Earlier this summer, a group of vegetable growers from Wales travelled to the outskirts of Nottingham to visit Hammond Produce, a leading grower of root vegetables and brassicas, and a firm that has become renowned for its diversification and new variety development.
Our study tour was led by two vastly experienced consultants from ADAS, Chris Creed and Angela Huckle, and here is their review of the day…
The Hammond family has been farming in Nottinghamshire since 1900, when Thomas Hammond bought the 12 acre Derry Mount Farm from his retiring employer, Thomas Dabell. The entity of Hammond Produce was established in 1999, and the business currently farms over 3,500 acres of land across three counties, producing more than 50,000 tonnes of fresh vegetables each year, from root veg such as carrots, beetroot, parsnips, and potatoes, through to brassicas including cabbage, leeks, and kale. As well as growing the produce, the firm cleans, grades, prepares, packs, and delivers it to customers ranging from supermarkets and retailers to ready-meal manufacturers and the food service industry.
Hammond Produce adopts an integrated approach to farm management and is committed to sustainable agriculture, as demonstrated by its LEAF Marque status, while it also operates to a comprehensive Quality Management System.
Study Tour – Rhubarb
Our visit to the firm’s HQ at New Farm in the Nottinghamshire market town of Arnold started with an overview of the business from its Director Philip Lilley, before moving onto a walk through the rhubarb field. This crop is increasing on the farm due to supermarket interest and the intention is to extend the season as long as possible – including the use of forced rhubarb – so supply is currently available from December right the way through to October, weather permitting.
The two main varieties used are Timperley Early (early) and Stockbridge Arrow (mid-season) and both of these are dual purpose outdoor (‘garden rhubarb’) and indoor forced producers. Timperley will usually start producing outdoors in March and April, but has been covered in tunnels to consistently produce sticks from the beginning of March. Once pulled, the crop is given feed and water and is generally ready for a second pull some six weeks later. Stockbridge Arrow begins in April, so naturally takes over from Timperley – in tandem they will produce crop until September/October and beyond.
On average, yields are 35 tonnes per hectare during the first pull, dropping to 25 at the second pull. Late pulls take a toll on the crop, therefore it needs to be given time to recover the following year. If the programme gets behind, the crop is topped, fed, and watered, then allowed to recover, and again is back in production around six weeks later.
The growers were also shown a patch of Livingstone, a variety that does not have a dormant period, so if the climate is warm enough it may pull in October through to January. This variety is in the perpetual group, of which there is currently a lot of interest in its commercial potential. Interestingly the Livingstone patch, supplied by Hargreaves Plants, was partly sets and partly module plants. Initially it was felt that the sets looked a lot stronger, but now the module plants were away well and at least as good.
The rhubarb crop is fed to analysis and typically 175kg nitrogen, 125kg phosphorous, and up to 200 kg potassium is applied in early March. This may be topped up with another 50–100kg after each pull. The rhubarb is not allowed to dry out as it will go summer dormant, so usually 25mm is applied each time, via overhead rain gun.
Other Crops – Pumpkins, Potatoes, and Parsnips
Next stop was pumpkins and here 12 hectares were being grown in response to a request from a buyer, demonstrating the commitment that is often needed to gain new market lines. A range of varieties (including Harvest Moon, Racer, and Gladiator) were grown as plants in 126 modules and these were planted with an old machine already adapted for planting rhubarb sets. The machine had done a good job and the field was very even. After planting, a mixture of Kerb and Flexidor was applied over the plants, and they were away well, and weed-free.
The group then proceeded to tour the farm on tractor and trailer, en route seeing the polythene tunnel used to force a rhubarb crop from crowns lifted in the field and packed into beds. This crop uses two-year old crowns and crops from December to March – these produce the pink stick, yellow leaf premium product that attracts higher prices.
From a high vantage point, Philip Lilley explained the farm was split on soil type, varying from the heavy Keuper Marl clay loams to much lighter Bunter sandstones. The former are well-suited for the perennial crops, while the sands were better for roots. We learned that the farm was in the Higher Level Stewardship environmental scheme and was managed to support wildlife – many red list species including tree sparrows, grey partridge and pee-wits (lapwings) breed on the farm and are fed during winter months.
The tour proceeded to visit a reservoir used for irrigation fed from a borehole. Philip Lilley outlined how vital water was not just for the business’s intensive vegetable production and maintaining continuity in programmes, but how useful a wildlife feature it was. Adjacent to the reservoir was a big field of maize, contract-grown for Severn Trent Water to use in one of its Anaerobic Digester plants, which produces electricity using methane derived from waste plant material.
We stopped to look at a pool of old machinery and Philip Lilley revealed nothing was ever scrapped or sold as it may come in useful at a later date. So there were lifting blades, bed makers, old irrigation kit, and many variants of cultivation equipment all to be seen. This attracted a lot of attention from the growers, and some cash offers were even made to take some of the kit back to Wales!
