Elveden Estates is one of the biggest arable units in the country, but senior farms manager Andrew Francis does not rely on economies of scale, but rather his meticulous attention to detail. Clemmie Gleeson meets the winner of the 2017 Arable Innovator of the Year Award. 

Looking at the big picture but scrutinising the detail is something of an obsession for Andrew Francis, senior farms manager for the Elveden Estate.

The Suffolk-based farm currently produces large yields of potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips, as well as combinable crops, energy crops and sugar beet.

Every aspect of production is examined and questioned through keeping extensive data and involvement in a multitude of trials.

Elveden is the residency of Lord Iveagh, the fourth Earl of Elveden, in the Breckland area, near Thetford.

Often referred to as The Brecks, the area is characterised by sandy flinty soil which is free-draining and nutrient deficient.

Of the estate’s 9,105 hectares (22,499 acres), about 4,500ha (11,120 acres) are cropped, which includes about 1,050ha (2,595 acres) of rented land.


The farm is made of up large fields of up to 40ha (98 acres) each, which are credited to Rupert Guinness (the second Earl and great great grandson of Arthur Guinness, founder of the Guinness brewery), who converted the estate to agricultural use in the 1920s.

Andrew, who has worked at Elveden for 24 years, says: “It is important to prove any new concept before putting in changes to our farming system.

“Having a large portfolio means any additional resources or increased costs becomes a very big number. While we are very keen to look at all levels of new technology, we are also cautious and careful to do proper evaluations to ensure they can actually deliver efficient changes to the business.”

Involvement of all staff is key, he says. Figures covering income and costs are shared with farm employees, so they develop an understanding of how information and figures they gather on a daily basis influence management decisions.

Staff members are encouraged to visit customers’ premises to understand how tasks they carry out on a daily basis can influence the quality of the final product.

Andrew says: “They come back with a new understanding and bring the context with them and see the importance of everything they do on-farm.

“With high-value root vegetables, it is easy to get it wrong, to devalue crops without meaning to if you do not fully buy into what you are trying to achieve. We are trying to nip out any complacency.”

Recently, Andrew has recruited additional managers and assistant managers to the team.

He says: “We wanted to be able to better mentor younger managers in the business, so we have basically added a new management structure to add another team.”


Opportunities to introduce research or new technologies to the farm are integral to their approach
and management strategy.

Andrew has created a new role for a technical person to run the farm’s own small-scale trials, which include an organic manure trial, now in its 16th year, looking at organic matter and nutrient levels in the farm’s soil under different management techniques.

Andrew says: “It has changed how we apply inorganic fertilisers to crops and decreased our use of inorganic fertilisers by 10 per cent while maintaining and increasing yields.”

Other trials run by the farm include assessing different cover crops within the farm’s intensive vegetable rotation, as well as testing different varieties of potatoes and onions and investigating seed treatments.

The team is running some 25 trials on-farm this year: “It is a big time investment, particularly when we are busy and running behind and have to be quite disciplined to do the trial work.

“For example, potato planting output decreases by more than half for three or four days while we establish our trials.

“With farming, it is easy to get caught up in the moment, but if you always do the same thing, you will never move forward. You have to be disciplined if you want to really affect a change. You have to see the bigger picture.”

Collaborations with external to understand pre-stress triggers in plants to maximise the efficiency of irrigation and fertiliser applications.

Elveden is a Leaf demonstration farm, a McDonald’s Europe Flagship Farm and is in its third and final year as host of AHDB Potatoes SPot Farm East.

Andrew says: “Involvement with these and others has created an environment based on constantly challenging what we do and why.”


The SPot Farm project has included trials looking at potato cyst nematode (PCN) tolerance and resistance, the use of catch and cover crops in managing PCN and another investigating options for managing blackspot.

Being part of numerous organisations has involved welcoming visitors to the farm and instilled further professionalism and pride in Andrew’s team, he says.

His work with SPot Farm is looking at nitrogen use and irrigation efficiency combined with measuring nutrient loss as run-off in wheelings and through drainage into subsoil.

Andrew says: “It has really focused our minds on when and how we irrigate and how we manage soils, both in the growing area and outside.”

Focusing on water and nitrogen impact outside the cropping area also ties in with his work with groups such as the NFU and the CamEO business water board.

He says: “This involves thinking, assessing and demonstrating to others how we might be impacting soils and water in the long-term, and how we might assess how we influence water availability and quality for other
abstractors in our catchment.

“The whole idea behind my philosophy is to take the productionfocused blinkers off and see the bigger picture beyond the farmgate. This then creates a culture of looking beyond the obvious solution to common day problems.”

Andrew is keen to be involved in development of technology and, in particular, the use of 3D imagery to ‘interrogate’ plants and how they grow.

“What really excites me is the ability to look beyond the leaf surface to understand the plant and its needs. The ability to do this would enable the farm to manage its inputs even more exactly, but we need to understand
how far we can push it.

“The pressure on margins does not go away, so the only way we can hold the margin is to drop our inputs, but not at the detriment of crop quality or yield.”

Having invested heavily in the farm’s onion infrastructure in recent years, focus is now on the potato business.
To this end, Elveden constructed a grading and packing shed last year, and will be opening the first half of a new potato store in time for the 2018 harvest. The second half will be up and running for next year’s harvest.

Andrew says: “We previously used a lot of external storage and relied heavily on field loaders, but now we will be able to be more flexible.”

Winning the Arable Innovator of the Year Award was ‘fantastic’, he says. “I was chuffed to bits. You hope you
will win, but do not expect to. I am not just a single person working there; I am part of a large group effort. We put so much hard work into what we do.

“Being an arable farmer is the reason I get out of bed every morning
and we work to make products you can be proud to buy. Farming can be a lonely job, so to win this brings together British agriculture.”