Farm Of The Week: Enterprise that’s feeding the country

Jack Parsons
Jack Parsons
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FOR nearly 100 years the Co-operative farm at Swinefleet near Goole has been producing masses of food for the country.

The estate was purchased by the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1917 and works throughout the year to produce potatoes, beetroot, vining peas, winter wheat, oilseed rape and winter barley.

Farm manager Jack Parsons said that the farm has very much become part of the community.

“It is a massive part of the community. We have four full-time staff here and have a cleaner who has worked here for 65 years.

“She is now 80 and had worked on the land previously.”

Mr Parsons’ face may be familiar to readers having been printed on the packaging of thousands of bags of vegetables sold on the almost 3,000 Co-operative food stores around the country.

A graduate of Harper Adams, he worked on another Co-op farm in the Borders region before moving to Yorkshire.

“It is a well-kept farm and everybody has and will have a connection with it, either by having worked here or knowing somebody who did, just because there is such a lot of people involved in it,” he said.

In total, the farm runs to 1,473 hectares. The company also rents another 139-hectare farm nearby alongside an additional 60 hectares which is rented annually to supplement potato growing.

The Co-op says that the premium product at Goole is the 6000-7000 tonne high quality pre-packing potato crop grown annually.

The potatoes all go to the Co-op packhouse at Langley Brook for delivery into Co-operative stores throughout the UK.

Mr Parson said much of the farm’s strength comes from the variety of soil types it boasts.

From grade 1 silt to heavier silty clay loams (reclaimed from marshland in the 1700s).

The farm lies at the confluence of the Ouse and the Trent, is at sea level and benefits from both pumped and tidal drainage.

The grade 1 silt land can be irrigated from the farm’s four reservoirs and the farm has 5km of underground high pressure pipelines running underneath it.

The farm also hosts a massive cold store, large enough to hold 3,500 tonnes of potatoes.

Another storage unit large enough to contain 4,000 tonnes is rented nearby.

Additionally, there is storage and drying facilities for 7,800 tonnes of grain on site.

Goole also supplies all of the UK-grown beetroot to the Co-operative in conjunction with a local specialist grower/packer (D.Moore/Axgro). Vining Peas are grown for the Green Pea company which supplies Birdseye.

“We are fortunate in that we have got very good land here,” Mr Parsons told the Yorkshire Post.

The crop growing method is highly sophisticated, employing much in the way of cutting-edge technology.

All crops are grown on an integrated crop management system, where all inputs including cultivations are tailored to the individual field on a specific day.

Nitrogen applications are carried out using a Yara N sensor, this measures nitrogen levels within the crop at the time of application and allows nitrogen fertiliser to be applied where it is needed most, best described as “Making every Kilo Count”.

Fields have been GPS zoned according to soil type and nutrient content so that precise variable seed rates and fertiliser applications can be made.

Potato fields are GPS mapped for soil pest (pcn) concentrations and treated accordingly. Soil moisture deficits are gauged by remote crop probes which ensure maximum water use efficiency when irrigating.

Cultivation is guided by GPS too.

Given the nature of what is grown at the farm, the land is busier at some stages than others. Mr Parson said that the period between June and December is by far the busiest, often necessitating extra labour to be brought in.

And while the weather in the past few days may have been very wet, the water shortages seen across East Yorkshire have invariably affected crops there.

No matter how big the farm is, it still comes up against the same difficulties and problems as other farms in the region and the very dry conditions seen over the past two winters mean that the farm is currently desperate for water.

“It is a problem,” said Mr Parsons.

“We have had to cut down the acreage of potatoes we had planned to grow as obviously they do need a great deal of water.”

A three-kilometre long pipe, made up of a series of six metre pieces, has been set up to irrigate water from a nearby source, a process which has cost a great deal of money.

“It will effect the bottom line,” concedes Mr Parsons.

A number of beehives are also operating on the farm, producing honey from the honeybees which forage on orchards and field flower blossoms.

The farm is also involved in the Co-op’s Habitat Heroes programme, which supports endangered and protected species.

Motion-sensing cameras have been used to track water vole activity and by surveying the ditches and drains on the farm to pinpoint where the voles are they can change the way ditches are managed to protect their habitat.

A company spokesman said: “The Habitat Heroes project aims to identify where the Co-operative farms can make investments and adaptations on the farm to improve the habitats, feeding and breeding opportunities for key endangered species such as water voles, otters and red squirrels, helping to safeguard them for the future.

“By launching the national wildlife initiative, we are joining leading environmental campaigners who are taking direct action to help preserve species that remain threatened in the UK, in response to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, and continuing concerns over a global decline in biodiversity.

“The Co-operative Group is funding the project and with the support of our farm managers, local environmental groups and volunteers we have carried out vital environmental work to improve and sustain the habitats of species that are indigenous to our farms.”

Another big change on the farm is the objective that by 2013 it aims to have 14 wind turbines installed at the estate to help power the grid.