0 East Side Story

"The West is the best", US rock band The Doors proclaimed in the late 1960s, but that's not necessarily the case in the turfcare sector, as a welter of market-leading growers and seed producers, as well as manufacturers and suppliers, based on the eastern side of the country would argue.

Rolawn Seed Drill (Built inhouse).jpgThey couldn't claim to hold a monopoly on premium quality products, merely that a surprisingly large number of the sectors most prominent names hail from east of the Pennines.

Their emergence, often from farming origins, says much for their vision in predicting the growth of the sportsturf and amenity markets, and for realising that their geographical location gave them a head start.

Their development is also a tale of passion for a market they have helped nurture over several decades into the sophisticated marketplace that groundscare professionals work in today.

The east's greatest claim to pre-eminence arguably lies in its enviable record of growing turf for the sports, amenity, landscape and domestic markets. A fair proportion of the soil on this side of the country seems to offer the optimum substrate, from north Yorkshire, through Lincolnshire as far south as the Fens.

"You have to grow turf on something acceptable," says Andy Newell, Head of Turfgrass Biology at the STRI. "The soil has to be at the sandy end of the spectrum and containing few, if any, stones."

Harvesting big rolls 2.jpgThe Vale of York fits that description to a tee, as several of the industry's top turf growers can testify.

Starting out as Lincolnshire arable farmers in the late 1950s, the Fell family diversified into turf growing, moving to Yorkshire thirty years later to develop the business into what is now Lindum Turf.

It had actually begun cultivating turf as early as 1984, realising that some of the best land for the purpose lay to the north.

"The sandy, stone-free loam that the Vale of York is famous for was laid down in the last ice age," confirms managing director Stephen Fell. "Part of what is now the Vale was then a lake."

When sports clubs want turf, they often look to the Vale for their source, so competition is tough among the top growers located there to meet demand, which is particularly strong from cricket at the moment, Stephen says. "The ECB is ploughing a lot of money into improving outfields. We are supplying Headingley, Gloucester and Glamorgan, the latter of which has been nominated as a test venue, for the first time."

"Today's requirements are for turf that can withstand not only sporting action but the rigours of other events too, such as concerts," Stephen explains. This is one reason why Lindum and others offer turf with greater load-bearing capacity.

The Vale of York cannot claim sole bragging rights to the best turf in Britain, however. "Pockets are also to be found in Lincolnshire around the edge of the river Trent - Gainsborough and the Isle of Axholme for example, where sand has been deposited to provide a good growing base," says Stephen. Further south, he names Woodbridge in Suffolk as another spot of note.

Whichever county claims top honours, the characteristics of the underlying soil largely determine the quality of what's cultivated. "It's a question of understanding the soil and what it can do," Stephen says, "as well as knowing about its nutrient status. Sandy soils are prone to wind erosion and, because they are free-draining, will not hold nutrients as well."

StephenFell.jpgTighter rules over the quantity of nitrates passing into water courses have prompted DEFRA to introduce 'Nitrate Vulnerable Zones' in regions such as the Vale of York.

Growers like Lindum are responding with new ways to feed turf, Stephen explains. "We have no qualms about the zones because we spray liquid feed on to turf rather than apply granular feed, allowing more efficient uptake of nutrients - typically 95% compared with 35-40%."

The fine, sandy loam of the region promotes dense, vigorous turf sward, which helps stave off the establishment of weeds, a benefit that, in turn, enables growers to apply less plant chemicals, a key factor given current concerns over impending EU legislation. However, he believes that sports management practices "may have to change" as lower input grasses designed to cope with the reality of fewer applications of pesticides and fertilisers become more the norm.

Turf varieties continue to burgeon as the sector adapts to the demands of climate change. Lindum grows nine or ten for example, including ones tolerant to prolonged drought and wet, disease and wear. Indeed, the variety of sportsturf available in Britain draws the world's elite to our shores. "US golfers love to play here because our courses are so different from theirs," says Stephen.

At a time when most turf growers might argue against the need for GM turf, Stephen for one would like to see it gain a foothold. "The case for it is so solid and it presents a way we can adapt quickly to climate change, but it is an emotive issue."

Whatever the applications for turf, and the number continue to grow, Vale of York growers are well positioned to capitalise on shifting market trends - everything from green roofs and wildflower turf that supports greater biodiversity to overflow car parks laid with reinforced turf to satisfy new measures governing sustainable urban drainage.

Alex Edwards.jpgWith its focus on sporting applications, Inturf, based ten miles from York, runs a 650-acre turf farm in the Vale as well as a similarly-sized undertaking in Grantham, just a mile from the A1. Joint managing director Alex Edwards, who runs the company with his identical twin, Steve, after founder and father Derek retired about three years ago, formed Inturf in the mid-1980s.

"Grantham enjoys a dry climate and the soil is very fertile, sandy loam, ideal for turf-growing," says Alex, before revealing another clue to the success of those located here.

