Everything to grain

Features Posted 30/05/18
South East Farmer reports on T Denne and Sons, the region’s independent seed supplier, grain processor and marketing firm it is investing in new machinery, more storage and preparing to welcome the fifth generation to the family-run business.

A beacon of stability in South East England, T Denne and Sons has been in the grain industry since Thomas Denne leased his first mill, Abbotts Mill in Canterbury, in 1879 to produce flour for the baking industry.

Looking back 90 years, T Denne and Sons owned 11 wind and water mills in east and central Kent, with the core of today’s thriving business built on milling flour for the human consumption market.

Simultaneously, the company also built a significant agricultural merchanting company, providing a wide range of products to Kent farmers. Early diversification created a number of gardening shops and even a coal distribution service in Deal. From 1972 to 2000, the company invested in animal feed mills, seed processing plants, central grain storage, its own haulage fleet and chemical and fertiliser distribution.

Since the Millennium, the company has provided the region’s farmers with an independent grain marketing opportunity, a reputable supply of high quality, high grade combinable seeds, bespoke seed mixtures and specialist grass seeds, together with a local market for faba beans.

Working with farmers from Kent, Sussex, Surrey, East Hampshire and parts of East Anglia, the company’s 15 full-time staff are managed by Andrew Bourne, assisted by Andrew Keir, Nick Green, Pat Goode and Jon Hunt.

The operations are divided between two sites near Ashford, Kent, with the administration, trading and seed processing divisions predominantly based from Hanover Mill, Mersham, and grain processing and storage located at Whitehill Grain Store, near Wye.

The independent choice

While the number of grain and seed businesses has dwindled over the years, with many companies having been acquired by national firms, T Denne and Sons remains family-owned, giving local farmers the opportunity to work with a business model more akin to their own.

“Several years ago, growers would have had a handful of seed and grain marketing companies to choose from but today, if they want to buy locally, they only have one independent choice,” said Andrew Bourne, seeds manager at T Denne and Sons.

“Unlike some of the larger firms, when farmers phone our office, they know who they are talking to. We can give an answer there and then and execute an order without having to pass through upper tiers of management who make the decisions.”

Fifth generation commitment Three members of Thomas Denne’s ever increasing extended family are now employed by the company. Anna Parrett, Tony Denne’s daughter, Andrew Keir, Christopher Denne’s nephew and most recently Fred Denne, Christopher Denne’s youngest son.

This allows the current owners Tony and Christopher Denne to take a back seat as fresh faces take over the reins. To quote Tony Denne’s father, Geoffrey, when the succession changed from the third to the fourth generation, “merchants do not retire, they simply fade away”.

This succession has safeguarded the longevity of the family business to date and the next generation coming on board indicates the commitment shared by the entire family.

Having joined the company after leaving university, Andrew Keir, has worked his way through the business and currently heads up the office administration, accounts and transport departments. Andrew’s role pulls together many aspects of the business, meaning he can be managing an accounts query and arranging haulage in the same conversation.

Running alongside the agricultural arm of the business is an extensive commercial and residential property portfolio, which is now managed by Anna Parrett. She also oversees human resources and health and safety within the company.

“We are fortunate to have a very hard working and committed team who are all integral to the business and ensure we provide the very best to our customers,” said Anna.

“Having been working on the periphery for many years, Anna joined the company full time in September 2017,“ notes Manager Andrew Bourne who goes on to explain that “the holdings division of the business is just as important to our growers as our trading division because it demonstrates that we are financially stable and have assets behind us.” Fred Denne, who has spent the previous ten years working as a land agent in the utilities sector, has gained experience in various areas of the business over the years including operating the grain driers at Whitehill during his summer holidays and working in the seed warehouses at Mersham. Fred has a solid understanding of what goes on at ground level and is looking forward to becoming more involved.

“I have always had some connection to the business and even while developing my own career in land management, in the back of my mind I knew one day I would make the move to the family firm,” said Fred Denne. “I have been making the transition over the last six months and am thrilled to be taking an active role in the company’s future.”

