Frans de Boer is managing director at DB Agri Ltd, based at Wappingthorn Farm, farming 800 acres, with an Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plant in West Sussex. He is also an advisor for Bright Maize customers – selling Bright Maize seed to other AD plants and helping operators understand what they need from their maize.
For many farms to survive, they need to be prepared to diversify. DB Agri, a family business, has done this in a big way. There are a number of strands to the enterprise. The 800 acres produces about 500 acres of maize as well as wheat, rye, and oats. The business also contracts an additional 1,000 acres of maize, which is supplied mainly to dairy and beef units. The company markets ready to feed crimp maize. Trialling and marketing maize seed for Bright Maize is another important aspect of the business. The 500 acres of maize grown is used to feed a 500 KW AD plant. AD is the main focus of the business, the business as a whole employs four staff, including Frans, plus contractors.
DB Agri’s involvement with Bright Maize started 20 years ago, firstly with developing grain maize opportunities with seed trials and recently testing varieties for dry matter and gas yield for the AD sector. The logical next step was for the company to use its expertise in grain maize and AD maize to promote sales for Bright Maize. DB Agri does this by offering a comprehensive end-to-end advice service for Bright Maize customers. It advises on choice of product, taking into account the suitability of varieties to grow, achieving the correct seedbed, drilling, managing the growing crop, harvesting and beyond. “We don’t just drive off down the road when the seeds are sold. We hope this gives us a good relationship with the customer, and that the customer will want to come back to us,” says Frans.
“I believe at Bright Maize, we are a top-class team with a good knowledge base, and extensive experience in all maize areas including maize for the AD biogas sector. I make sure I am always there at the end of the phone-line, should customers require advice and guidance. Our independent seed-trials for Bright Maize have given us a really strong understanding of what varieties do, so we advise and sell with confidence. We sell a product we believe in.”
Frans tells us that the main things to look for in AD maize seed are a higher than average overall yield and a good level of gas-yield through stay green and starch. AD plants are focused on this as they strive to meet sustainability targets. The crop has to meet certain carbon restrictions. Some AD maize growers have been ill-advised, Frans says, and use late varieties, ending up with a massive and very wet crop which doesn’t create enough gas, or a very late harvest leading to soil structure damage or soil erosion. This is one of the challenges in his work for Bright Maize. Lots of AD plants don’t grow their own maize. They have it grown by contractors, using the cheapest seed possible. DB Agri addresses this problem directly with AD plants, explaining the need for quality forage to maximise gas yields.
Frans asserts that AD plants should be a viable means of diversification for farmers. But he has concerns: “The tariffs and government support aren’t there for setting up AD plants on family-run units like ours. They used to be. We couldn’t have set up our business without that support, and it got our business out of a hole. It allowed us to diversify, but within agriculture, rather than diversifying away from agriculture, for example by converting barns to holiday cottages, as many farmers are forced to do.” In Frans’s business, the AD plant replaced the dairy unit that wasn’t making profit. But he claims it is a similar business to dairy: “We produce a crop, look after it, feed it to the plant, feed energy back to the grid. But instead of vets and nutritionists, we’ve got biologists and engineers”, he tells us.
He makes an interesting point about the potential of AD, albeit outside the farming sector. He believes it could be an important green energy source, if the UK can get its act together with recycling. AD can be powered off food waste, including meat products. “If we showed more commitment to pure food recycling at every level, AD could really take off”.
But back to the farm setting. Green renewable crops for AD have had a bad press. There is a debate around the acceptability of growing crops for energy, as opposed to growing crops for food, so the future for AD energy production on farms is unclear, though Frans is certain that, with government support, it would be an excellent way for farmers to diversify, stay in business, and help the environment.