Farming Connect Study Visit - Upper Severn Grassland Group
Upper Severn Grassland Group
The Upper Severn Grassland Group try to organise a trip for their members every year; however, due to difficult circumstances over the last year, the group have not been able to travel for some time. However, group members are now keen to get back out on-farm and following group discussions, the group decided that their study tour would head down to Pembrokeshire.
Although not too far from Mid Wales, Pembrokeshire agriculture systems are somewhat different to our own systems here. The different terrain and weather conditions in Pembrokeshire means that it was a great location for us to visit as a part of our study visit for 2021, as we were able to see a diverse range of businesses, including beef, sheep, dairy, poultry and arable, along with numerous diversification opportunities. Pembrokeshire has many forward-thinking, innovative and creative farmers who are at the forefront of their sectors in terms of efficiency, technology and innovation.
The main objective of our visit was for members to witness first-hand the operation behind some of Pembrokeshire’s farms and rural businesses, along with seeing how they have developed or adapted their business over the years. We hope to inspire our members with new innovative and efficient ideas to bring back to their farms in Mid Wales.
Tom Michael Harding
[What did you learn? Provide a description of your activities on each day of your visit and outline your key learning outcomes and knowledge gained]
2.1 Day 1
We made our way from Mid Wales after picking everyone up and stopped at the Moody Cow farm shop and restaurant for coffee. This is a recent farm diversification, which over the last four years has started from scratch, and is adding new attractions for the visitors usually heading south to the likes of Bluestone etc.
Afterwards we then travelled to Porthgain for a meal at the Sloop Inn, and were joined by Will Pritchard, who hosted us for the rest of the afternoon at his farm, Esclarwen in Letterston.
Will showed us his herd of milking cows, which were grazing lush pastures, and then spoke about his endeavour to add value to his dairy-bred calves. Over the years, he has invested in Wagyu genetics to produce a highly marbled beef that sells at a premium via retailers in London. Will is a director of Natural Wagyu Beef and Blue farming project, which set the environmental auditing for the high-end beef. We visited another farm where Wagyu calves were being reared for the beef system, and saw another seasonal diversification that dove-tailed into their system: 8,000 free range turkeys that were being reared for Copestone Meat and Poultry, for the Marks and Spencer Christmas season. This took up a nearby field and a large polytunnel-type building, which was able to be used for the cattle side of the business after Christmas.
- Good grassland management is key to achieve an efficient dairy system.
- The winter period was very short compared to Mid Wales (two months compared to our six months)
- Will had looked to add value and introduced the Wagyu Beef Genetics and sold beef through premium retailers.
- Contract-rearing of turkeys was undertaken with Copestone, an experienced partner for Marks and Spencer.
- Good multi use was made of investment in buildings throughout the year.
2.2 Day 2
Day 2 morning
We made our way to the Hayman family at Norton Farm near Milford Haven, who showed us their farming enterprise, which was heavily invested in potatoes. Their primary premium market was to Puffin Produce, delivering after on farm-controlled storage the following summer after the previous year’s harvest. The Haymans were growing 500 acres per year, and surprised us by only growing potatoes once every six years on the same field. In order to achieve this, they needed to combine production on their own land with some rented land too. They grew several varieties for different outlets, and were able to grade and sell throughout the year to chip shops, grocers etc to provide employment and income. Because of the investment in actually growing potatoes on a farmer’s land, they were moving to an extended rental period to grow cereals the year after potatoes, and leave the land in a better levelled condition to go back to the farmer. The Norton family also had livery stables and farmed fattening cattle and sheep. It was the tidiest farm setup we had been on, and the machinery to cope with all the potatoes growing process made it look like a main dealership. Our coach driver suggested we wipe our feet before we got out of the coach on arrival!!!
- Heavily invested in storage for a premium market through Puffin.
- Had wind turbine and solar to mitigate energy costs in storage.
- Good relationship with farmers to rent the ground one year in six for potatoes.
Day 2 afternoon
Our afternoon visit was to Puffin Produce, where we saw the processing side of the potato business. This was on a large scale of 65,000 tons a year. The business started around 1995, and has been built up to a £30million business employing 175 people. The tour was very informative and showed us the process from delivery, storage, analysis, grading, washing, through to being bagged for all the retailers. A lot of investment had been made to mechanise unpleasant, noisy, laborious and dangerous jobs so that the business could retain and keep staff. As milking, lambing arableand all farm work continued through Covid, Puffin Produce was able to keep the food chain supplied mostly uninterrupted.
Puffin use the Welsh flag as a key selling point, as well as the business’ close proximity to where the potatoes are grown. They invest a lot of money in developing new varieties for particular customers, and with the cooperation of the likes of the Hayman family, are able to supply a good premium product to retailers throughout the year. They developed an early new potato and gained PGI status in 2013 and sold it as"Jersey Royal without the jet lag" They appreciate the challenges that farmers have to go through to grow potatoes through droughts and floods etc, but they recognise that Pembrokeshire is relatively frost-free and a prime location for growing potatoes.