Having worked in a large, rapidly expanding company in his previous career, Fred has seen first-hand how other businesses embrace change and modernisation and he hopes to bring new ideas to T Denne and Sons in this respect on both the property and agricultural sides of the business.

“There are little bits of modernisation which I am hoping to bring to the table,” said Fred. “I want to use the experience I have gained and apply that to how we as a company work and how we can maximise potential for the future.”

Delivering more in less time

Keen to get out and meet the customers as soon as possible, one of Fred’s first roles at T Denne and Sons will be to manage the firm’s farm saved seed operations, and from September 2018 he will be responsible for running the new mobile processing unit and its team.

“Currently complementing our fixed plant, we also have a high capacity seed processor which is mounted on an articulated trailer in order to serve local farms,” said Fred. “An additional new unit was delivered in May 2018. It will increase overall capacity, with a throughput of around eight to ten tonnes per hour depending on the quality of grain sample. Investing in the new mobile unit will allow us to process at farms of all sizes more efficiently.”

With today’s growers tending to make reactive decisions to the varieties they want to plant, the team at T Denne and Sons have noticed a much shorter time scale between orders being placed and expected seed delivery on farm, meaning that the additional cleaning capacity will allow the company to further improve service levels.

Specialists in seeds

“Five years ago, we increased our capacity to process seed by 35%,” said Andrew Bourne. “Since then there have been opportunities to pick up additional business and we have quickly filled that 35% capacity with certified seed processed on site at Mersham. That meant we needed to add more mobile capacity.” As well as processing seeds on farm, the company also specialises in processing high quality, high grade certified seeds and specialist grass seeds, working with numerous breeders and their agents to find local contract growers and farmers to host trials.

“Our reputation in the seeds business means that if a breeder is struggling to find a grower, they will come to us for help,” said Andrew. “This year we are growing everything from wheat, oilseed rape, peas, beans, barley, oats, linseed, turnips, mustard, radishes, triticale, rye, grass seeds and clover. We have trusted growers and because we know their infrastructure and management skills we can integrate as many seed production opportunities into their rotations as possible.”

Working with growers Andrew Bourne and Nick Green, who heads up agronomy and technical seed sales, the company can help plan crop rotations, factoring in double breaks for seed production opportunities which add further value to the farm.

“Our seeds business has grown well over the last 15 years, with a strong focus on growing for local outlets in addition to export markets,” said Andrew. “Varietal selection is key, so knowing which variety suits the grower and the market they are targeting is very important. Linking this into our grain trading activity adds further value to the grower.”

Seed trials

A major part of the seed marketing calendar is the annual variety trials day. This year the event will be held at High Chimney Farms, near Canterbury, on 22 June. Held in conjunction with independent agronomy business, Zantra, the day gives growers a regional view of varieties new and old, market opportunities, chemical input strategies and rotational factors.

“The trials day has grown in popularity over the years, in part because we keep the content relevant and up to date,” said Nick Green, “breeders’ representatives attend allowing growers to talk face to face with those responsible for the new varieties.” The demonstrations look at new management approaches, especially for niche crops such as spring oats, leading to improvements not only in farm performance, but also quality to the end user.

The firm is also heavily involved in specialist grass seed production, with farmers finding that certain grasses, particularly hybrid and Italian ryegrass, can deliver a silage cut or spring grazing, a seed crop and then threshed hay in one season.

“We are also producing amenity grasses which work well for purely arable farmers looking for a two-year break crop from cereals and an opportunity to use alternative methods of controlling blackgrass; such as creeping red fescue.”

Nick who is FACTS and BASIS qualified provides contract grass seed growers with a specialist level of input and agronomy expertise in this niche sector.

For farmers looking to improve organic matter, soil structure and nutrient retention T Denne and Sons also offer a range of cover crops and the company even has its own UK exclusive variety of oil radish called Discovery.

Being independent enables Nick and the team to create bespoke mixtures for both grasses and cover crops and varieties are carefully chosen to meet any government scheme guidelines. “We understand local problems and can spend the time giving the right advice for the bespoke mixtures” said Nick. All the cover crops and some of the grasses are mixed at the facilities in Mersham.

One commodity which fully demonstrates the diversity and scale of T Denne and Sons’ capabilities is the faba bean.

