Over the last four years, Joseph Gurney and his family have been on a journey of diversification at Mill Mount Farm, Buckinghamshire. Alongside the mixed farm’s traditional enterprises are wild flower, sunflower and pumpkin patches, all geared around having fun.
Known as The Patch MK, he says the venture has gone from strength to strength, after under-estimating demand in its first year.
“We started with five acres of pumpkins, which sold out within eight days,” recalls Joseph.
Keen to avoid a repeat of that premature closure, The Patch MK, located on the edge of Milton Keynes, has expanded year-on-year. This season, visitors can access 22 acres of pumpkins, nine acres of sunflowers and an extensive area of wild flowers – all for Pick Your Own (PYO) consumption.
In addition, the farm allocated a further 12 acres to maize mazes, split into three themed zones, which have included a Lost World maze involving dinosaurs; a music maze packed with outdoor instruments; and in a tie-up with nearby Bletchley Park and its infamous World War II code-breaking capacity, The Patch MK will reveal an Enigma maze with puzzles, cyphers and riddles to solve.
“We believe The Patch MK is now one of the most diverse selections of any PYO which is aimed at growing fun,” he says. “We want visitors to have a positive experience that they’ll never forget, while also creating a festival vibe.”
Mindful of any end-of-season food waste from pumpkin activities, Joseph Gurney also works closely with London-based charity operation the Felix Project, to ensure surplus crop is redistributed among soup kitchens, schools and homeless shelters.
“In four years, we’ve supplied the equivalent of 30,000 meals,” he says.
Managing the rapid growth of the business has not been without its challenges. With a limited number of pesticides available to manage pumpkins, the farm has relied on casual labour to hand-weed the many areas of crop.
“It is essential that we produce clean, attractive, weed-free crops for self-pick and photographic opportunities with paying visitors,” he says. “And with casual labour, we never knew how many people would turn up for weeding.”
Drilling was carried out by a 30-year old five-row belt planter, with seed placement accuracy only support mechanical weeding between the rows, accounting for about 25% of the area. It led Joseph to find a more efficient solution without relying on casual labour.
Fortunately, his local dealer George Browns provided a one-stop solution comprising a Kubota M7-173 KVT Premium and a five-row Kverneland Optima R precision drill. The M7 tractor was equipped with Topcon RTK steering guidance, and the drill brought the ultimate in seed placement accuracy through GEOSEED level II.
“My aim is to hoe across the rows, in addition to inbetween, improving mechanical weed control efficiency,” he says. “We’re now weeding around 75% of the non-crop area with a tractor and mechanical hoe, and looking ahead, our target is to hoe diagonally.”
He says that getting the tractor and drill from one supplier meant direct service and product support for the whole package.
“I wanted to avoid compatibility issues, or one dealer blaming the other when kit refused to communicate with the tractor and vice-versa,” says Joseph. “And after a few teething issues, we’ve got a great crop this year that we’ve been able to manage with the mechanical hoe.”
The farm sows 60 varieties of pumpkins and squashes comprising different sizes, shapes and colours, to broaden the in-field experience.
“The drill has handled them superbly,” he says. “One metre row spacings provide each pumpkin with a square meter of growing space, so we lift two units out of the ground when sowing pumpkins.”
“When we drill sunflowers, we’re back on 50cm row widths using all five seeding units,” he says. “Our sunflowers are planted in batches.”
Joseph says that using RTK accuracy and technology has enabled two varieties of sunflower to be planted on different dates. He does this using RTK, to offset the drill by 25cm, and sow again, in between the first crop’s rows.
“This prolongs the PYO season and maintains a strong visual appeal for much longer,” he adds. “It’s now a much more efficient operation with RTK on the tractor and high seed placement accuracy from the Optima. It’s an impressive outfit.”
He adds that the decision to opt for a one-stop solution has been justified by the level of support available through George Browns and its manufacturers, along with remote support from LH Agro when trouble-shooting and assisting with RTK set-up.
“Remote screen access and on-screen tuition has been superb,” he says. “And I can make use of the auto-steer precision on a wide variety of field tasks around the farm, not just for our pumpkins and sunflowers.”
He says the M7’s short wheelbase makes the tractor very manoeuvrable, and with the ability to add or remove front-end weight to suit those heavier draft jobs, he has a flexible power unit for field work.
“I do like the hydraulic swap valve function – it’s very easy to just plumb in hydraulic pipes and then assign the services from the cab.”
Long-term, Joseph Gurney is eager to make the most of the new-found accuracy and precision from the M7 with Topcon auto-steer, and he has already invested in row crop wheels for use within the PYO crops.
“We’re already looking at a wider mechanical hoe, so I can use the Kubota M7 for inter-row weeding with the RTK guidance,” he says. “This will bring more output and efficiency to what we’re doing.”