- Large local firm adding value to locally grown potatoes. Good relationship with farmers means regular deliveries for processing.
- Spend a lot on mechanising jobs and training. This also helps with staff retention. Provide new staff with on-site accommodation to help them settle in.
- A lot of money invested in new varieties and the multiplication of seed to a farm-scale trial for evaluation.
- Have large on-site store for smaller producers.
- They produce other vegetables, and are looking at getting a larger share of that market in the future.
- Are looking to further processing of potatoes (part fried, cooked etc.), to add value and tap into different markets.
- With Pembrokeshire being a strong dairy area, Puffin were also looking at bottling Welsh milk locally and selling it in Wales, to cut down on milk being bottled outside Wales and then being brought back in to retailers.
2.3 Day 3
Day 3 morning
This morning, we visited Copestone Meat and Poultry at a field in a rural setting near Haverfordwest. It was particularly low-key, but showed what Copestone was about. They explained that it was a Pembrokeshire business that had grown to now supplying Marks and Spencer with organic chicken and turkeys. They hatched their own chicks, which were reared until 30 days-old; they were moved to a field location and then grown to 3kg at 70 days-old, and then processed locally in their factory. The field contained a number of portable buildings for 1,700 birds each, with a feed bin and a water supply. The chicks were fed organic food and able to go free range, as per protocol for Marks and Spencer. The system did not need much labour, as the birds were one month-old when they arrived, and had passed the tender stage. They were able to undertake 5.5 cycles a year, which made good use of the infrastructure.
- Copestone did the hatching and small chick management. The birds (chickens and turkeys) were strong when placed on free range placement for finishing.
- Copestone provided food and management expertise, as well as the guaranteed processing.
- Copestone are actively looking for new partners to expand. Looking for farmers to invest in 6 x 1,700 bird finishing sheds within three car-driving hours’ time of Haverfordwest.
- Copestone had just been bought out by a large French firm – obviously with a view of getting a tried and tested food supplier and building on it for the future.
- Copestone saw Pembrokeshire as good for low disease, as most of the migratory birds don’t go that far south.
Day 3 afternoon
Day 3 afternoon’s visit was to Mark and Emma Evans’ Old Farmhouse Brewery by St Davids.
We arrived by coach and saw a wonderful herd of strong Simmental cows and calves being moved to new pastures by their farmhouse. Mark and Emma were farming this holding, which had a good herd of Simmental cattle from which they were selling breeding bulls and fattening cattle. The cattle were wintered inside sheds and fed big bale silage, for which they won first prize with the Grassland Society in 2017. They also had two holiday lets, which had been made from converted old traditional buildings that had become redundant.
Mark then went on to explain their newest diversification, which was a micro-brewery in another converted redundant building in the farmyard. He explained the investigation that he had carried out over many years into making beer on a small scale, and had then decided to do it on a larger scale. The business really is a "plough to pint"story on the same farm, which no one else in Wales can boast about. He grew 20 acres of spring malting barley with no inputs, was after being harvested, the grain was sent away to be malted, and then brought back to be made into beer. Most of the building conversion and installation of the micro-brewery work was done during the Covid lockdown, and a Welsh Farm Initiative grant was used to help pay towards its cost. Mark had help to make the first few brews, as the brewing process is very disciplined in terms of quantities, temperatures and timings throughout. The farm’s water supply has been tested and approved, and that is used in the brewing process. After the beer is brewed, it is taken a few miles away to be bottled at another microbrewery and labelled with their distinctive labels. During the brewing process, a lot of water is heated, and cooling also takes place in a further process, so solar panels produce electricity, and an air source pump has also been installed. Mark explained that it was more efficient in their circumstances because instead of only producing heat in a domestic situation, their system used heat and cooling effects during the brewing cycle. The building housing the brewery had also been tastefully converted for sales, and they had actually sold beers into customers’ own containers, which did away with the need for bottling. We were able to try the beers, which were delicious – and people reminisced about all the brews that used to be made on farms from cider, ginger beer, and elderberry wine to perry etc.
It was a very interesting visit, and showed a hobby actually progressing into a sustainable business. Thanks to Mark and Emma .
- Mark and Emma investigated the microbrewery diversification thoroughly before going ahead.
- They were able to have grant help with the build costs.
- They received advice on the build and practical help on the first few brews.
- They saw sale potential from the farmyard due to its close proximity to the main St Davids road and for pop-up events in St Davids with their beef sales as well.
- They are bottling locally, which spreads the costs for two businesses, and pooling buying power on bottles etc, as well as keeping food miles low.
- They have more on-farm straw and can keep cattle out longer by feeding them on the extra stubble acres from growing malting barley.
2.4 Day 4
Day 4 morning.
