With its pink hues and distinctive taste, rhubarb arguably takes pride of place in the colourful rainbow of fresh produce grown in the UK. However, bearing in mind the competitive marketplace, Fraser Key reminds his fellow growers that they must ensure they have an outlet for the crop. “You can’t just let rhubarb grow haphazardly. You need to have your outlet in front of you before you plant it.”
Fortunately, Fraser, of Glebe Farm in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, has found an ideal market for the 300 tonnes of rhubarb that he grows annually. He explains that the juice from the luscious-looking pink stalks he produces is now permeating our favourite tipples. “We process the rhubarb into juice form and then sell it to the Alltech Beverage Division’s distillery in Ireland, who use the juice to flavour their gin product. We also use the juice in our own Rhubarb Fizz, which has just been launched this year. So far, the feedback has been unbelievable.”
Fraser notes that the outstanding taste and quality of his rhubarb, and, indeed, all the products he grows on the 300ha farm, is what sets his business apart. He believes that the exceptional quality of his produce, which, in addition to rhubarb, includes beetroot, cherries, garlic, grapes, onions and shallots, can be attributed to the fact that he chooses to work with nature, not against it. “We’re currently transitioning the 100-year-old family business from a traditional producer of commodity crops, like cereals and vegetables, to a specialist grower of more bespoke, unique products. We wanted to have a point of difference for the business,” he explains. “We’re achieving this by expanding on what we’re good at, which is tailor-made products with good provenance, grown using our ecological approach.”
The transition to this new business model has led Fraser to introduce more wildlife to the farm by planting wildflower mixes and crops that attract birds. But he has always been environmentally conscious and had long felt a hunger to move away from more traditional farming methods. For example, prior to this transition, the business had already significantly reduced its chemical input and fertiliser-use and had invested in green energy generation by establishing a solar farm and biomass boiler on-site.
Working with nature
As part of the business’ heightened ecological focus, Fraser became interested in enhancing his crops with more organically based products. For around 18 months, he has been using a range of Alltech Crop Science (ACS) biostimulants on his fruit and vegetables. “I think biostimulants are the way to go, particularly as working with nature is our farm’s fundamentaI focus.”
On his rhubarb crop, Fraser applies Soil-Set Aid, a biostimulant that is created through microbial fermentation, a process involving the cultivation of beneficial, naturally occurring microbes. “Rhubarb is interesting to grow because new crops are planted by harvesting the vast, established roots, known as crowns. Once unearthed, these crowns are split into several pieces, each of which is replanted,” he explains. It’s a funny plant because it keeps on going. Once we replant a section of the crown, it will be in the ground for ten years or so. However, we can go for two or three years before we get a meaningful harvest. But we have improved this situation by using Soil-Set Aid. The product promotes early root development, which means we get earlier harvests. It also stimulates the growth that we need from the crop and helps with the vigour of the roots and gets the plant well-established.”
Throughout the crop’s growing season, Fraser applies Impro-Grain, a unique blend of micronutrients and growth factors that are also derived from microbial fermentation. “I consider Impro-Grain to be a general promoter of good health. It gives vigour to the rhubarb leaves and helps keep out pests and diseases. And, if we have a healthy leaf, it tends to stay that way, so we don’t need to apply chemicals to the crop. We can certainly tell where we have missed bits of the crop, as areas that have been sprayed with the biostimulant are ahead in the crop growth stage. Better plant and leaf health results in a better leaf and rhubarb stem, hence a bigger yield. We can then pick from one plant several times throughout the season, which means we get a big benefit from using these products.”
And it’s not just his rhubarb that benefits from these Alltech Crop Science biostimulants. Fraser applies Soil-Set Aid to all his fresh produce crops, including the grapes that are grown in his Mayfield Vineyard. He also applies Impro-Grain to these vines, whose grapes are used to produce Mayfield’s sparkling white and red wines. Additionally, Impro-Set, Alltech’s foliar-applied biostimulant, helps his root vegetables thrive.
Andrew Linscott, from Alltech Crop Science, advises growers who are interested in adopting a similar approach to try applying a biostimulant to a small patch of their land so they can see first-hand what a discernible difference it can make for their crops. “This will then help growers make a decision as to whether it’s viable for them to use a biostimulant on all their crops,” says Andrew. “It’s important to note that the biostimulants are very easy to apply using conventional equipment. For example, Fraser applies Soil-Set Aid using a conventional sprayer at a rate of 2 to 3 litres/ha.”
While Fraser continues to utilise conventional chemical crop protection products, he believes that these should only be used sparingly, especially as they can develop resistance in the longer term. “We know that using artificial means is short-lived, so we use modern chemistry only when necessary. I believe that we should be in tune with nature as much as possible, as nature will always win. If you can work with nature, you are on the winning team.”
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Contact: Chris tanton