Greens sets the standard with onions

Greens Farming are part of the major private group Spearhead International, who farm 84,400 hectares across Europe in the UK, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, employing some 2,000 people.

Starting in 1966, Greens specialised in vegetable and root crops in the Fens. This knowledge and experience has been continued and today they grow potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, beetroot (the UK’s major grower with about 50% of the market) and combinable crops as well as contract farming – a total of more than 6070 hectares.

A key part of this very large enterprise is the English Set Company who is a major supplier of first year onion sets, having about a 30% share of the market. Growing onions from sets is not a new development, going back well over a hundred years. The company has ten years of experience in this market and Tom Will of Vegetable Consultancy Services (UK) Ltd provides the technical support and marketing.

He said: “English sets help growers to achieve early/niche markets with confidence. Production follows a strict protocol optimising quality and sustainability. All fields are tested intensively prior to production according to the VCS Accreditation scheme. Growing crops are then monitored regularly and inspected by Ministry officials. All production has full traceability”.

Tom said; “The greater vigour of onions grown from sets compared to seed improves the crop’s establishment and tolerance to capping and wind blow. Also, weed control is far simpler than for direct drilled crops”. He explained that the English Set Company is the sole producer of English first year onion sets supplying approximately 3,000 tonnes per year. 60% of these go to UK growers and the rest being exported to a range of countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Finland and Russia. Supplies may be in tonne boxes, big bags, 20 or 10 kg nets with systemic fungicide treatment on request. Sizes available range from 10 to 23mm, split graded as requested by customers.

Andrew Peal is the farm manager for the Green’s land at Narborough, near King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Tom and Andrew encourage their customers to come and look at the sets in the fields prior to harvest, and then in store before deliveries start. “This enables the buyers to really satisfy themselves that they are getting the best quality sets,” says Tom. Harvesting started at the end of July using their unique harvesting machines which were designed and constructed in Greens’ own farm workshops. In addition, the company has single and triple-bed Delta planters that can be hired.

Tom Will explained that they have a wide range of varieties available for growers’ specific requirements offering benefits such as high yield, low bolting risk and resistance to mildew. The varieties include Senshyu and Troy for over wintering and with Jago and Sturon among the browns, as well as Rumba for later maturing. Red varieties include the popular Red Baron plus Kamal and Retano.

English Set Company can undertake derogation applications to organic certification organisations. If necessary, they can provide a rapid delivery service to growers in East Anglia and they can also deliver small quantities to avoid growers having fields not fully planted. At the opposite end of the spectrum, they will try to sell any excess sets at no additional charge to the grower.

Greens Farming and the English Set Company are under the Greens of Soham banner as are three other companies: Spearhead Potatoes, handling 150,000 tonnes of potatoes each year; Greenseed International, growing potatoes – both for seed and trade with around 20% of the UK market for salad potatoes – on 1400 hectares in East Anglia, Sussex, Northumbria and the Scottish Borders; and DC Produce – a marketing agent for growers.

Steve Mumford is the farms director, having joined Greens in 2011. He said: “Our very large scale arable operations help to fit in with our vegetable growing to provide an exceptional crop rotation programme. Growing mainly in East Anglia, we obviously have to carry out a great deal of irrigation on both the Fenland soils and also the lighter soils in Norfolk and Suffolk. This is mainly from reservoir storage of winter surface water, backed up with borehole abstraction.” They also have over 13,500 tonnes of onion storage capacity and 15,000 tonnes of beetroot storage – both temperature-controlled and ambient.

Speaking about their onion set production, Steve commented; “Yield is the key at the moment. Of course, quality and reliability are vital also, but our customers face huge problems with the current and future market prices for fresh produce – as we do as well! We’re constantly looking for ways to improve what we do in every aspect of our farming. It’s easy to say this but I and my team try really hard with this”.

For instance, Greens have worked hard in recent years to improve the field cleaning of their beetroot by removing up to 20 per cent by weight of the soil. This, of course, has also helped make a reduction in road traffic by about a fifth. They installed a new beetroot grader that processes exactly the precise sizes required by their customers, including baby-size bulbs down to as small as 3mm. They also have a composting operation, processing around 10,000 tonnes each year of co-operative waste. This is used on their land for soil conditioning by recycling important phosphate and potash.

The farms are all very much into environmental programmes and are accredited to LEAF Marque, Nature’s Choice, Nurture, Field to Fork and Assured Produce. Steve is very proud of their wildlife conservation programmes and he has won awards from the RSPB for this work, particularly for encouraging an increase in the lapwing population.

by Richard Shepherd-Barron.