Organic and LEAF marque vegetables from Suffolk

Home Farm Nacton - the farm

Home Farm Nacton comprises 1,170 hectares of high quality agricultural land on the historic Orwell Park Estate, on the north bank of Suffolk’s Orwell estuary. The farm is a patchwork of woodland, heath, grass and arable land – used for organic vegetable production as well as conventional vegetables and cereals. In total we grow over thirty different crops. We’re currently working on 140 hectares under Soil Association organic certification. The farm is also LEAF marque and Red Tractor certified.

In the last 18 years the business has been shaped by a high level of investment in water management and irrigation, removing a constraint which once limited production to potatoes, carrots, sugar beet and cereals with limited yields and returns. The majority of our farmed area is light land which can be worked year round, the downside being that without irrigation it was difficult to compete in terms of producing mainstream crops. With the capability to irrigate 98 per cent of our farmed area we focus on high-value crops, mainly early-season crops which are harvested from May to July and are followed by winter-harvested second crops. Potentially, we are planting and harvesting crops every day of the year so we work the land hard, but as our focus is on farming sustainably we enhance the soil’s status by returning manures, compost and cover crops.

The history of Home Farm Nacton

Home Farm Nacton was originally one of several farms on the Orwell Park Estate; it was family run which was then ‘in hand’ farm.

In 1962 George Pretyman made over the estate into a trust and he kept the farm as a separate operation. He went into partnership with his daughter, Gillian Bence-Jones, who is now our senior share holder. Gillian went to agricultural college and was very interested in new approaches and ways to enhance poor, light mainly arable land. We were still very old fashioned with a dwindling, elderly workforce, Victorian buildings (lovely but not suited to large machinery) and a minimal fleet of small scale tractors. One of the previous farm managers was still riding a horse for work in the 1970’s. Gillian was very keen to invest in irrigation, which was an unusual step for a full scale farm at that time.

George died in 1979 and soon there was a new farm manager at Nacton, young Roger le blanc Smith. Gill and Roger were both keen to try new things but without much capital the farm had to earn its own investment. Gradually we moved into more vegetable production with a working relationship with Marshalls, the wholesale merchant to several of the larger supermarkets. This meant a lot of change and learning for us. Nick Bence-Jones became a partner in the 1980’s and when Roger le blanc Smith left in 1996 he was replaced by Andrew Williams. In the late 1990’s Andrew took us into Organic vegetable production. Since then we have expanded to farm other land on other people’s farms in various contract agreements. Andrew has transformed Home Farm Nacton in size, number of workforce, and intensity of cropping. We have changed from a partnership to a company and have recently formed a board of directors with help from Brian Reynolds, formally of Albanwise, who was recruited to help us with our overall structure in 2014.

The people of Home Farm Nacton

The Board of Directors
The farm has recently set up a board of which at present comprises six directors. Two of them are shareholders, Gillian Bence-Jones and Nick Bence-Jones, there is also Brian Reynolds who is the chairman and has long term experience of farm management at other large farms. Keith Girling and Chris Hollingsworth are non-executive directors. Lastly there is Andrew Williams who as well as being a director is also the long term manager of Home Farm Nacton.
Day to day running of Home Farm Nacton
The farm is managed by Andrew Williams supported by Jason Smith (Production Manager), Gavin Prentice (Field Labour Manager), James Cunningham (Assistant Manager), Lizzy Modder (Accounts Administrator), Helen Mickelsen (Technical & Sales Administrator) and Karen Austin (Office Administration).
The team comprises people in charge of specialised departments such as spraying, mechanical maintenance and fabrication, skilled machinery operators, muck spreading and general farm workers. The business employs in the region of 50 regular staff as well as seasonal workers who swell the number to over 100 on a busy day.

With a number of staff in key roles now approaching retirement, training the next generation is key to ensuring the sustainability of the business. Competence with computers and satellite systems is now an essential as well as all the previous machinery operating skills. Says Andrew Williams, ”We have several staff who joined us from school and are now in their twenties and thirties working in key roles such as drilling, spraying, fertiliser spreading, harvesting and maintenance. To ensure that we will have the skills required to maintain a very complex farming system and the equipment needed to operate it we have to encourage, foster and train the next generation. Because we are so diverse we need people who are multi-skilled and can fit into as many roles as possible. Training is a key part of that process."

