Fifteen years ago Murray Smedley started Ilex Organics, a part-time business selling fertilisers and biodegradable film to organic farmers from his home in rural Lincolnshire.
He is now managing director of Ilex EnviroSciences – employing ten people manufacturing and supplying a comprehensive range of specialist foliar nutrition and seed treatment products both directly to farmers and also through buying groups across the UK.
These include Fram Farmers, the AF Group, Elite Farmers Trading, Anglia Grain Services, North Herts Farmers and the Woldmarsh Farming Group.
When Brian Aconley, an expert in formulating nutritional products, joined the company as Technical Director, Murray recognised the need to expand beyond the limited market place of exclusively supplying certified products to organic farmers, without changing the company’s overall philosophy.
“We still see ourselves as supporting sustainable agriculture. Helping the plant help itself – critical to all modern farming – we aim to encourage better growth, yield and quality.”
“We had the technical knowledge and the formulation expertise to go beyond the limited organic market, and recognised that conventional farmers were eager to manage inputs more accurately – looking at the soil more closely rather than simply loading it with NPK and hoping that would do the job.”
The company now supplies farmers with easy to use advanced nutrition tools designed to optimise plant health and crop performance with maximum efficiency and minimum environmental impact.
Their nutrition portfolio includes seed treatments, crop biostimulants, foliar nutrients and phosphites. All designed to facilitate vigorous and healthy plant development
“Our products are highly biologically active and applied in relatively small amounts at times when the crop actually needs it. We see one of our chief roles as maximising the efficiency of those major nutrients – we were one of the first to use the tagline #nutrientuseefficiency and are proud to see that it has now become a more general term in agriculture.”
A principal aim of many of their products is to encourage root development. Seed treatments, which can be applied on-farm, incorporate a package of nutrients designed to kick in as soon as the plant starts to germinate, priming it for foliar applications to the growing crop.
“It’s about getting the root system to where it can use other nutrients most efficiently, so timing is crucial. Foliar application needs enough leaf development for the plant to take it in to then create more root establishment, which in turn helps the plant to start extracting nutrients from the soil and thus increasing yield potential.”
None of the products are designed to combat pests and diseases, but Murray notes that encouraging the plant to grow well helps resist such attacks, as other more traditional defence measures are lost.
“The armoury of pesticides is diminishing all the time, so it is important to ensure plants are as healthy as possible to withstand all challenges.”
Crop guides are available for most broad-acre crops and for salad crops, alliums and brassicas. Sales director John Allen advises that every farmer can benefit from their portfolio.
“We have a broad spectrum of products which means that you couldn’t go down a farm track and not find one of our products to suit that farm and that particular crop.”
Ilex supply individual farmers, operating with the assistance of buying or agronomy groups. Murray says that decision was a deliberate one, to allow them to control sales and distribution, and to ensure the most effective use of what they supply.
“Because our products are very technical in their nature and in how they work, we wanted to be able to explain them fully to our customers – not just be on a page in a distributor’s catalogue.
Advice offered often includes an assessment of the current crop together with the grower’s desired yield and quality goals. From this information a recommended treatment programme can be made.
The primary role of the company, according to Brian, is to source materials and supply them to farmers as a formulated product, but he emphasised that what they sell is unique to them.
“Everything we sell under our own brand is our own formulation, it is not a copy. We offer unique formulations direct to market – we started out with that aim and we are pleased that we are still doing it that way and expanding year on year.”
“We do the development work, we do the trials work and we prove the products work in the fields. That way we build up a picture of a product and develop it to improve its efficacy and to develop new uses alongside the original ones.”
Trials are also conducted through independent research organisations such as the PGRO, BBRO and NIAB TAG.
Formulations designed by Brian and his colleagues are manufactured for Ilex. All but one of their products are supplied in liquid form – all are dispersible in water and miscible with other agrochemicals, enabling cost effective tank mix applications throughout the growing season. Very low rates are used, typically one or two litres per hectare.
Murray believes their approach allows the company to react quickly to market changes and to develop new products. Ilex were one of the pioneers of multifunctional phosphites and have recently added ‘Cu-Zin’ to their range.
It is a formulated blend of copper and zinc nutrients to meet recently reported deficiencies. The approach, he says, has allowed them to offer unique products through a supply route that places them on farm without delay.
“Our USP is to supply unique tailored formulations direct from factory to farmer by as efficient a route as possible.”
“Knowledge of the most modern scientific developments in plant science and nutrition ensures Ilex continues to respond to the very latest challenges and pressures faced by UK growers.”