Anyone looking for a good example of how water security and food security go hand-in-hand should head for Cammas Hall Farm.
The business, on the Hertfordshire/Essex border at Hatfield Broad Oak, is run by fifth-generation farmer Jonathan Lukies, who is under no illusions about the consequences should his water supply fail.
A key crop for the farm is strawberries, grown on table tops out of the soil, and raspberries will be grown the same way from 2014.
“When it’s hot one block of strawberries needs to receive up to three minutes of water every 30 minutes. If we lost that water for a day I would lose everything, so it’s absolutely critical to our business,” he said.
Jonathan took Paul Hammett, the NFU’s national water resources specialist, on a tour of the farm to explain how he uses water and the steps he has taken to secure his supply.
His family have farmed in west Essex since 1886. Today Jonathan owns 270 acres and contract farms a further 470 acres. He grows arable crops but also runs one of the oldest Pick Your Own businesses in the country, though that started by chance.
“Back in 1966 we were left with a crop of blackcurrants that had been destined for Robinsons. My grandfather and father didn’t have anywhere else to send the fruit so they decided they would try and sell it to the public. People came to the farm and the bushes were picked clean within two weeks,” said Jonathan.
“My father then went over to America to find out all about the PYO business and was one of the first to offer it over here.”
PYO sales declined as supermarkets expanded and Cammas Hall started to supply increasing amounts of produce to the retail trade. But Jonathan decided he would prefer to take control of his sales and stopped supplying supermarkets ten years ago.
As well as pushing the PYO side of the business again, he sold fruit at farmers’ markets and into London. He also started to sell venison during the winter, shot and butchered on the farm.
In 2004, he sold some land to a neighbour to raise additional finances and that generated enough capital to introduce the table top system for strawberries. The system involves taking the strawberries out of the soil and growing them in plastic troughs filled with compost and supported by a framework of pipes. Another advantage of the system is the fruit is grown at a perfect height to be picked without anyone having to bend down. A one hectare block will produce between 30 and 35 tonnes of fruit.
About one quarter of the strawberries are grown in polytunnels to ensure early crop availability. The plants are fed and watered through an automated trickle irrigation system, powered by solar energy that is closely monitored every day. That is so crucial to the business that Jonathan plans to set up an automatic text alert that will send him a message if the irrigator pump breaks down.
“You cannot cut back on water with table-top crops. We try and offer 10% more water than they need. That’s one of the problems when you take strawberries out of the ground. The management required is huge,” he said.
At the heart of the business’s sustainability is the farm’s 3.5 million litre capacity reservoir. Jonathan has a licence to pump water from a stream to fill it but gets much of his water through rainwater harvesting, funnelling water off the farm’s 15,000 square feet of roof space. The system is gravity fed and cost just £500 to set up.
“Obtaining the abstraction licence was the first task I took on when I came back to the farm from Harper Adams in 1993. However, since I started rainwater harvesting the most I have taken in a year is two million gallons, and we have had some very dry years,” he said.
“We get between 250,000 and 500,000 litres a year from rainwater harvesting.”
Jonathan has planning permission to build another reservoir but that is on hold at the moment. He could also extend the existing reservoir by removing an island in the centre, but he hopes to keep it as a wildlife refuge.
“Our next stage is to move our raspberries onto table tops so our requirement for water will definitely grow,” he said.
“As we build the business we will need more water and securing it will be absolutely critical.”