Home Farm Nacton cropping

Like much of the Suffolk coastal strip, the land is extremely sandy. This light soil is easily worked and perfectly suited for production of many vegetables and supporting a number of key crops, including 240ha of potatoes, 100ha of onions, 50ha of cauliflower, 110ha of vining peas and 80ha of herbs such as parsley and coriander for processing, together with 22ha of cabbage, 16ha each of broccoli and brussels sprouts, plus organic sweet corn and red beet for processing into juice. In addition to cereal crops and we also have 200ha of sugar beet. We are continually test cropping new opportunities for ‘up and coming’ modern varieties and crops, the latest being organic quinoa.

Irrigation at Home Farm Nacton

Home Farm Nacton is an ‘irrigable light land farm.’ This is the key to our success as we are able to grow almost any vegetable on our sandy soils, because we can add water when our dry micro-climate doesn’t rain for days.

Over 50 years ago, our senior share holder, Gilliam Bence-Jones, came back from agriculture college full of enthusiasm for the flexibility that irrigation could provide. At the time, the technology was mostly confined to horticultural scale operations. Our farmland was seen as very poor and unproductive – Grade 3.
Could we put in the infrastructure to give ourselves new opportunities? Gill and her father, George, embarked on investing in three stream-fed irrigation ponds, pumps and underground mains to hydrants on the edge of some of the fields. Above ground, we had four and five inch aluminium pipes to lay to a network of three inch branches with sprinkler heads standing within the crops. All scaled up market garden stuff, and mostly aimed at potatoes, which were at the time our only crop with big potential losses or gains.
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Over the following years, most new developments were above ground. First came a rotating boom, mounted over a static tractor called a Laureau. Imagine a cross between a giant helicopter and a Fordson major. This gave some economies of scale and movability over the sprinkler systems. But the movability was dependant on NOT leaving the device on too long and becoming stuck in its own damp patch. Next came the early versions of the reel-type irrigators we use today. At the time they mostly needed pressure boasting pumps and it was usual on a summers evening to hear a Lister diesel chugging away. We tried not to place these too near to houses. Our second phase in the ‘Irrigable Home Farm’ story came in the 1980’s when our manager at that time, Roger le blanc Smith, was looking for new opportunities to grow vegetable crops on a larger scale, which meant we needed more water. We began a programme of adding more underground mains to reach more of our fields every winter. Gradually, miles of pipes have been added, but we didn’t have the water supply to use all these new systems simultaneously. At first, we investigated increasing the size of our irrigation ponds. This would have made lake-sized reservoirs in low lying areas, which are naturally stream-fed, so no pumping energy needed to fill and with potential to become wildlife havens with fully natural characteristics. Unfortunately, this was not to the liking of the authorities. They insisted on dedicated irrigation reservoirs dug on high ground and with butyl, rubber liners, half in the ground, half above, with earth banks. They have to be pump filled, which uses electricity and don’t have much in common with a natural lake. Even so, fish have managed to become established in some of them. Nature keeps on trying.
Sream metering weir at Home Farm Nacton
Over the past two decades, Andrew Williams and Neal Smith have evolved our irrigation at Home Farm into a large and efficient infrastructure. We now have 5 of these reservoirs throughout our farm. They are still mostly fed from the previous stream-fed pond system. We have always been regulated and charged by the authorities for our water abstraction and although most of the water we use rises on our land and flows into the estuary on our land too, we are metered (at our own expense for the meters) and have to pay for every drop we use from these sources.

One of our steam filled ponds empties out onto a short ditch to the River Orwell estuary. Fresh (or ‘sweet’) water flowing over the mud at low tide creates an area rich in food sources for birdlife. We have recently put in a water metering weir which ensures that a guaranteed 4 litres per second of water always goes to the shore before we take any into our abstraction pond.
Modern developments in irrigation are often about making more efficient use of the water we already have. A simple improvement is a machine called a ridger that puts an earth ridge across the bottom of the trough in the field furrows every few metres. This means that the water we put on doesn’t run away down sloping fields and therefore, has time to soak into the crop roots. A more complex improvement are modern, electronically controlled hydrant valves, so that a network of sprinklers or tape irrigators can be zoned and therefore, several areas can be precisely switched on and off in one crop. This is because we are using more water than our supply system could provide to run the multiple zones but if one tripped ‘off’ without another going ‘on’ at precisely the same time, then the pump protection system would shut the whole system off.

These individual, above ground systems are quite intensive to set up each growing season but can be used with dug-in drip tape to put water directly to the roots of the crop. This is a very efficient way of irrigating with minimal evaporation or runoff. It’s also a good way of getting water to a crop, which is covered with a sheet of fleece or has a very delicate foliage. Much of our ordinary irrigation, however, is done by reel irrigators. These huge drums have a butyl pipe that gradually wind back to themselves, pulling along a rain gun, or a wide wheel-mounted boom irrigator and covering a broad strip in a field.

