Focused investment ensures onion quality

Third generation farmers Collmart Growers have been growing onions near Ramsey in Cambridgeshire for almost 60 years. Today the company is one of the largest independent producers of the crop, growing some 2,000 acres a year across five counties.

“My grandfather John Collett, who was known as Jack, came to the Fens, when they were still reclaiming them with horses,” explains Collmart Director Nick Collett. “He took on a tenant farm from the Crown Estate and I think he spent ten years clearing the elderberries and hawthorns so he could actually farm it.

“The business started growing onions 57 years ago in a very small way to supply local markets. Back then everything was done by hand, including manual weeding of the crop which was planted in a similar way to sugar beet. We moved to a more intensive form of growing in the mid-70s, when we put up storage facilities as the market picked up and consumer demand for onions increased. Our first coldstore was built at Holme near the family farm in 1982 and it was a revelation to be able to provide home-grown onions for such a long period.”

In 1997 a merger between the Collett family farming business and local grower WL Martin, saw the formation of Collmart when the company moved to its current base at Pondersbridge, south east of Peterborough.

Onions are the largest crop, but 600 acres of potatoes are also grown for supply directly to packers, following harvest and grading into boxes. Cereals and sugar beet are also grown as part of the rotation on the main farm, but they are predominantly viewed as a break between vegetable crops.

Today, no single customer accounts for more than 12 per cent of overall sales, and Collmart supplies supermarket packers, as well as its own retail, wholesale, food manufacturing and food service customers. “We can supply red and brown bulb onions in anything from a 500 gram pack to a full 25 tonne bulk trailer load of onions,” adds Nick.

“We grow seven varieties of reds and 14 varieties of brown onions, and we trial five or six new varieties every year.” He adds that it is interesting how the market previously moved from open pollinated to hybrid varieties, which were fantastic for growth, but is now starting to come back to open pollinated varieties which seem to better suited to really long term storage, in part because of their tighter bulbs.

Today the company is a true onion specialist serving numerous customers, but in the past it has supplied a number of products direct to retailers. “We used to collate orders for suppliers and wholesalers, and at our peak we were handling 27 different fruits and vegetables, says Nick. “Now we are just focused on the one: onions. In terms of sustainability and profitability, it is about doing one job right and being able to supply for 52 weeks of the year. We are still an independent grower, and unlike many other onion producers we are not a Producer Organisation (PO), so we don’t get the same level of grant funding.”

Ninety per cent of the supplied crop comes from its own grown production, which are grown on across Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. “Logistically it can be difficult, as you can imagine, but we do most of our haulage from the field using HGV tipping trailers, which take the crop to a number of storage locations in the five counties. Everything does come back here to be graded or packed,” adds Nick.

“We have two 4,500 tonne box stores for onions built in 2011 and 2013 respectively, which both dry and cure the crop initially before being used for long term storage,” explains General Manager Barry Chapman. “When we built the first store we also installed a Tong grader outside, so we pre-inspect all the onions before they go into long term storage. We invested £2.5 million in state-of-the-art storage, including the Omnivent suction wall system which is super efficient and allows us to store up to 25 boxes per row away from the wall.”

Theseimprovements in storage mean that English onions can now be kept into August, and the company has successfully supplied UK crop for 52 weeks a year for each of the last three years.

Crops are produced predominantly from seed, although sets are used to produce onions for sale up to Christmas. When it comes to crop protection, like other horticultural crops, onions represent a relatively small global market for agrochemical companies, so the available chemistry depends on what is found to be suitable. “Our agronomists are very good. They are very clever and they adapt and we seem to be far enough in front of the challenges to be able to get approvals, such as EAMUs, when we need them,” says Nick.

“Over the last 15-20 years we have tried to use as much technology as possible,” adds Barry. One example includes linking irrigation systems with in-field weather stations to accurately inform decisions on water use. “Increasingly the crop depends on optimum timing for sowing and harvesting, as well as the application of crop protection products in order to reduce the overall amounts of pesticide used in production. At the same time machinery has also got more automated, bigger, faster and hopefully better.”

One particular problem is blackgrass, the control of which is driving a move back towards mechanical weed control and hand rouging. “We need land and we are always on the lookout for more land to enable us to expand production,” says Nick. “Onions are a great entry crop for the following season. They leave a lot of nitrogen in the ground and unlike potatoes and carrots are usually harvested by the end of September.”

Despite the agronomy team’s best efforts, Mother Nature and the weather remains the biggest influence on the crop, and the effects of different weather patterns is something that both Nick and Barry are acutely aware of. “Climate change is huge and is affecting producers globally,” explains Nick. “We recently hosted some New Zealand onion growers and they had to write-off half their crop last year because of the worst weather in 32 years. They had heavy rain early on, followed by drought, a bit like the conditions we have had so far this year. Spain also had issues last year due to high temperatures. Things are going to change and technology is going to further enhance what we do.”

Among the potential developments that the company is investigating are the use of plant tape and transplants instead of sets for early production. The firm has also conducted trials on the automatic grading of onions using near infra-red technology (NIR) – a technology which is used to grade other types of fruit and vegetables – but so far it has not proved successful, particularly on red onions, which Nick believes may be related to the structure of the onion bulb and its various layers.

Collmart has just invested in a new self-propelled harvester from Grimme, taking the total number operated to seven in total. “We’ve stuck with Grimme because we like their technology which we feel is cleverer than what else is available,” comments Nick. “The machines are gentler and we use them for both onions and potatoes. They are very gentle on the potatoes and you can now change everything at the touch of a button.”

Unlike the previous model, the new machine does not need to stop to empty the bunker, which is completely reversible. Consequently an increase in harvest output and the easier loading of trailers is anticipated as a result of the investment.

“We are also looking at technology in storage too, such as ground source heat pumps to control both heating and cooling of our next generation of stores,” says Barry. “The borehole technology is almost there and we think our next 4,500 tonne store will be powered by a ground source heat pump. We’re also looking at anaerobic digestion for waste management, and that too could generate both heat and power and I think we could see further technological developments in the AD sector.”

Unlike some crops, such as potatoes, which have struggled with market volume in recent years, onions look set to continue to be popular with consumers for a long time yet. After all, they are still the most consumed vegetable crop on the planet, with India accounting for a huge proportion of production. The UK market for onions remains as healthy as the dietary benefits of the crop itself, and is one of the few markets for vegetables which continues to show growth, helped in part the seemingly unending demand for a wide range of cuisines from around the globe.

“They are so healthy,” comments Barry. “There has been a lot of press recently about how onions are not just healthy, but about how their consumption can also help to improve long term health.”

“Our main focus is to supply more and more to the UK market,” explains Nick. “We have developed red onions into a huge business, and the demand for red onions has helped overall demand, particularly as the aesthetics of food become more important. Some of our customers take a 25:75% split between reds and browns, while others are now up to 50:50, so there is still room for expansion.” Around a third of Collmart’s output is now red onions in order to meet this demand.

When The Vegetable Farmer visited Collmart, the longest day was approaching – a key date in onion growth due to the influence of day length on the crop. After the longest day, growth rates are not expected to exceed three new leaves per month. Ideally growers would like to have 12 leaves per plant at harvest, but the weather conditions earlier in the season mean that many crops will struggle to achieve this. However, Nick’s attitude exemplifies the whole business’s approach to the crop. “There is no point trying to predict the future, or the outcome of the season,” he stresses. “Instead we try and control everything that is within our influence.”