Section 5 – Infrastructure

Overview

We’ve found infrastructure – or rather, the lack of it – to be one of the biggest challenges on our site. It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of organising. We took on a tenancy of bare land – two empty fields, with drainage but with no services and not the best access – so it was always going to be an issue.

The distinction between bare land and equipped land is an important first consideration. The kind of things that might ‘equip’ a piece of land are:

  • buildings (e.g. closed or open-sided barns, toilets, polytunnels, glasshouses)
  • other structures (e.g. storage clamps for manure, silage etc., shipping containers, lock-up sheds, fuel tanks)
  • drainage (i.e. subsoil drainage pipes, but also ditches and ponds)
  • water (e.g. access point to mains water, or a borehole, or a river)
  • irrigation infrastructure (e.g. underground distribution pipes, borehole pump)
  • access to electricity

At the simplest level, the distinction between bare and equipped land will be reflected in rental rates or purchase prices, with bare land being significantly cheaper than equipped land. It obviously requires a large amount of extra capital to get services put in or access sorted out.

The more subtle distinction, however, is what difference infrastructure will make to the business operation on the land. There are plenty of examples of land that are equipped but that might be only partially equipped (e.g. great building but no water or electricity), or poorly equipped (e.g. leaky building), or just not quite right in some way (e.g. domestic size National Grid connection, or low pressure mains water)… all of these examples could have a serious effect on a growing business. It depends on your needs.

In our case, we saw the lack of services on site as, ultimately, a great opportunity. Yes, it was going to cost a lot of money, but at least we would get things set up exactly the way we want them. That was the plan. And we approached it all wanting infrastructure that was (a) affordable, (b) long-lasting, and (c) environmentally-friendly. It’s not been straight-forward, however, and we have had to make some compromises along the way.

Access

We’ve considered access in a few ways:
(i) access to the site from public roads – this is our biggest issue. We have a very potholey single-track private road leading to the fields. Before we had any hardstanding put down at our entranceway, we had to reverse our way from the site to get back to a turning point. A bit of hardstanding at our entranceway made all the difference and, crucially, we can now take deliveries by bigger vehicles, which previously would have been impossible.

The broader concern with this part of our access is safety. The potholey single-lane farm track is a 90 degree turn off a dual carriageway A-road, with traffic generally travelling at 60mph. It’s a dangerous turning. Whilst we are prepared to take the risk ourselves every day we drive to the site, we have not been prepared to send minibuses full of schoolchildren this route, so we have given them alternative (and longer-winded) directions.

(ii) access to different parts of the site – tractors need to get to every part of our site and, with very wet weather and constant use, tracks and headlands can get deeply rutted. It not only damages the soil but can also become impassable. We don’t know of any reliable way to deal with this issue other than minimising tractor use in wet weather. Some farms have laid down hardcore to make these kinds of tracks more hard-wearing – for us, this is too expensive and also a change of land-use, which we don’t think would be passed by our landlord.

(iii) access to our customers – once we’re on to public roads, access to our customers is very good. We’re in a network of major roads into and around Manchester that – even at peak times – generally remains free-flowing. We do consider rush-hour times, as well as any football or major sporting event, as it can make a big difference to delivery times. We’ve also considered access, turning space and busy-ness at our customers’ delivery points.

(iv) public access – we have public footpaths nearby and one running inbetween our two fields, which we have a duty to maintain. This has not been a big deal for us – mainly because the footpath is little used. The bigger issue with public access might well be unwanted visitors. In our area there are night-lampers and hare-coursers, and in any area there’s increasing incidences of farm theft. Ease of access – not just to the site, but to valuables on the site – are obviously two big security issues.

