstein cattle and pioneer of Rotary Club twinning links with Denmark, which is how the two men met.

'When I came here in 1987 as farm manager, the Salle Estate was in a continuous state of change,' said Mr Hovesen. 'It was influenced by commodity prices and new techniques, but there was no system. I think that is a key word.

'We were influenced by commodity prices. If wheat price went up, we planted the farm with wheat. If oilseed rape went down, we took it all out. There was a continuous change of policy. We realised that we had hit a plateau and we probably hit it before other people did.

'Then in the mid-90s I met the late John Forrest, who was a legendary farmer from Stonham Hall in Stowmarket. Through him, and the Morley Research Centre, I met some very interesting farming personalities including Peter Riley, agronomist with Prime Agriculture, and we established what has since been known as the Alpha Group.

'For the first time we started to look at the combination of factors in farming – soil, rotation, cultivation, application. We put more joined-up thinking into it and we established a seven-course rotation.

'It is not innovative, but we stick to it. We don't wander off it. We still get asked questions about: 'What if the prices went up?' But we don't change our opinion, because it is part of a long-term strategy.'

The same strategy, based on the seven-course rotation, spreads the farm's workload across the year, and diffuses the farm's commercial risk across different crops.

It also helps keep labour and equipment costs down, with just one combine used to cut about 1,400ha of combinable crops. The farm's remaining area comprises sugar beet, environmental features, grass and Christmas trees.

Average wheat yields have risen from a little over 9t/ha to nearly 11t/ha during the past 10 years, but Mr Hovesen said his 'pride and joy' are the sugar beet figures, which were below average in 2003, but have now risen above the mean curve – on land which he was initially told was unsuitable for the crop.

The farm has been undertaking rigorous soil sampling and yield mapping for 20 years, informing decisions on nutrient application and cultivation.

Mr Hovesen said: 'All these things need to be right, because nothing works if the biology in the soil is not right. You cannot add the higher science and technology into it if you have not got the fundamentals right.

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