Farm of the Week: Rise of the Wolds potato growers

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If ever there was an example of how farms are getting bigger there couldn’t be a more extreme case than how one Wolds farming family has expanded since the late 1970s.

Thirty-five years ago young farmer Andrew Soanes and his father Clive farmed just 60 acres at Church Hill Farm in Middleton-on-the-Wolds. Today the farming operation that Andrew oversees and manages from Wallis Grange Farm, Kiplingcotes across several farms runs to just shy of 3,000 owned acres, all approximately 300ft above sea level. With various contract farming arrangements his combined working acreage is over 5,000. It is spread from North Frodingham over to the coast, around Wetwang, Middleton-on-the-Wolds and Kiplingcotes.

The contract farming is conducted between Market Weighton and Middleton-on-the-Wolds and Andrew employs a staff of 14 on the farms and haulage. Poultry processing has been part of the family farming operation for generations and the factory on the original farm was the bedrock that made the profit that allowed Clive and Andrew to grow the arable operation. It still exists as well as four poultry rearing sites with two near Middleton-on-the-Wolds, Park Farm at Beverley and another at Wetwang with 95,000 broilers on site at each. Five more staff are employed in the poultry business where Clive concentrates his efforts as well as running his own game dealing business, leaving Andrew to work the land.

The most recent addition to their operations is a building at Wold Dyke Farm. The new potato grader purchased from Holland, the rest of the kit inside and the shed itself, leaves very little change from £1m.

Storage plays an important role in arable farming allowing produce to be held until either the price is right or to meet demand at the appropriate time. When you have the size of operation that Andrew is running it’s even more vital that you have sufficient capacity of your own as storage costs elsewhere can be crippling.

“I store about 11,000 tonnes of potatoes and this new shed can cope with up to 3,000 tonnes. Until we built it I was having to rent storage for 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes each season and that was costing me £100,000 a year.”

Potatoes play a major role in Andrew’s business. He grows 1,100 acres of potatoes with 600 acres grown for seed and 500 acres of ware potatoes to go into supermarkets, and is a director of the potato marketing co-operative WCM (Wholecrop Marketing) based in Kirkburn, near Driffield that has made a significant impact on the trade over the past decade.

“WCM market all of what we produce and also give professional advice on what to grow. David Burks and Mark Tomlinson who started the co-operative know the potato business inside out and that means I can concentrate my efforts a little more on the other crops we have. Growing seed potatoes also allows me to spread my machinery costs further because it means we can start lifting the crop at the end of July. From then on until the end of October every day is potentially a potato-lifting day. Seed potatoes have become very popular in Yorkshire over recent times. Traditionally Scotland was the place to source them, however they have had a number of problems with such as blackleg and powdery scab and we have found what is termed as virgin land for specifically growing seed potatoes up on the Wolds and that is providing the right quality.”

Although Andrew is not at all unhappy with his lot in life and how large the potato business has become he has reservations about whether he would go into potatoes if he was starting out today: “I do love farming and always have but looking back to around 30 years ago, when we had a farm manager that introduced us to potatoes, I would think long and hard about it today if I was going to go into it. With the acreage we now have I could quite happily grow wheat, barley, oilseed rape and vining peas as we do and not grow potatoes. That way we would at least have a quieter winter, but we’re at the point where potato growing has become a large concern. I’ve a son, John (17) who is very interested in growing potatoes so we’re not coming out of it.”

Winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape and vining peas make up the rest of the cropping on what is largely quality Wolds land that provides Andrew with a respectable average of four tonnes per acre. All winter wheat and winter barley goes into the feed mill in Fridaythorpe.

“All of our wheat and barley is grown for feed. We start drilling winter wheat in the first week of September and we’re using Grafton because it is a good early-drilling variety. We’re also currently growing JB Diego and a new variety Relay. Our winter barley is a six-row variety called Volume. Cereal prices have continued to be reasonable and we can turn a profit on wheat being at £150-£160 per tonne but we wouldn’t want it to go for much less. Our poultry operation produces a lot of manure, which means we don’t have to buy as much fertiliser from elsewhere.

“We were with Bird’s Eye on pea vining but then we were asked to join Swaythorpe as they trade more on the open market. I can’t say I’ve done any better through them as yet but Swaythorpe has more possible outlets for the crop. The contract farming side of the business also sees us store produce from those other farms. I trade both my own cereals and theirs. It’s in my interest to trade for the farmers where we undertake contract work because I earn a percentage of the profit.”

Although the farm has grown massively over the last 35 years the Soanes’ haven’t purchased any land in the past three or four years. Andrew feels this could cause problems for those who are keen to develop their farms as he and his father have done.

“It’s hard to justify buying land at between £10,000-£12,000 per acre. The price of land has doubled in the past five to six years. I can see this being a real problem for those who have 300-400 acres at the moment and want to expand but just can’t afford to. If there can’t be a good living made then there will be a lack of interest and more smaller farms will disappear.”

Andrew’s wife Sarah started a pedigree Hereford herd around ten years ago that now runs to 25 cows and she sells heifers on to local farmers and bulls into dairy herds. She also runs a boxed meat scheme and sells some direct to Dovecote Park. The couple met at Bishop Burton College and initially set up a small pig unit at North Frodingham. They have four children: Emily, 23, Lucy, 20, and Rebecca, 18, along with son John.

Andrew’s other interests include shooting, being involved in triathlons, keeping fit at his local gym in Driffield and both playing and watching rugby. He used to play as either wing or centre and is a keen supporter of Super League team Hull FC.