Hardstanding & track improvements

The first improvement we made to the site was to put down a hardstanding area at our entranceway. The topsoil was removed and the hole was filled with crushed brick, flattened with a pedestrian-operated diesel roller, and finished with a layer of crushed road planings. Some contractors suggested putting down a ‘Terram’ membrane layer before the brick, in order to prevent weeds pushing up through the hardstanding. We decided against this, as it was an extra cost, took extra manufacturing of a synthetic material, and we don’t mind the odd hardy plant making a home in our entranceway.
There was a cost difference between different grades of brick and planings (we went for the finer / more expensive grade both times as it ends up being a much firmer surface with less air gaps throughout), and the good depth of our topsoil (upto 18” in places) made it a more expensive job too.

We then had the topsoil spread – just with a tipping trailer, as no local contractor seemed happy to spread soil in a muckspreader. The resulting piles of soil were sometimes quite big and all needed knocking about with a power harrow. All throughout we were helped by the weather staying dry.

We are now considering improving part of an ‘unadopted’ (i.e. un-owned) access track that provides a safer alternative route from the busy A-road to our fields. Like the current track that we use, it is unmade and potholey. Tarmac-ing it would be prohibitively expensive, so we are looking at using a similar method of surfacing as the hardstanding above – crushed brick and a roller. The problem is that, with harsh winters and heavy usage, the improvement work is likely to have a short lifespan. It could become an annual expense. As yet, we haven’t worked out a longer-term solution.

Total costs:
Hardstanding (150m²) – £1500
Track improvement – c.£500

Drainage

We don’t know much about putting in subsoil drains, as they were already done when Unicorn bought the land. It looks like a severely disruptive job, and expensive too, but what we do know is that without drainage our ability to grow vegetables on our fields would be much more limited. The first cultivation of the year would be later, and the last one earlier, and the effect on the soil of persistent waterlogging would be very negative.

Water & irrigation

Access to water isn’t a complete necessity for growing vegetables. There are many growers around the country (not just in the wetter North West) who rely only on rainfall. For the crops we wanted to grow, however, we know irrigation will make a vital difference, so we have spent a lot of time and money getting this done.

And there are other reasons why we want to have access to water onsite:

  • Washing / cleaning boxes and machinery with a pressure washer
  • Washing / cooling crops
  • Hand-watering module trays when they’re sitting around waiting to be planted
  • General tap supply for staff

There was no access to water when Unicorn bought the land. As it turns out, there’s no mains water in the nearby area. All the neighbouring farms and houses have their own boreholes. This made it an easy choice for us – go to the expense of getting our own borehole but then have a free supply of water. Also, mains water pressure can be an issue for some growing sites (i.e. it’s too low for their requirements), so having control over our water and pressure seems to be a good thing.

One of the most complicated things about planning our water supply is that it seems like you have to plan every aspect out at the same time because it’s all interdependent. So, to start with, in order to choose our borehole, we needed to know:

  • All the different uses of water onsite
  • What the maximum and minimum pressure needs and volume requirements are
  • And whether we would have a tank at ground-level or just pump everything up direct from the aquifer underneath

We anticipated three different uses for our water: irrigating our vegetables, irrigating our orchard (yet to be planted but we wanted to make sure it was part of the irrigation system), and a supply for our building (i.e. general tap use and for a pressure-washer). We could see that the minimum pressure needed was for a general tap supply (say, 4 bar), with volumes as low as a few litres.

At the other extreme, we knew it was the vegetable irrigation that was going to make the most demands on the system. But we needed to know details – that meant choosing a method of delivery to the vegetables. There seem to be four main methods of delivering water to crops. There are many people with a lot more knowledge about these different methods, but these are some of the pros and cons we were told:

(i) trickle tape – some tape is more hardy than other tape so it can give you either one year’s use or around three years of usage. The tape has little holes or slits in it through which the water trickles, and is either placed on top of the soil or just underneath (in the top few inches). Advantages are low water pressure requirements, it’s relatively cheap to buy, and it delivers the water much closer to the crops. Disadvantages are high labour costs of installing it every year, the ongoing cost every year or every few years of buying new tape (depending on what type you go for), and disposing of the tape – many conventional growers just chop the plastic up into the soil

