Having attended a recent open day on a trial farm in Hampshire growing commercial soya, it is clear that the interest and scope for growing the crop in the UK is growing considerably. The area has grown from 8Ha to 5,000 Ha in the last five years, with current estimations of 10,000 Ha to be grown next year in the UK.
The crop is traditionally grown in North & South America where the climatic conditions are suited towards growing large areas of the crop. However, due to big advancements in varieties over the past five years, species are now available which are more suited towards the UK market. The biggest difference is the strength of the stem of the plant, allowing the crop to be combined more effectively.
The open day was coordinated by Soya UK and indeed they are the sole commercial provider of seed, agronomic advice & buyer of the crop in the UK. There is some considered risk in that they are the only player in the market although they are well integrated with the plant breeding companies in Eastern Europe and more particularly the Czech Republic. There is also a considerable market for Soya with circa 2 million tonnes being imported into the UK for animal feed annually. The market for human consumption by comparison is currently very small, but could show growth in the future. The status of the UK crop as being non-GM locally sourced is already beginning to attract the interest of the retailers with some interest in the crop being grown for retailer aligned livestock farmers. This is of particular relevance to the high-end supermarkets.
In terms of growing the crop, the plant requires a moist seedbed and can be grown on the majority of soil types across the South of England although it favours lighter land. There is one pre-immergence spray required along with a further herbicide application at around 5 weeks. Sclerotinia is the one potential disease risk and may require a fungicide at this stage depending on conditions at the time. The crop naturally decays prior to harvest where it turns a dark brown but a desiccant is recommended. The crop is sown in late April and harvested in October. Having viewed the crop in July it is evident that the crop can be established and grown successfully.
The biggest factor is the market price for soya which is dictated by imports and therefore exchange rates, and global supply and demand. Presently, UK soya is not a niche product and only attracts a small premium over the average market price. At £400/ tonne the estimated gross margin equates to £716/ Ha. However, if you took a price of £325/ tonne (slightly below average over the last 5 years), gross margin would only equate to £531/ Ha which would be very comparable with wider commercial cereals and pulses.
With the crop being a competitive break crop and the market growing for non-GM soya along with greater interest from retailers, this all bodes well for the future of the crop in the UK. Alongside the development of the variety to cope in UK conditions it is also practical. Currently, with market conditions as they are growing soya would seem an attractive proposition. The test will be whether the UK crop can carve its own niche and continue to carve a high market price whilst not being reliant on the global commodity price of soya.