After selling the seed beans to growers, the resultant crop is delivered to Whitehill where cleaning and sorting takes place before the human consumption fraction is exported to North Africa. “Beans are a good example of the integrated business structure we strive to attain,” said Pat Goode, grain trading and seed sales. John Hunt, Whitehill store manager said: “Various specialist machines are used to process the beans ready for the human consumption market. After initial analysis and grading, the beans are processed by needle cleaners which removes any beans with holes caused by bruchid beetles, followed by a high capacity computer-controlled colour sorter. The computer can identify defects based on colour and shape.”

The team has already started the next sales campaign to trade beans into Egypt and this coming season there has been a special focus on a winter variety, Tundra.

While the human consumption bean market has been dominated by spring bean varieties, Tundra, a relatively new variety, seems to have received favour in the market.

“We have been involved with Tundra from a seed perspective quite heavily and been able to take advantage by integrating into our trading positions at an early stage, awarding growers forward supply contracts,” John Hunt says.

While Pat expects that the majority of growers who grew beans just for the advantage of ticking an Ecological Focus Areas (EFA) box to withdraw pulse production, now that beans and peas are less attractive as a greening option, he believes that the farmers who were professional bean growers before the EFA option began will continue to supply with the North African market in mind. Beans also provide an excellent entry for winter wheat. “There is a lot of pride which goes into growing the crop and farmers are genuinely interested to know where their products are going,” said Pat.

Specialist local markets

T Denne and Sons offers grain marketing opportunities alongside its seed sales and processing facilities. “By working closely with other Independent traders, we can create sufficient volumes to be able to provide a credible alternative to other grain trading businesses while retaining our independence,” said Andrew Bourne.

This independent approach means that the team can do everything to ensure that customers’ grain is heading to the right markets. “We can look at cases individually which is something the bigger companies can’t necessarily do if they are just fulfilling large contracts,” said Pat. “It is all about offering a more bespoke approach and making sure that we do best by the grower.”

The long term relationship with Harlow Agricultural Merchants, in Hertfordshire, has not only opened up opportunities for general grain trading regionally, but for other specialist outlets such as Vistive branded oilseed rape varieties that boast high oleic and low linolenic (HOLL) oil properties. They are grown on specific premium contracts and then sold on licence to multiple fast food retailers internationally.

As a registered LIFFE Grain Futures store, T Denne and Sons can offer a local destination for feed wheat at all times in addition to providing a central store service at Harvest.

Linking back to the seed side of the business, Pat, Nick and Andrew are also able to talk to growers about which varieties are most suitable for certain markets. Pat’s previous experience as a farm manager, combined with working for an independent firm, also means that he can spend time looking at the individual farm’s situation to select suitable varieties which are potentially going to gain the most value.

Focused on ex-farm purchases, “Andrew Keir looks after the logistics and ensures that we are able to build a reliable transport infrastructure around the other services we offer to our growers. Having the control over haulage is an integral part of how we successfully operate,” notes Andrew Bourne.

Communication

To keep customers up to date with the latest market trends, Pat has started sending out regular email newsletters.

T Denne and Sons also organise talks and discussions throughout the year to help growers consider a range of topics which are relevant and impact upon their businesses. “Growers are always keen to learn more about crop management and marketing,” said Pat. “If we identify a subject that is relevant and topical we are always keen to arrange farmer meetings to inform and debate the subject. This may involve bringing in outside speakers with a broader or specialist view.”

For the future, Andrew is confident that the family-owned business will continue to adapt to outside influences and market pressures that may come into play.”

Having strong seed, processing and marketing branches of the business in place will in turn help our customers stay ahead. Our marketing and seed offering can be adapted to reflect changes in the markets for our locality. Add that to our technical understanding and the background knowledge of what this means to growers, and we have a sensible package to offer. We don’t just look at the impact of Brexit negotiations, but also the reaction to everything from weather events, consumer preferences and locality, to grower’s resources and price fluctuations. As a result of our integrated management structure, we can form an opinion and come to a decision that can be implemented with immediate effect on how we operate and trade,” Andrew Bourne concluded.


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