(ii) sprinklers – generally placed on spikes between 50-100cm high off the ground, the sprinkler heads flick round delivering water in a circle around the spike. There’s a fairly wide choice of sprinkler heads with different diameter coverage and volume of discharge, and some claiming to deliver finer droplets of water than others. Advantages are, again, relatively low water pressure requirements, and relatively low cost (not as cheap as trickle tape). The main disadvantage, particularly when working on a field scale, is the labour costs of moving the spikes around when you need to irrigate different areas

(iii) hose reel / spray booms combination – based on a hose reel that, once full water pressure is running through it, automatically reels itself in. Connected to the reel is a spray boom delivering water through a long line of small nozzles. The main advantage is the low labour cost – all you need to do is position the reel. Disadvantages are the high cost of the equipment and the need for high water pressure.

(iv) hose reel / rain gun combination – instead of the boom, you can connect a rain gun to the hose reel. This is a big flicking nozzle spraying out massive jets of water in an arc, whilst being pulled in by the reel. Again the main advantage is low labour cost, and it’s also able to deliver the most amount of water per hour. Disadvantages include high equipment cost, theneed for high water pressure, relatively high wastage (water being blown by wind and ending up not on the crop that needs irrigating), and a heavy droplet fall (potentially damaging tender leaves)

Having taken advice from Iain Tolhurst, we decided that we wanted to irrigate using a hose reel and spray boom for our vegetables. For our orchard we think trickle tape would be best, as the orchard is permanent so there’s no moving around of equipment.

Finally, we considered having a ground-level tank or lagoon to store water. Apparently this is a common way of doing things, as it’s technically more complicated to pump water up using a submersible pump at the bottom of a borehole and achieve a wide range of pressures. Apart from having to get planning permission, the main problem we had with the idea of a tank or lagoon was taking up precious land. We’d been thinking more and more about how little land (in the great scheme of things) 21 acres is, so we didn’t want to lose any more of it to infrastructure…

So by this stage, we knew a few helpful details. By looking at the technical specifications of the kind of hose reels we’d probably be getting (in our case, smaller ones), we could see that we’d be needing a maximum of c.20m³/hr flow rate and 6 bar pressure at the hose reel inlet. We also knew the maximum distance of distribution pipe would be c.400m.

These were good details to help size the borehole, but in retrospect it would have been even more helpful to know the diameter of the hose reel pipe and the diameter of the distribution pipe – different diameters mean different friction loss in the pipes (i.e. loss of pressure), therefore affecting the size / power of pump in the borehole.

In any case, it was armed with this knowledge that we started on the first of four phases of work:

(i) getting a borehole
We did the following:

  • got a prognosis report done by a local hydrogeologist (ordered through one of the borehole contractors) in order to assess the viability and siting. Different subsoil geology will hold and yield different amounts of water. We felt fairly assured of the accuracy of the report as there are so many other boreholes in the area to get evidence from
  • chose a borehole diameter – typically, 6”, 8” or 10”, but can be much bigger for more industrial uses. The key to sizing is the pump, which will need 2” of spare diameter to fit in the borehole. So a 4” pump will fit in a 6” or bigger borehole, a 6” pump in a 8” or bigger borehole and so on. Based on the prognosis report and what we knew of our requirements, we knew that it was just about possible with a 4” pump, but more comfortable with a 6” one. So we chose an 8” borehole
  • chose a contractor. Everyone we asked told us to avoid the cheaper one-man-band companies, and to go with a well-established drilling company. We contacted three of them and the only real difference between them seemed to be the type of casing they suggested using for the job – some insisting steel was the only material to trust, some insisting PVC plastic was the best choice.

Beyond that there’s all kinds of technical detail that we’re not going to attempt to summarise here – it’s best to speak to the drilling contractors. The main things we looked out for were: the cement grouting round the well casing, getting a water test (especially pH level), and getting a drill log detailing the different layers of subsoil material and the point at which water was struck. The actual job of drilling was remarkably quick (a week), and the footprint they left behind remarkably small (1m squared).

