Worth Farms – a fourth generation family business

Around 1900, Arthur Hovenden Worth started ploughing grassland near Holbeach in Lincolnshire which had been used for sheep and the wool trade for many generations. Within five years he was planting potatoes, which today are a mainstay of the vegetable cropping on the 2,300 hectare farm.

The A H Worth group of companies includes Worth Farms, QV Foods (fresh processed and prepared vegetables), Manor Fresh (fresh produce packing and distribution – a joint venture with Fresca) and also Hovenden Park Golf Club. It also provides the base for Holbeach Marsh Co-operative – HMC (a 30 grower member group producing vining peas for freezing across Lincolnshire and Norfolk, which was formed in 1968). Duncan Worth joined the family business in 1995 and is today CEO of the group with Simon Day joining the company in 2010 to manage the farming operations.

Worth Farms joined LEAF in 1995 and became a LEAF demonstration farm in 1996 with LEAF Marque accreditation being received in 2008. Duncan Worth said: “We had over 1,000 visitors to the farm in the first five years of being part of LEAF, and today host many school visits each year.  We took part in Open Farm Sunday two years ago and this was a huge success with more than 1,000 people coming to see us in one day.”

AH Worth was also involved in the formation of Management Development Services (MDS) in 1986 and played a leading role in the group of farmers who wanted a training organisation to provide management experience for graduates wishing to work in the agricultural, horticultural, food processing and food technology industries.

The farmed area has been expanded in recent years by land acquired from various Farm Business Tenancy (FBT) agreements and contract farming arrangements. Part of this acreage is rented out annually to a salad, celeriac and brassica growing specialists, complementing the eight year crop rotation system. The land is mainly grade 1 alluvial silt and currently there are 260 hectares of potatoes which produces around 15,000 tonnes per year. The rest of the farm grows wheat, sugar beet, vining peas, spring barley, mustard, and with maize and rye for the Group’s anaerobic digester plant.

Worth Farms’ eight year rotation plan is distinct from the more usual six years. Farm Manager Simon Day said: “We reduced the potato area around 2010 from 365 hectares to today’s 260 to concentrate on the very best soils and crops. This increased rotation with reduced cultivation and ploughing, helps protect our precious soils. PCN is our biggest issue but biofumigants are becoming a key part of our integrated control. We’re using cover crops very successfully and our large harvesting machinery is on tracks with trailers on low-profile tyres. We also use RTK guidance to help with over-trafficking.”

Simon explained that they have also moved to Challenger tracked tractors for their cultivation usage, and now have three of these machines. Their two Grimme harvesters were changed at this time and now they have one with a small bunker hopper which has increased output by 10-15 per cent. They plant with a six metre AVR cultivator and a second 4 metre cultivator with a four row planter attached to it. This is now a two man operation whereas previously it required a six man team.

They are operating a long term trial with Hummingbird Imaging using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to monitor the potato and pea crops. The aim is to take costs out of the operation and to perhaps increase yields.

The bulk of the potato crops go to QV Foods and Manor Fresh for customers like Marks and Spencer and Aldi. Simon said: “We’re concentrating currently on Maris Piper with careful irrigation aimed at reducing scab and improving the skin quality. We also trial other varieties on a continuing basis.”

There is a core team of ten permanent employees and fifteen students and seasonal workers join in for the harvesting periods. Mostly Polish, many have been coming to Holbeach Hurn for many years with some of them leaving their own farms to earn extra money in the UK and providing the benefit of their own skills. Worth Farms employs these people directly as many are returners year on year or through Concordia, ensuring that all regulations and laws are complied with, as well as giving the seasonal workers an excellent working and social environment. Simon said: “We have a very happy team – the average age is 38”.

As mentioned earlier, there is an anaerobic digestion plant nearby. A joint venture with Holbeach Biogas and built by Tamar Energy, this 1.5Mwh plant was opened in May 2014. It uses 30,000 tonnes of feedstock per year. This includes 12,000 tonnes of grown crops such as maize and rye; 8,000 tonnes of potato peel which comes from QV Foods; plus 10,000 tonnes of local vegetable waste. The electricity produced is used by the packhouse operations with any surplus being exported to the national grid. The digestate produced at the end of the process is used both in solid and liquid form as a consistent organic fertiliser on the farm and there is a large reservoir to store the liquid.

With the potato, salad and brassica crops there is a large need for irrigation although the farm’s soil is very water retentive compared to the lighter soils in other areas.  Over recent years reservoirs to store 25 million gallons of water have been constructed. The water is captured from the roofs and yards with the packhouse water being cleaned and UV treated. The farm is alongside the Wash and very low, so the local water is saline but this abstraction is mixed with the fresh to make it usable.

Over the years, Worth Farms have been very involved in ensuring that the environment is protected along with its inhabitants and they feel that the LEAF audit guides this very well. They have been in the ELS and HLS schemes from an early date, ensuring that non-farmed areas are set aside for wildlife with hedge and ditch management carried out on a strict rotational programme and with six metre buffer zones helping these operations as well as the wildlife. They are proud that they have a good number of barn owls and marsh harriers on the farm with other smaller wildlife flourishing.

Worth Farms’ efforts were recognised in 2015 at the Farm Business Food & Farming Industry Awards when they won the prestigious Farm Business of the Year Award. The judges said; “Worth Farms scale of success is phenomenal and in achieving this scale, developing a highly sophisticated diverse sustainable business is one to emulate”. Duncan Worth responded by saying: “We strongly believe that our commitment to innovation, the environment, collaboration and people is at the leading edge within the agricultural industry.”

When I visited the farm in April it was obvious the farming operations here are as Duncan described. The farm was very tidy with well-maintained buildings and machinery, a superb internal roadway infrastructure, large water storage and wildlife areas and very healthy looking crops for this season. It was very impressive.

by Richard Shepherd-Barron.