Pandemic drives soaring US demand for Norfolk-made $250,000 farm machine

Staff at farm machinery manufacturer Ploeger UK are celebrating a production milestone after the 99t

Staff at farm machinery manufacturer Ploeger UK are celebrating a production milestone after the 99th and 100th "5180" detasseler machines were exported from their factory in Fakenham. Picture: Paul Wooding - Credit: Paul Wooding

A Norfolk farm machine factory has seen a surge in export orders as coronavirus workforce pressures across the Atlantic drives soaring demand for more efficient mechanisation.

While the pandemic has hit many business sectors, the farming industry across the world has continued operating – and adapting – to maintain the vital job of producing food.

And it has created opportunities for Ploeger UK, on Holt Road in Fakenham, which has recruited five new staff and is investing to modernise its production lines to keep up with burgeoning demand for its 5180 detasseler machine.

The $250,000 machine removes the tassels, the immature pollen-producing bodies, from the tops of maize plants to stop them self-pollinating – a vital process for growers wanting to cross-breed two varieties to create high-yielding hybrid seeds.

Manual labour is also needed to collect any tassels missed by the machines, employing thousands of workers across major production areas like the Corn Belt of the Midwestern United States.

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But with coronavirus limiting the ability to get teams of people into fields, demand for more efficient mechanisation has grown.

Ploeger project engineer Paul Wooding said his growing team has just shipped the 100th unit from the production line in Fakenham to a customer in America – the same customer who bought the first 5180 machine four years ago – and they expect to build and sell 40 machines this year.

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“We are much busier than normal,” he said. “In the last three months we have already done our quota for what we would expect to do in a year.

“The demand for our machinery has gone up because they cannot get the labour to go into the fields to do this work by hand.

READ MORE: New agri-tech innovations could help farmers adapt to major changes“If you have got to bus 30 people to the field to clean up after the machine, it is difficult to get them there – you have got to keep them 2m apart, and then you have all the PPE (personal protective equipment), the ablutions and all the infrastructure to consider. That has not happened because of Covid.

“It has really highlighted the need to go mechanical. The amount of hand labour you need to go into the field depends on how efficient your machine is. With our machine the percentage rate is between 90-98pc, so we only need a small amount of hand labour to go in afterwards.”

The increased demand at the factory has sparked the implementation of “lean manufacturing” measures, and five staff had been added to the 40-strong team, including a production engineer and fitters.

Mr Wooding said the detasseler is not for the UK market, and is predominantly exported to the US and South America, although there has also been a surge in orders from eastern Europe.

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