Ideally, if we had the funds, we would have done a ‘step-test’ on the borehole in order to calculate the effect on the standing water level when drawing water at different rates. This ends up accurately telling you what depth your submersible pump needs to be in order to achieve your required water pressure and flow rate. As it was, our borehole contractors were adamant that it was not necessary as we were drawing from a very high-yielding and relatively well-known aquifer. Their estimations placed the pump at 20m deep.

(ii) laying down the underground distribution pipe
The main decision here was what diameter pipe to go for. We were told (by irrigation companies we spoke to) that 75mm pipe would have been sufficient for the kind of pressures and flow rates we were estimating, but that it would be better if we could afford to go bigger. We decided on 110mm – hopefully over the years, the reduced friction loss would save us money (in fuelling the borehole pump) despite the higher initial cost of a bigger pipe. 110mm would also cope with a bigger upgrade in irrigating equipment, if we ever needed to.

There was also a choice in pipe material – generally PVC plastic or aluminium – but, from what we could understand, not much difference between them. We were mainly trying to find second-hand pipes, but didn’t find what we wanted, so we ended up getting PVC.

Our pipe was buried 1m below ground level, to protect against frosts, and 9 hydrants were spaced out at regular intervals so that we could tap in to the water supply easily in the field. The recommendation was to have one 30-40m length of ‘layflat’ hose, which would act as the final piece of distribution pipe from a hydrant to our hose reel. The 30-40m length gave enough flexibility in our set-up, alongside the 9 hydrants, to mean that we could get water anywhere on site.

This job took the best part of a week. 1½ days to dig the trench (just with a small 2′ wide bucket), 2½ days to place to pipe (in 12m lengths), fusion weld the joints, and join on the hydrants, and 1 more day to back fill the trench.

(iii) sourcing the equipment
We wanted to get second-hand equipment in order to save money, but the year we looked (2011) there was very little about. We mainly tried Farmers Weekly and Wrights Register, but made a breakthrough when we came across Golf Machinery Trader (and realised that irrigation equipment is as relevant to golf courses and grounds maintenance as it is to horticulture). So we found a second-hand hose reel, but couldn’t find a second-hand boom.

RM, Bauer, Irrifrance, Wrights Rain tended to be the names we came across most but there are many more companies out there. Italian (such as RM) seemed to have a good reputation.

The choice is then one of size. Hose reels are determined by their pipe diameter (generally 50mm, 63mm, 75mm etc.) and pipe length. Our hose reel is an RM540GX 50/220 – meaning 50mm diameter and 220m length. Booms are determined by their length – the thing to note is not so much the boom length as the ‘wetted width’ (i.e. the width of area that water is delivered to). Our RM14 boom is 14m long and should have a wetted width of 20m, for example.

(iv) installing the pump, pipe fittings at the borehole and commissioning the system
Once the equipment is known (the required flow rates, pressures, and pipe diameters from borehole to irrigator) and a depth for the borehole pump is known, then the pump can be sized.

We are still (at the time of writing) discussing this job with several contractors, so will add more information once we have got our heads round it.

These stages could have been done in a different order. The pump, for example, is normally bought with the borehole. We took a long time over all of this, and separated out the jobs, because we found it hard to understand it all – and found it hard especially to be confident enough to make all the right decisions at once.

Finally, there is one last stage we have yet to go through – and that’s getting a licence for abstracting water. A licence is needed if extraction is more than 20m³ a day. We won’t be anywhere near that for a year or two, but the process can apparently take upto 12 months, so we will be applying soon.

Total costs so far (ex-VAT):
Borehole – £7,550 (including prognosis report)
Distribution pipe – £9,211.25
Hose reel & boom – £5,330
Pump & fittings – c.£10,000-£15,000

Buildings

Our attempt to get a building onsite became a bit of a saga. Having done some initial research comparing different methods of building by their environmental footprint, we became interested in strawbale construction and started looking into it seriously. There was only one company we could find that could do the work for us, and they quoted c.£32,000 for the job. Having gone through planning and taken it to the stage of getting construction drawings, structural engineer work and final costings put together (this is after 18 months of work on the project), it became clear that we had been massively – and consistently – misquoted. True costs would have been well over £100,000.

