Arable farming has evolved considerably since 1974, when four farmers decided to group together to set up a cooperative, farmer owned grain store in Prior Leaze Lane, on the outskirts of Hambrook, West Sussex.
Over the years, the Chichester Grain cooperative has grown from strength to strength, continually reinvesting in its facilities to ensure that its 32 farming members always have access to modern, cost effective and efficient grain storage which can now handle up to 32,000 tonnes per year.
While the store is equipped to take most combinable crops, it has gained a reputation for its ability to handle high quality milling wheat, oilseed rape and spring malting barley, a crop which has become particularly popular in the area.
“Malting barley wasn’t traditionally grown on the Chichester plain, but with improved agronomy, increased market demand and the potential for premium prices, there has been a huge increase,” said Robert Wilson, store manager at Chichester Grain. “Frontier, our sole marketing agent, export the majority of the malting barley through Southampton and because there is such demand from its customers, and because we are only 45 minutes from the port, we have been encouraged to dedicate more storage to the crop.”
As spring malting barley is usually harvested at the same time as wheat, but needs to be handled quickly and correctly in order to preserve the quality which brings the premium prices, Chichester Grain realised that to cope with more malting barley, it would not only need more storage capacity, but also new drying and cleaning facilities.
Modernising the store
One of the main benefits of being a member of Chichester Grain is that, as a not-for-profit cooperative, any surplus revenue is either rebated to members or reinvested back into the store’s facilities.
In addition to this surplus, in April 2018, the board of directors secured a 40% grant from the EU’s Rural Development Programme for England, for a new 66 metre by 27 metre shed with adjacent drying and cleaning plant.
With interior walls constructed to six metres high the new store can hold up to 9,500 tonnes, and a central partition allows the spring malting barley to be separated by quality, or in a low yielding year, the space could be used for two different commodities.
The shed also benefits from underground cooling, which brings in fresh air to ensure that grain is cooled quickly and kept at the right temperature, which is vital when looking to store premium quality malting barley for the long-term markets.
“While we knew the building wouldn’t be ready for harvest this year, Philips, our groundworks contractor, and Fowler and Gilbert, who constructed the frame, were very good and the shed was in-situ by the end of August,” said Robert. “The drying and cleaning plant from Perry of Oakley was then installed by Mike Bartter Systems. With such a dry harvest this year, we haven’t had chance to use it yet.”
As the ultimate goal of reinvesting in the facilities is to provide its members with reduced storage and drying costs, Chichester Grain has opted for a state-of-the-art drying plant, which will use less than one litre of fuel per percent moisture and is considerably more efficient than the store’s other dryers due to the way air is able to flow through the system.
“As well as increasing storage space to meet members’ demand, since I started as store manager over a decade ago, our focus has always been to modernise the store,” said Robert. “Before harvest each year we set our drying rates. These are determined by the costs of fuel, so if we can invest in the latest technology which helps to cut fuel consumption, we can then decrease the cost to our members.”
Rapid rate of delivery
Uniquely, the majority of the grain which reaches Chichester Grain’s TASCC assured store has never touched the ground and is delivered by tractor and trailer, straight from the combine.
“Our members tend to be located within 20 miles of the store, but most are within five or six miles, and being able to come straight to the store is a big bonus for them,” said Robert. “We do take some lorries from members, but not many and we would be happy to work with someone located 50 miles away, they would just need to factor in getting the grain here.”
With this in mind, alongside adapting to the membership’s shift towards spring malting barley, as combine harvesters and trailers get larger and capable of processing more grain, over the last year Chichester Grain has also invested in its facilities to cope with a higher rate of delivery into store. “Our intake ability had already been increased to 250 tonnes per hour and the new developments will see that increase by a further 80 tonnes per hour,” said Robert. “No one buys six tonne trailers anymore and being an immediate store means that we have to be able to deal with grain as it comes in.”
As tractors arrive onto the site to deliver the grain, they immediately drive onto the weighbridge, where a newly installed automatic sampler delivers grain to the laboratory for testing. Tractors can then park up briefly to hand in paper work and collect results before tipping into the new pits.
“We used to manually sample each load, but this new machine does it automatically, so we will receive a sample in the laboratory within 14 seconds of pressing a button,” said Robert. “We really do pride ourselves on a quick turn around, because we understand that these tractors and trailers need to get back out to the field as soon as possible.”
For the 2018 harvest, the store’s laboratory and office block was also relocated to provide wider access to the weighbridge and redeveloped to give improved visibility of the site and better working conditions for the laboratory team.
“At harvest time you always need eyes in the back of your head and the new laboratory really helps us to have a good view of what’s going on at all times,” said Tom Ballingal, store assistant at Chichester Grain. “Being high up means we can see across the yard and down the road and the layout inside is also far more organised and easier to work in.”
Over harvest, the store is open seven days per week, from seven in the morning until nine in the evening, and there are normally around six members of staff on site to ensure that operations run seamlessly.
Benefits in store
By placing their grain in central storage, Chichester Grain members, and non-members who occasionally use the storage and drying facilities, don’t need to worry about investing in, or keeping their own farm facilities up to date.
“Since joining a lot of our members have been able to convert old grain stores and many are now benefiting from rental income from these unrequired buildings,” said Robert. “They also have peace of mind that the quality of their crop will be preserved for the long term. We have had members join because their storage wasn’t up to date, and it was forcing them to sell too early in the marketing season at low prices, and others who were losing the germination quality on their malting barley and then losing out on the premiums, which can be quite significant.”
With the ability to guarantee storage of quality grain, Chichester Grain’s sole marketing agent Frontier has created a bespoke long term pool just for the cooperative, it is able to get the best prices for the members’ commodities over the course of the year.
“We have been working with Frontier for about 12 years and have always been happy with them,” said Robert. “They offer stability for our members, meet with the board of directors once a month and achieve good prices with all the crops we handle here. They also bring in additional deliveries to make sure the stores are always full.”
Members of the Chichester Grain pool are also able to take an advance of up to 90% of their committed grain, which can be a vital cash flow resource for some businesses and prevents growers from having to sell at low market prices in order to afford seed or fertiliser.
When it comes to achieving the best possible price for the grain, alongside Frontier, store manager Robert and his team also work tirelessly to clean, blend and upgrade as much grain as they can.
“Farmers are paid for the quality of crop they deliver to the store,” said Robert. “We can then blend different samples to get the best possible overall quality which will then be marketed by Frontier. For instance, not one grain of feed wheat will be leaving the store this year as we were able to upgrade it all to milling quality. Any financial benefits from achieving these premium prices will then come back to the store before being rebated to our members the following year.”
To become a member, farmers simply purchase a required tonnage commitment. There is no minimum requirement and, as the cooperative understands that yields can fluctuate, the store always guarantees to handle 10% more for each member. Those interested in how the cooperative grain storage set up works, are also able to take a year’s trial before committing to becoming a member.
“If you buy storage here, because we are a cooperative and because we own the 12-acre site, you are also buying into an asset,” said Robert. “As well as future proofing the storage facilities, our move away from silos to flat floor storage also creates a stable, additional stream of revenue. We are currently renting out three of our retired stores to long term tenants and there is always the option to rent out others if we needed to.”
Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic