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Sustainable farming practices

Keston Williams, Technical Director of Barfoots, explains the company’s philosophy on sustainability and innovation and gives examples of projects that have increased the efficiency and sustainability of its farming operations around the world.

Since Peter Barfoot started growing courgettes on 21 acres of land in South Hampshire 40 years ago, Barfoots has expanded to farm over 6000 acres in the UK and has its own growing operations in Spain, Senegal and Peru. It also has over 80 partner farms in 32 countries around the world producing crops, such as sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, asparagus, butternut, tenderstem broccoli, chillies and beans. These vegetables are supplied to UK multiple retailers, food service operations and also exported to Europe.

Barfoots prides itself on investing in sustainability and innovation supported by a diverse research and development programme. The company has continued to invest in sustainable solutions, even when the payback period is significant. Some of these investments have led to new businesses around the world, including an energy business. Barfoots has introduced sustainable practices in a number of different areas.

Sea freight

Barfoots has based its product transport strategy around land and sea freight and avoids using air freight where possible. Refrigerated containers and the associated technology have transformed the way produce can be moved around the world. For example, Barfoots is one of the largest importers of asparagus into the UK, as well as being one of the largest UK growers. Historically Peruvian asparagus was flown to the UK, but as a result of introducing a number of new controlled atmosphere technologies and a fast shipping line, the company has managed to successfully use sea freight to transport asparagus to the UK. Sea freight from Peru uses over 30 times less carbon than the equivalent airfreight. Asparagus grown in Peru can yield over 20 times that of the UK grown crop, making it very efficient to grow there. If you couple low carbon transportation with a very efficient growing system, then asparagus from Peru uses less carbon than UK grown asparagus. Barfoots has taken the transport technology one step further and worked with the Satellite Application Catapult in Harwell to develop and design a system to monitor the conditions (O2, CO2, N2, Relative Humidity, Temperature) in the containers in real time. If a problem is spotted then the staff of the ship can intervene or as a last resort additional product can be obtained via airfreight to cover the shortfall before the container docks.

Education in Senegal

 

Demizine School, Senegal

In accordance with its sea freight strategy, Barfoots chose Senegal as the most promising area to develop its business in Africa. Senegal geographically offers a stable climate and a 6 day sea freight journey from Dakar to the UK, much quicker than other largescale vegetable production areas in East Africa. Senegal is a stable democracy and has good infrastructure, including access to a sustainable supply of the good quality water needed for irrigation. Barfoots’ business has grown over the years and now produces over 45 containers of product per week and employs over 2000 people, making it one of Senegal’s top employers. The company recognises the need to educate the next generation that will hopefully come and work for the business in the future. To address this it has helped five schools in the local area develop further, by building and refurbishing classrooms, fencing in school premises (to keep out the goats!) and providing teaching materials. Many of the schools teach agriculture now as part of the curriculum.

Orange flesh sweet potatoes are among the many crops grown at the farm in Senegal. Out grades are sold locally and have boosted local nutrition by introducing a source of badly needed beta-carotene into the local diet.

Energy from waste

Sweetcorn production creates a large amount of waste: 70,000 tonnes of it per year! This is because the husk is removed and the corn is trimmed to make it easier for consumers to prepare. Historically this waste was fed to the local cows, but by 2009 it was clear that there were not enough cows in the local area to keep up with production. The solution was one big cow in the form of an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. At a cost of £4.5m Barfoots invested in its own AD plant to turn all of its green waste into electricity. Now the plant produces 2.3MW, enough to power all of its own operations and enabling it to sell the remaining two thirds of the energy as electricity to the grid. The digestate produced from the AD process is used to supplement the fertiliser requirement of the farming business. Barfoots was proud to host a delegation from the IFST which visited its AD facility in March 2014. 

"Out grades are sold locally and have boosted local nutrition by introducing a source of badly needed betacarotene into the Farming sweet potatoes local diet."

Managing food byproducts

Barfoots’ philosophy is ‘never grow a crop that nobody wants to eat and make sure that there is an outlet for everything. Nothing should be wasted.’ This is achieved by using the crop in many different ways. Butternut, for example, grows in many sizes. The product purchased in the supermarket is only about 70% of the crop. Oversize, scarred and misshapen butternut make up the other 30%. This part of the crop is processed into prepared butternut products, such as soup mixes and most recently the on trend product spiralised or butternut noodles. Even the waste peelings are not wasted and go into the AD plant, producing energy and fertiliser.

The variable weather in the UK means that many of the crops we grow flush when the weather becomes warm and then go short when it turns cooler. Using the same container technology as that employed to bring asparagus from Peru, these peaks and troughs of production can be flattened out, vastly reducing the waste, whilst maintaining good quality.

Biodiversity in Peru

The Ica region of Peru is renowned for its ability to grow high quality crops all year round, but the increase in the population in the area over the past 20 years has led to the local native tree population being seriously depleted through the introduction of non-native species (e.g. Eucalyptus) and illegal charcoal production. In 2006 Kew started a project to identify and protect native plant species in Peru. The project was supported by Barfoots, its partner growers and a major UK retailer, allowing the building of a Plant Conservation Centre and restoration of a wildlife corridor linking the Andes with the local region. This project has engaged over 10 schools in the local area and has now become a community project, teaching people how to obtain value from their native trees and continue to preserve them for future generations.

"The project was supported by Barfoots, its partner growers and a major UK retailer, allowing the building of a Plant Conservation Centre and restoration of a wildlife corridor linking the Andes with the local region."

Innovation

Barfoots works very collaboratively with the science community and has developed close links with a number of academic partners and technology providers. The company has a diverse portfolio of research projects that tackle problems throughout its supply chain, from new farming solutions to innovative forms of pack sterilisation and shelf life extension. The big game changers have already been implemented, so it is the series of small incremental gains that is key to progressing.

Areas that are of particular interest to Barfoots include earth observation through satellite and drone technology, precision farming, crop monitoring using image recognition and artificial intelligence, novel non pesticide weed and pest control, alternatives to artificial fertiliser and better use of digestate, renewable energy and its uses. It is not only in the field that Barfoots is looking for innovation, current research projects include decontamination of produce for shelf life extension using novel technologies, such as cold plasma, plant nutrition and human health, phytochemical abstraction from waste and biospectrographic analysis.

The achievements of the past 40 years in improving the efficiency and sustainability of farming practices have been considerable, so it will be interesting to see what the next 40 years bring.

Keston Williams is Barfoots’ Technical Director in charge of food safety, research & development and sustainability & innovation strategies.

Barfoots of Botley Ltd, Sefter Farm, Pagham Road, Bognor Regis West Sussex PO21 3PX
Tel: 01243 268811
Email: keston@barfoots.co.uk 
Web: www.barfoots.co.uk



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