Visit to Heygate Farms, Swaffham


There were rain clouds in the sky as a group of the Society’s members assembled at Heygates Farm, just outside Swaffham, but the rain held off. This farm visit was a new venture for the Breckland Society, yet we live in a farming area, and the thought was that members would find it interesting to hear what is behind the operations we see in the fields around us, and what makes a modern commercial farm tick.

Heygates are a big milling and baking group (with one of their mills next to Downham Market station), but their farm at Swaffham is run independently of their other interests. William Gribbon, the energetic farm manager who hosted our visit, gave us a highly articulate account of the crops they grow and the problems of growing them, as well as the conservation work they fit in alongside producing food for the market.

William proved well able to hold his own with the challenging questions that our sparky group of members fired at him, taking even the plainly provocative points with good humour. He spoke of his eleven different potato varieties much as a wine-grower would speak of grape varieties – reverently; and told of his uphill efforts to get Swaffham Waitrose to take more of his truly local produce. We are to watch for “Norfolk Peer”. We now understand the system of rotation, not quite as it was when Coke of Norfolk introduced it at Holkham, whereby potatoes are succeeded by pigs (to clear up) and pigs in turn by grass (to clean up and rest the land after pigs)

With the season for lifting potatoes in full swing we were taken in best shooting-party style by trailer to see two complex machines driven in tandem; lifting, cleaning, sorting and boxing the crop all in one operation. From field to supermarket can be done in a day.

Low rainfall in the Brecks means that water for crops is often in short supply and a giant on-farm reservoir, filled by recent rain, is ready for next spring’s irrigation. Cropping aside, parts of this farm are managed to encourage wild birds, including the Breckland speciality, the stone-curlew. William explained how dependent this side of the business is on government subsidies, for which the outlook beyond 2012 is uncertain. For now, the birds are doing well. A record-breaking flock of woodlarks has been seen there.

Our warm thanks to Heygate Farms Ltd for allowing us to see behind the scenes and to William Gribbon for leading this event so engagingly.