We travelled south from Haverfordwest, and met Mr Paul Ratcliffe in a layby on the roadside and proceeded to walk a short distance to see an established crop of miscanthus. The crop had been established on 65 acres six years ago, and was cut and hesston-baled in March/April each year. Paul explained that the crop is grown with no inputs, and after being baled, is taken to a power station to be burned for electricity production. At the moment, the crop has to go a long way to a power station, but it has been suggested that one could be built locally and more suitable acres turned over to miscanthus production.
We then went to Paul’s Newhouse Farm by Bluestone, where he told us of a chance meeting with the Bluestone owners, who asked him if he knew anything about biomass heating systems. He replied that he would find out. That led to him going down the diversification route into biomass heating systems, and becoming a fuel supplier of wood chips and pellets, as well as an approved installer of systems, with four large biomass heaters installed and maintained at Bluestone next door. This has led to a fleet of five delivery lorries, delivering 20,000 of wood pellets per year in the south UK area, and becoming an approved seller and installer of biomass installations, large and small, over the same area as PBE Fuels, to a large number of customers.
The woodchip side has proved a very useful service locally, as large hedges that have become unmanageable now have a value as woodchip, which can be dried out at Newhouse and sold to fuel biomass systems. The work has also helped to rejuvenate old or neglected woodlands by taking out poor trees to allow replanting in a managed manner of useful trees for the future for fuel or to benefit the environment. They are also now seeing more ash trees that are dying from ash dieback becoming available for chipping. We thanked Paul and family for their welcome and hospitality, and made our way back to Mid Wales.
- Paul admits he investigated biomass after a query from Bluestone and that was the start.
- When he needed wood pellets and could see the demand, he sourced his own, and now supplied 20,000 tons per year with a fleet of purpose-built lorries.
- This has also led to producing dried wood chips that can be sourced locally and sold to biomass customers, producing employment, as well as giving a value to quite often neglected and worthless trees, allowing reinvestment in timber for the future.
- After selling wood pellets to customers and being asked about servicing the boilers etc, PBE Fuels now have approved engineers to sell and service boilers up to 250kw, which is providing employment and a service.
- The miscanthus crop is established, and there is the possibility of a more local facility being developed to process the bales. This would then justify more of the poorer quality ground in the surrounding area being planted for the carbon capture benefit and energy production.
3 Next Steps
[What are you going to do next? You will have gained valuable knowledge on your study visit which should enable you to put some of your new ideas in to practice or make changes to how you run your business. Draw your report to a close with a summary of action points and next steps for the group which builds on the knowledge gained on this visit and ensures it is put to good use]
In conclusion to our visits, we would like to thank all the farmers for their welcome and hospitality, and for being open to discussion about the businesses they now run, and how they developed over the recent years and their plans for the future.
We were impressed with the advantages of soil and an earlier climate over our Mid Wales area, which they were taking advantage of, with a longer grazing season and then an earlier spring, which was ideal for growing potatoes with good soils. The farmers had been recent pioneers in developing systems for adding value locally with the formation of Puffin Produce and Copestone. This showed the advantages of having the processing locally, which provides employment and helps the economy. Will Prichard also showed how to investigate a premium beef product from dairy cows, and followed it through with investment in genetics through to high end beef sales in London. Paul Ratcliffe had started a fledgling business early in renewable biomass. This has now grown to be fully integrated, from installing biomass systems to supplying the wood pellets, through to harvesting and replanting suitable trees for the future, and miscanthus for energy.
Mark and Emma Evans looked at their farm’s resources and came up with a micro-brewery that dovetailed in with their Simmental cattle. They had the land to grow the malting barley, farm spring water for the brewery and redundant buildings for the manufacturing – and most importantly, a location near a busy tourist road to St Davids, which was ideal for sales. They were able to do “Plough to Pint" all in-house under the name "Old Farmhouse Brewery".
The visits stimulated discussion about making the most of your own farm’s advantages – whether you had a high local population nearby for adding value to something you already produce, or natural location advantages, were considering starting a completely new venture after exploring the costs, grants, the time element involved and your individual skills or looking at taking on something new – and weighing up whether what you are already doing will suffer. Also, most farm businesses could improve with training, collaboration and delegation. Deep down, most farmers wanted to farm, and now with world pressures on energy, it is likely that food is going up the importance agenda. Farmers producing food is going to become very important, after being historically neglected, and we must use our natural advantages in Wales of rainfall and soils for arable farming – but mostly, the 80% of farmed land that is pasture-only to produce milk, beef and lamb in the most sustainable way in the world. We discussed how this provides a stronger vibrant local economy with all the aligned businesses, as is the case with Puffin and Copestone.
A thoroughly stimulating study tour with thanks to Paul Campbell of Pedigree Tours for being the tour operator and planning the itinerary, Mariner’s Arms Hotel and Premier Inn Haverfordwest for accommodation and Teleri for midday on-farm refreshments.