"The north-east and east of England receive only 50% of the rainfall of the north-western seaboard. We are able to irrigate turf and turn on the tap if it gets dry. You cannot drain it as easily as you can add water, and draining is a costly exercise. We can lay overland pipes when we need to, rather than having to lay them under the surface to drain water away."

Turf-growing is a year-round operation and the management of the growth and harvest cycle is crucial to efficiency, especially as the likes of Lindum and Inturf export turf to European countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

"Stiffer, richer, firmer and heavier land can make it impossible to harvest turf. In winter you are simply not going to get a machine in the field," says Alex. "At Grantham, I cannot remember us ever having a puddle of water in the field."

But there are differences in soil type. At Grantham, it's a medium type sand, whereas the Vale of York is closer to medium/fine grade, Alex explains.
"Twelve to fourteen months is the ideal growth cycle, but we have to plan two years ahead to prepare the crop, so that means forecasting likely demand."
Inturf prefer to keep sales home-based rather than export, "although demand for English technical consultancy continues to grow," he stresses.

Although synonymous with sportsturf, the company also supplies the landscaping and domestic markets, giving them exposure across the field. "The mood of the nation is still green," he says. "People want to be closer to nature and feel it is good for them. They increasingly like to relax in their gardens and spend less on going out."

Paul Dawson outside Rolawn Headquarters.jpg"Turf is inexpensive - it hasn't increased in price in real terms for fifteen years and the market is highly competitive," he adds. "Britain has become extremely good at growing turf cheaply."

Also, with its eye on the impact of climate change on turf, the company has developed a rhizomatous fescue in collaboration with Barenbrug - a mix of 85% tall fescue and 15% smooth stalked meadow grass with the ability to stand up to both waterlogging and drought.

Yet another company founded in farming, Rolawn, developed in the 1970s when Ken Dawson was working in farm management in Aberdeen before hitting on the idea of growing turf commercially.

Today, son and managing director Paul Dawson carries on a business that has swollen from its first field of eight acres, to the 3,500 it cultivates now.

"After the company had trialed growing turf for a couple of years, we commissioned a survey by Cranfield University into soil types in the UK. The Vale of York came out best, so we relocated here," he explains.

Although the earlier years saw Rolawn laying turf for Wimbledon, it felt sports market was too niche and the company duly focused its efforts on developing other sectors such as domestic and landscaping, but it rarely exports.

"Soil type was the main reason we relocated from Aberdeen. The Vale of York is fairly sheltered and is positioned midway between Edinburgh and London and is pretty well situated for the A1, M1 and the M62."

Rolawn buys its seed from producers such as British Seed Houses, DLF and Barenbrug, cultivating its turf purely from the York base. "We believe we can deliver a more consistent product because the turf is grown in one soil type and in one climate, giving us greater efficiency of growing, maintaining and harvesting."

"It's the economies of scale, We can use big machinery, such as the 46ft wide mowers we developed for the purpose, each of which can cover 150 acres a day."

Rolawn work closely with the STRI, another organisation based on the east of the Pennines, researching seed types and growing regimes, while recently issuing an independent report from the Institute on the quality of its turf.

Meanwhile, other trials have demonstrated how to complete installations faster by using bespoke rollout machinery, again developed in-house.
Perhaps inevitably, supply of specialist topsoil accounts forms a significant slice of the business. "We started six or seven years ago and we now supply an extensive range of topsoils for the professional and domestic markets," Paul notes.

SimonTaylor.jpgAlthough British Seed Houses location on the eastern side of England is, to quote amenity director Simon Taylor, "at the centre of the universe", he does concede that, until recently, south Lincolnshire was "a bit of a lost county" before dualling of the A46 changed its accessibility in dramatic fashion.

"Quite a few seed producers are located this side," he says, referring to the likes of Advanta and DLF. "Traditionally, the east is associated with seed production, probably because of the arable connection and the cereal production base."

Seven years ago, the BSH amenity division moved from Warrington to the existing production plant in Witham St Hughs, Lincoln. The amenity side deals direct with the end user; the agricultural/merchant business selling to the farmer.

More than twenty years in amenity, BSH has seen a level of consistency in the marketplace in that time, although all seed producers have undergone some degree of rationalisation, says Simon.

"Our business is split 50/50 between amenity and agriculture and the end user has never had it so good in terms of choice, with plenty of good quality grasses available. But things are always changing so we need to be one step ahead, considering issues such as lower inputs to seed production - less spraying, fertiliser costs and the environment."

"Grass as a crop is part of the arable rotation and is viable to grow as a feed source and as a break crop. In terms of carbon footprint, it makes sense to grow seed as near to base as possible, so we look for growers in our vicinity."

The Lincolnshire plant gives BSH room to expand, continues Simon, who then considers the good sense of the move from the North-west. "From the practical side, the soils here are lighter and more free-draining and the open, flat fields allow seed to be produced more readily. It can be chilly on this side though."