This was well beyond our budget and, as such, we reluctantly moved towards the less environmentally friendly option of steel-framed construction. We kept the same basic design of the building, however, which was:

  • 20m x 10m dimensions
  • one internal wall dividing a 15m x 10m machinery storage area and a 5m x 10m multi-purpose room (e.g. for packing veg, hosting school visits)
  • eaves height of sufficient height to allow 3m roller shutter aperture into machinery store
  • 30º roof pitch, of sufficient strength to take solar panels, with one long bank of north-facing roof lights (to give as much natural light as possible)
  • concrete block walls upto 2m high from ground level (for security)
  • external wood cladding (with no gaps between) from eaves right down to ground level (this is what was passed by planning)
  • 1 x 4.8m wide and 3m high manual roller shutter into machinery store
  • 1 x metal personnel door with external roller shutter into multi-purpose room
  • 1 x internal personnel door between machinery store and multi-purpose room
  • 2 x double glazed windows serving the multi-purpose room

We found a number of steel-framed building companies advertising in the Farmers Guardian classified section, and all of them were very quick to provide quotes. For this size building, the quotes range from £25,000-£40,000.

We then found that we didn’t have enough money for this size building, as a potential source of funding dried up. So we reduced the size to 10m x 10m, removed the internal walls and personnel door, and removed the windows – and ended up with quotes ranging from £15,000-£20,000.

The main differences were:
(i) the type of roofing material – either fibre cement or PVC coated box profile steel sheets. The fibre cement is supposed to ‘breathe’, whereas the steel sheets don’t, which can lead to condensation issues inside your building. However, we chose the steel sheets in the end because they were much preferred by solar panel installers. Various reasons were given to us, including: less damage is done when drilling through the steel sheets (compared to fibre cement), they last better (again, in terms of potential damage to fibre cement and being able to access solar panels towards the end of their lifetime), and it’s quicker to instal on steel sheeting.

(ii) the strength/weight of steel used in the different parts of the frame – we found that different suppliers suggesting using different strengths of steel in their quotes. The choice seemed to be between 19kg/m and 25kg/m strength. The most expensive quote came from a company that used 25kg throughout; we ended up going for 25kg for all stanchions and rafters and 19kg for the gable posts.

Total costs (ex-VAT):
Hardstanding base (c.300m²) – £2,562.50
Steel-framed building – £15,651.41
Concrete base (100m²) – c.£2,000
Plumbing & soak-away – c.£250

Electricity

Broadly speaking, there seems to be two choices here – either get on-Grid or stay off-Grid – although of course in particular circumstances there could be a combination of the two. Our landlords are planning to help fund the costs of a grid connection, so more information will appear here soon!

Security

Security is an issue that we haven’t considered as much as we perhaps should. Farm thefts are on the rise (especially fuel, tools and vehicles) across the country, so we need to get a plan together. All we have done so far is put up some gates and a lock, to prevent easy access to the site. Having a secure building will help massively, but not living onsite is a big disadvantage, especially with a public footpath running between our fields.

We have benefitted from supportive neighbours who have been happy to house our expensive / easily-stealable equipment (without charging rent). But still we have plenty of lower value tools and tractor implements lying about in our fields or under tarpaulins. We have, at times, locked two implements together as a deterrent, but other than that we haven’t done anything.

More urban growing sites perhaps suffer more problems, including vandalism (e.g. slashing of polytunnels) and not just theft. We have heard of growers removing the battery from their tractor or taking off the steering wheel. A locakable shed (shipping container seems most secure) for tools is a good idea but, as ever, if someone really wants to get in they will. Overall, this is an area we need to look into more.

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