Norfolk farmers are growing beans as fish food for Scottish salmon
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Norfolk-grown beans have found an unlikely new market – as premium fish food for Scottish salmon.
Norfolk is rightly renowned for its barley, sugar beet, pigs and poultry – but now the county's food chain has another, less obvious, claim to fame.
Spring beans grown in the county this year will be heading north to be turned into fish food for Scottish salmon, following the construction of a new bean processing plant in Nottingham.
Frontier Agriculture's upgraded factory will 'de-hull' the beans to produce a binding agent for an aquaculture industry looking for a high-protein replacement for imported soya.
And one of several East Anglian growers working to fulfil the contracts offered by the company is Bradenham Hall Farms, near Dereham, which is growing 56ha of spring beans this year aiming for this major new market.
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The decision was motivated by a change in the farm's rotation, which is focusing more on spring cropping in an effort to get its blackgrass weed problems under control, and also the need to find sustainable home-grown markets as a safeguard against the possible effects of Brexit.
Pulses now represent a sixth of the farm's cropping – mostly spring beans for the fish food contract, but also winter beans and vining peas.
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Farm manager David Pike said: 'We were looking for a new market because we needed to change the way we were farming at Bradenham. We have got a build-up of black-grass which we needed to get under control.
'And we felt we needed to set ourselves up going forward, after the end of direct farm payments [EU subsidies which will be phased out after Brexit]. That is what kick-started it.
'Traditionally, spring beans were alright, but they wouldn't set the world on fire. They were not a necessity. But now as part of our sustainable rotation we are going to set out to grow this crop year on year. We have a mindset here that if something can work, we will make it work.'
Farm owner Chris Allhusen added: 'People were waiting and waiting for a chemical reply to black-grass, which has not materialised. So we had to look at cultural control and spring cropping.
'Traditionally spring beans are something you would grow because something else has gone wrong, not because they were a good crop to grow.
'People call beans a 'Cinderella crop', but the difference here is that there is a market for it, whereas for a lot of Cinderella crops there is not. There is a definite need ready to be filled, and it is potentially a very big market.
'And surely it will be a lot better having a home-grown crop feeding our home-grown salmon.'
When the contracts were launched in February, Frontier said the base price on offer was £40 per tonne above the futures price for wheat, with an additional premium of £10 per tonne for growers taking the company's specialist bean agronomy package and achieving 29pc protein targets.
Andrew Melton, regional agronomy sales manager for Frontier, said beans offered a premium price and a spring break crop option while also attracting bees and pollinators, meaning the crop could deliver on all fronts for farmers – economically, agronomically and environmentally.
'While it gets exciting for us as agronomists, the best thing is our customers are able to fulfil a brand new market, and we have not had one of those for a while,' he said.
'It should help the salmon farmer, and it should help the environment and, fundamentally as far as we are concerned, it will help growers in East Anglia.
'We [Frontier] have invested £3m in Nottingham to help fulfil this emerging market.
'Up until that stage we were importing soya from Latin America so, considering the B word [Brexit], the more we can do to increase the size of UK domestic markets, then we as a business are going to go along with that.'
Mr Melton said Frontier was looking into high-protein bean varieties for the fish farming market, and working with the University of Nottingham to explore the effectiveness of a new range of biostimulants to help their growth.