We did once have access to an American-style pivot irrigator which is a huge steel arm, mounted on tractor wheels which slowly moves in an arc around a central pivot. Older ones just covered a large circular area and not many fields in Suffolk are round, but the latest ones now have extra ‘elbow’ type joints, electronically controlled, which can cope with fields with corners. The plus side on these permanent structures is that they take much less management hours to use (theoretically, as long as no one parks in their path!) but they are fixed and inflexible compared to our trailer-mounted reels and knock down systems.

We have now reached a point where we can irrigate most of our land and we can cross pump water from one area to another, rather like the National Grid. Although much of our equipment is automated (most of the reels have sim cards) is still takes up a tremendous amount of time every season, moving, setting up and checking, and often at unsociable hours. We now have reservoirs ranging from 7 million to 16 million gallons but we have been recently helping our farming partners to build new reservoirs of over 30 million and 50 million gallons. This all helps to smooth out the demand for water from times of shortage to months with over supply. The end result of all these years of investment is a business that grows over forty different types of crop for the consumer and creates over fifty jobs achieving it.

Final Fact

We are often asked why we irrigate when its already raining. We also noticed that its raining but if nature only puts on half the water the crops need, then this is an excellent time to ‘top up’ the amount while air moisture is high and evaporative waste is low.
Irrivgation boom in action at Home Farm Nacton

Soil organic matter at Home Farm Nacton

Adding and maintaining organic matter is vital to organic farming but also Home Farm Nacton is mostly based on light sandy loam soils, part of the Colneis hundred area of the Suffolk sandlings. Sand is an ideal medium of growing; it drains well, heats up quickly and compaction is more easily rectified than on other soil types. However it is lacking in other components that make a proper soil out of mineral grains and is prone to drying and wind blowing. We grow a high intensity of vegetable crops and harvest some land twice in a year, so it’s essential that we take special care of our soil structure. We are trying to put back as much as we take out.

Meet Bruce our ‘soil fertility manager’, our ‘top dressing technician’ or ‘chief muck and compost spreader’:

“Two main goals of applying muck and compost to the land are to increase the fertility and to condition the soil by adding organic matter. Another process is to change the PH, mostly by adding alkalis to acid soils. It is the addition of organic matter or humus which we are particular keen on. Low fertility additions, such as mushroom compost or council green waste compost can put a great deal of extra fibre into the soil, aiding water retention and slowing the release of nutrients. Not taking the straw after cereal crops also helps.”
Loading Richard Western D2150 precision organic manure spreader
Bruce has a large spreader trailer made locally by Richard Western. It’s a D2150 with chain moving floor feeding rear spreaders. He can achieve a 6 to 8 metre spread band in a single pass. Even application is essential and we have to bring in the right amounts for each field from one of our new store pads. These have been recently constructed to give us more in hand storage and to help prevent run off. Over-fertility can harm the environment and we are investing heavily to manage our muck and compost process better. Bruce has to compute the amount of trailer spread to get an even amount on each field on each hectare, indeed on each square metre. He liaises with Jason and Andrew to get the right amounts of inputs for each field from available store. Our new spreading trailer could have been fitted with GPS guidance, this time we decided not to go for the ‘high tech’ option, but with regularly replacing spreaders and a younger workforce coming through its inevitable that we will be using this equipment in the future to micro manage our field spreading.
A list of what goes onto our land past and present includes:
  • Mushroom compost
  • Stable muck, fresh straw, horse poo and now days some wood chips too
  • Digestate - liquid from the new generation power plants
  • Chicken Manure - very strong in fertility, very hot and smelly
  • Paper waste - not very fertile
  • Brewers Waste - needs to be incorporated quickly

Home Farm Nacton location

The farm is at the heart of the local community its customers ranging from the public to local farm shops, wholesalers, box schemes, pack houses and supermarkets.

Home Farm is situated in The Street, Nacton; the office is a portion of Camilla court. Behind Camilla Court there is a coldstore where direct sales are collected and lorries are loaded. Beyond this there are crop stores, workshops, and machinery stores. There is also a second yard at Felixstowe Road which has an extensive concrete area with a large onion drying and storage facility. We also have other farm buildings and yards at some of our farm contract partners’ facilities.

There is a popular trailer selling produce locally at certain times of the year on the southbound A12, just south of the BT Adastral Park roundabout.
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