Grain store still a co-operative success after 40 years

Aylsham Grain board members

Aylsham Grain board members, from left: Bob Clabon, Ian Deane, David Tann, James Hammond, Simon Shaw, John Harrison, Andrew Dewing - Credit: Lily Dewing

A grain co-operative which gave north Norfolk farmers their first access to state-of-the-art storage and drying facilities is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Aylsham Grain was completed in time for the 1981 harvest, by pooling the resources of about 30 farmers who could not have built it individually.

At the time it comprised 8,000 tonnes of storage, a fast intake and the latest grain-drying technologies.

Now, it has grown to a capacity of 21,000 tonnes, with an intake of 200 tonnes per hour and a dryer capable of taking 5pc moisture out of a damp crop at 40 tonnes per hour.

The original 8,000-tonne storage silos at Aylsham Grain, pictured shortly after completion in 1981

The original 8,000-tonne storage silos at Aylsham Grain, along with the dryer and holding bins, pictured shortly after completion in 1981 - Credit: John Alston

It has proven its value during this year's wet harvest, allowing the scheme's 58 members to harvest and deliver crops which would otherwise have been too wet to store.

Aylsham Grain's current chairman is Bob Clabon, whose father Jim Clabon started the project 40 years ago. 

"Farmers had not invested in grain stores on farm and when he worked the figures out it was cheaper to get a grant and build a cooperative store than it was for individual farmers to build their own stores," he said.

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"Farms were expanding, the combines were getting bigger, the crops were getting bigger and you couldn't build this kind of capacity on the farm.

"The whole thing was based on a loan. The original price was £25 per tonne, which was a loan to the store. We used the money for expansion and after 12 years we were then in a position where we could start paying back the original loans."

Managing director Andrew Dewing said Aylsham Grain was one of several co-operative stores built using grants available in the early 1980s - but this one had survived where others had failed.

"You could get 40pc of the building cost and put something together that was state-of-the-art at the time," he said. "It was unbelievably big storage with a very quick intake and a good efficient dryer - all the things an individual farmer would struggle to purchase.

The original 8,000-tonne storage silos at Aylsham Grain, pictured shortly after completion in 1981

The original 8,000-tonne storage silos at Aylsham Grain, pictured shortly after completion in 1981 - Credit: John Alston

"Aylsham is the only survivor of those grant-funded stores. Some are there in a form, but they had to be bailed out.

"The reason the other co-operatives went wrong was because they built more than they could sell. Aylsham only built it when they had sold the capacity, so they were very conservative in their approach, but that is why they didn't go wrong and the reward is they have got a phenomenally strong, financially-sound business now."

Mr Dewing was employed to work for Aylsham Grain Marketing in 1996, bringing grain trading skills into the business and getting the store up to full capacity.

After a period of the firm being managed by a bigger grain marketing group, which he said "didn't work with the way we worked locally", he was invited back to manage the store - and now he also runs his own independent grain trading business, Dewing Grain, at the same site in Aylsham.

The store runs a system of drying charges and haulage rebates which means farmers can deliver crops exceeding the optimum 15pc moisture level for storage.

"The key point of that is if you are a farmer with between 15.1pc moisture and 19pc moisture it costs you £2 per tonne to dry it," said Mr Dewing. "In a commercial world if you had 18.5pc moisture you would be paying £14 per tonne.

"It is a phenomenally cheap drying charge, and it means Aylsham Grain members finish harvest earlier. They can cut earlier in the morning and go an extra hour or two at night with no extra penalty."

Aylsham Grain board members

Aylsham Grain board members, from left: John Harrison, James Harrison, Ian Deane, Bob Clabon, Simon Shaw, David Tann, Andrew Dewing - Credit: Lily Dewing

Mr Clabon, who farms in North Walsham, added: "I brought some spring barley in this year at 24pc, because I was worried I was going to lose the quality.

"The difference between feed barley and malting barley was £50 per tonne, so although it cost an additional £10 per tonne to dry it, I've still made £40 per tonne on it."