From there the visit passed by some continuity Calabrese, grown for the processing market, and spring greens. These were planted weekly, and again water was being given as needed. The herbicide program was Gamit plus Stomp Aqua, the Gamit giving a yellow fringing to the plants but they soon got away, giving good weed control. This was backed up with a Garford inter-row mechanical hoe as this controlled weeds missed by the herbicide and kept the soil open.
Stopping on top of a hill, Philip Lilley pointed out how close the farm was to the centre of Nottingham and how it used to deal with the local wholesale market and the subsequent move to the supermarket supply.
A tour of the potato field followed – this was mainly used to grow the Arsenal variety, with a headland of Lady Rossetta grown under contract for processors McCain Foods for its frozen chips. The crops are sold direct off the fields and no long-term storage is necessary. Philip Lilley explained the difficulties with the ongoing downward trend in arable crops, with both cereals and potatoes dropping below the £100 per tonne price needed to make them worthwhile in 2014-15, but there were few other alternatives in the crop rotation.
From there, we dropped down to the lighter soils and began to see more root crops. One field of parsnips was still being harvested, following a treatment with Maleic Hydrazide to stop sprouting. These crops were due to be lifted in the next three weeks, meanwhile in another field, this year’s parsnips were already finger-sized to maintain the continuity, Hammond Produce’s overall goal being able to supply 12 months of the year.
Occasionally product has to be bought in from Spain to maintain availability, but these were also packed on the farm. Picador was the most widely grown variety, and primed naked seed was used. The early crop was sown as soon as the land could be worked and was covered in plastic to hasten germination. Primed seed is pre-treated to remove any inhibitors and germinates in a quarter of the time of untreated seed, making it now the industry norm.
Garden Of Innovation
The tour then moved on to ‘The Garden of Innovation’, another example of Hammond Produce’s commitment to development of new lines. A six-hectare speciality market garden, it is used to pilot new varieties of vegetables, salads, and herbs. Supermarket buyers are invited into the Garden to see what’s being developed, while in the coming weeks (August and September) it is due to open its doors to both the trade and the general public, with a whole host of local chefs cooking in marquees on the site to showcase these new varieties.
There was a large range of crops being trialled during our visit, including multi-coloured beets and carrots, celeriac, a big range of brassicas (i.e. kale crosses, tenderstem broccoli, sweetheart cabbage) and unusual crops like Salsify and scorzonera.
We also saw drilled carrots and these attracted a lot of discussion amongst the group. The sand was so light that cereals were drilled at the same time as the carrots to anchor the soil, and when the carrots were established these were killed off with graminicides such as Aramo.
Weed control was another popular subject with Philip Lilley explaining how he uses a mixture of linuron (Afalon) and Stomp at sowing, using the remaining linuron at true leaf stage, before following up with Defy, if needed, when the carrots were 100mm tall. Root fly was controlled with a seed treatment, followed by overall Hallmark and other pyrethroids according to trap warnings the farm received, and was undertaken as often as necessary. Also in this field was a dam and dyke system to prevent erosion, a particular problem on such sandy soil. In the tractor wheelings, there is a soil dam thrown up mechanically every couple of metres and this stopped water flowing downhill in case of heavy rain.
The group then got to look around a field packhouse, which enables crop to be harvested on the field and packed in situ, then dispatched direct to the supermarkets. This was used for brassicas, but washed produce like leeks could also be harvested, processed, and dispatched in a similar manner.
Diversification Into Cooking Oil
A final stop-off for the day was to the nearby Phoenix factory, about 12 miles from the home farm. Here we saw the production of high-quality cooking oil made from oilseed rape. This is another diversification project where a factory that previously manufactured fuel out of rapeseed oil was bought by Hammond Produce after the removal of government subsidies made it commercially unviable. The product was reinvented as a cooking ingredient and quickly gained a large following for high temperature frying, and as a salad dressing.
The factory’s manager Emma described the production process, and its emphasis on food safety, quality control, and attention to detail. Such a methodical way of working had led to the development of a range of products including basil, garlic, and chilli oils, while because the lines and packhouse are run to such high standards, other products such coconut oil are also able to be packed on-site.
The oilseed, which is sourced from either farms operated by Hammond Produce or from external suppliers including some from Scotland, comes to the factory in lorry bulkers and is screened and cleaned prior to pressing. Out of a tonne of seed, some 350 litres of oil is pressed, with the remainder used as poultry feed.
Due to increasing retail demand, the plant’s bottling lines had undergone a recent upgrade to treble production capacity, with its range of products – all marketed under the Borderfields brand – supplied into the major supermarkets and discounters alike, as well as being promoted by a number of celebrity chefs.