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Growing vegetables for human consumption can be a risky business. But William Woodhall is doing it successfully

PROFILE: Growing vegetables for human consumption can be a risky business. But William Woodhall is doing it successfully

A Shropshire vegetable grower is optimising margins by reducing crop waste, controlling costs and bringing more of the production process in-house.

Woodhall Growers produces vegetables for all the major supermarkets. Annual production includes 6 million bunches of conventional spring onions, 500,000 bunches of organic spring onions, 200,000 bunches of organic beetroot and bulk beetroot too.

Until a decade or so ago, it relied on an external packhouse to bunch crops. But wastage levels were as high as 30%. This prompted a decision to start bunching and packing crops in the field – a move since followed by other growers too.

“It was getting crazy – we were sending away the equivalent of 100 bunches of onions in loose boxes and they were packing only 70,” says farm manager William Woodall. “Whole boxes were ending up on the waste line.”

With two lorry loads of onions a day, wastage was considerable. “We decided to reduce the wastage by bunching in the field. We were probably one of the first growers to do it that way – it’s something we are very proud of.”

Workers were soon packing more than 60 bunches an hour. Today, they average more than 150 bunches an hour throughout the year. “You can hardly see their fingers move and the quality is just superb.

“Every single onion is a winner,” adds Mr Woodall. “We’ve learned a lot. Our workers can pick up a handful of onions, skin them, sort them, bunch them, put a band around them and rip the tops off – all in less than 30 seconds.

“We use the same onion crates as before. Rather than getting 30-40 bunches per crate, we are now sending 80 bunches ready to go. It has reduced transport costs, slashed wastage and boosted productivity. It makes complete sense.”

Achieving this has required lots of investment. But it has also paid dividends. All onions go through an electronic root trimmer and have an extra 3cm cut off the top so they are crisp and fresh. They they go through the wash lines before being tagged.

“Our pack-out rate now is 98-99%, which is fantastic. One or two onions might get thrown away but we don’t lose very much at all.”

Based just off the M54 about 10 miles north-west of Wolverhampton, Woodhall Growers grows a range of vegetable, cereal and grass crops. It owns about 160ha and has long-term tenancies on a further 280ha of conventional and 300ha of organic land.

Local landlords

“We also rent in other land on an annual basis. We have built up good relationships with a number of landlords and we grow conventional spring onions on their land on a six-year rotation – moving around as we go.”

Mr Woodhall describes the business as precision growers looking to produce high-value high quality crops for human consumption. Alongside vegetable production, this includes organic cereals which are also farmed in-house.

“Everything is on a two-year cycle. We can’t muck the vegetables so we muck the cereals hard in the preceding two years and weed the ground hard too. We are a massive advocate of cover crops too – and probably put in 250ha every year.”

Attention to detail

All vegetables are spring cropped. So are the organic cereals. “We do a bit of spring cropping on the conventional cereals side too. We are very well kitted up with lots of irrigation and weeding kit. It’s about attention to detail.

Although spring onions are the mainstay of the business, the bunched beetroot operation is relatively new. Now it its third or fourth year, it is a growing enterprise – again producing a finished product ready to go off the farm.

Working with supermarkets can be challenging. So too is the aftermath of Brexit. Mr Woodhall is set to lose up to £90,000 after border rules introduced in January saw European customers look elsewhere for beetroot, rather than the UK.

The drop in demand has left him with 500 tonnes of beetroot without a home. Transport has been an issue and the idea of sending the beetroot to food charities has been politely declined. Instead, it is likely to be used as compost.

“We are stepping away from supermarkets a little – we are looking more to deal with farmers direct. So this time around we are growing organic fodder beet instead – we’ve had a lot of interest in it – and conventional fodder beet as well.

Organic spring beans for human consumption have proved popular. So too have marrowfat for mushy peas. “We are keen on trying new things – looking for opportunities where it is sensible too do so.”

Cost conscious

Overhead control is key to success, says Mr Woodhall, who works alongside director Richard Shropshire. “Overheads can kill a business like ours. Vegetable production is massive money in and massive money out – but the margins are tiny.

“It is something we are very conscious of.

“We know exactly what our costs are – right down to knowing how much time and how much fuel it takes to complete each operation. With the veg game, it is down to points of a penny – and we are down to points of a penny with all our costings.”

All costs are properly allocated to each individual crop. “I know that every bunch costs me 3.5p to grow – including rent, fuel and labour. We also know that each bunch costs 11.7p to harvest – including tractors and tele-handling.”

This highlights the importance of efficient harvesting and hand labour. “If a crate is 200 yards away from a worker, it means I am paying them to walk rather than paying them to harvest. So we make sure everything is done right.”

Attention to detail is key, adds Mr Woodhall. To minimise non-productive time in the field and make everything as efficient as possible, all the canteens are in the optimum place and so are the field toilets. 

“It’s about being in control of your own destiny as much as possible. You have your farming hat on but also you have to become a bit of a salesman and that involves wearing a different sort of cap almost.”

Team players

Supplied by distributor Agri-Droid, the recent arrival of a FarmDroid FD20 robot will help ease the need to hand weed crops. A completely autonomous weeder, it is solar-powered and GPS-guided – and expected to save a considerable sum of money.

But good team management remains vital too. Having worked abroad, Mr Woodhall had experience of running a harvest crew in Australia before returning to the UK and taking on his current role 11 years ago.

“My boss in Australia literally gave me four combines, three lorries and a chaser bin. Then he gave me a list of farmers and told me to drive 12 hours north where there was a small village. We contacted all the local farmers and made it work.”

Back in the UK, finding skilled hand labour remains a challenge. Although Mr Woodhall says 94% of his seasonal workers return year after year, he says he is lucky. Being close to Wolverhampton helps but it isn’t always easy.

“It’s important to treat people well. We are a close-knit team but people grow up and they move away. But we create a community atmosphere and we have a big staff party at the end of the year so we tend to get people who want to work for us.”