PaulJohnson2.jpgLeading seed producer Barenbrug UK also has a long association with East Anglia, as managing director Paul Johnson confirms.

"Barenbrug UK was established when our Dutch parent company bought a Bury St Edmunds seed company called Goldsmiths over twenty-five years ago. The company was based at Rougham Industrial Estate, where our head office continues to operate from, though things have moved on somewhat since the beginnings of the business."

"We quickly outgrew Goldsmiths small warehouse and portacabins, and now occupy a fully operational office complex and automated warehouse production unit that stores more than 2,500 tonnes of certified clean seed."

"But we saw no reason to move from this eastern location as it is ideal for our business - it allows us to operate a purpose-built facility run by experienced staff and has also provided us with room for expansion, which is not always so easy in other parts of the country."

The facility provides an efficient distribution line with three grass plant mixers and five packing lines to successfully meet the increasing demand for Barenbrug products. "Bury St Edmunds communication links are good too, plus the majority of our growers are eastern-based. UK production now exceeds 2,000 hectares, so it is an important part of the company's operation."

"Field inspections and haulage can also be efficiently conducted from here", he says. "Being part of an international business, good local airports such as Stansted and Norwich are also a bonus. And the new outer harbour development at Great Yarmouth, when it's completed in 2009, will be very useful in bringing seed in from Holland and Denmark."

"We're very happy here in Bury and have no plans to change," he confirms, adding that the Suffolk facilities are complemented by a 12,000sq ft Falkirk facility. This provides an effective local operation around Scotland and the borders, holding up to 520 tonnes of grass seed and a three tonne capacity blender.

"The site is the most advanced blending and bagging plant in the north, so we have the best of both worlds."

Scotts have their 'grass-roots' origins at Bramford, Ipswich, where Fisons Horticulture Division ran their fertiliser factory. "It enjoyed direct rail links with Ipswich docks," recalls Scotts marketing manager Dave Steward, who joined Fisons 22 years ago. He also remembers Scotts purchase of Levington Horticulture and Miracle Garden Care.

The Ipswich hub handles the professional side, supplying the turfcare and horticultural sectors with fertilisers, control products such as fungicides, pesticides and herbicides and growing media.

A major recent success has been the introduction of H2O Pro wetting agent, used for maximising water penetration in sportsturf as well as dispersing water from waterlogged areas.

Gilbert-S3-0005.jpgThe manufacture of controlled release fertilisers, such as Sierrablen, is in Holland, therefore proximity to Europe is important. The area has links with Harwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich.

"This is a rewarding industry to work in," says Dave, "because you are helping to improve people's environments, which is a very positive activity."

Located near Felixstowe is Scotts ten hectare Levington research station, where research and development for all Scotts products is carried out. "We have two 2000 square metre golf greens to test our products along with specially sown weed areas to trial new selective and total weedkillers." Also at Levington are trial plots of seed varieties, ready for launch on to the market in 2009, "We are going to supply sports pitches and golf courses with top quality seeds and already have leading varieties such as Penn A4 and Penn G6, which are used on some of the world's finest greens."

The agricultural strength of eastern England also figured strongly in two well known turf machinery suppliers setting up on the east side.

Robert Ransome started an iron foundry business in Ipswich in 1789 and, in 1803, took out a patent for the chilled cast iron plough share (a type still in use today). Twenty nine years later they were to produce the world's first lawnmower, under licence to Budding's patent, and progressed through steam engines, traction engines and threshers to the company we know today.

In 1973 the sales of grass machinery exceeded tillage for the first time and the company are now almost exclusively 'grass machinery'.
Whilst their Ipswich location was more a 'happy accident' than any transport or soil quality requirement, the company has become as synonymous with Ipswich as Coleman's mustard are to Norwich.

Lely UK's also took the decision to set up in Cambridgeshire. Turf division general manager Peter Mansfield takes up the story. "When Lely UK was first founded in the late 1960s, its business was purely agricultural and St Neots was seen as an ideal base because its main trunk roads enabled effective servicing of the agricultural industry. Also, links to Felixstowe and Holland, where Lely's parent company is located, ensured the two companies could work closely together and that machines could be shipped to a nearby port."

Founder John Hawkins started the company from a building he rented from another St Neots company, agricultural machinery dealer Arthur Ibbett Limited, which still operates today. But, he quickly outgrew the Great Paxton premises and moved to the Station Road site, where Lely continues to operate from.

"John would literally be out on the road visiting clients or travelling over to Holland by car, ferry and train to pick up a machine and sell it on, so the transportation links certainly suited his needs," Peter concluded.

The above mentions just a few of the successful companies that have made the east side of the country their home, and it is easy to understand why. We have one of the few occasions when it can be stated, quite literally, that the grass is greener on the other side.

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Contact Kerry Haywood

07973 394037

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