'Fakenham's best-kept secret' - inside town's huge harvester factory
- Credit: Danielle Booden
A company making huge harvesting machines in the heart of Norfolk has continued its recent growth - despite the challenges of Brexit, Covid and cost inflation.
Ploeger UK has been manufacturing in Fakenham for 50 years, and believes its colossal pea and bean harvesters are the largest self-propelled harvesting machines built in the UK.
The company on Holt Road manufactures 15-20 of these machines per year, each worth £500,000-£600,000, depending on the specification.
But even throughout the uncertainties of the last three years, growers' desire to invest in the latest technologies has not waned - with the company seeing year-on-year growth of almost 10pc, bringing annual turnover to £16m.
Site manager Julian Smith attributes this to the ever-present need for food, the loyalty of the firm's customers - and the skills of its experienced workforce.
"This is something quite special that is produced in sleepy Fakenham," he said.
"This business has been here for a lot of years and there is a great deal of skill with all of our employees from design down to the shop floor, across the whole spectrum of the business.
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"It is Fakenham's best-kept secret - but we think it is something Fakenham should be proud of.
"We have definitely seen growth over the last few years. I think regardless of what goes on in the world, we all have to eat. And we have a loyal base of customers who return for orders.
"These are customers who have been in this business for as many years that we have. Some will regularly change their fleet on a cycle every so many years, and some will run their machines until they are dead, basically. We've got machines out there that are 20 years old."
There are currently five GP1189 pea harvesters on the firm's production line, and each will take about 1,250 hours to build, involving 25 people in assembly and painting.
Three of the machines are destined for Italy, one is going to Austria and one will stay in the UK. The company also has customers as far away as New Zealand, Tasmania and South Africa.
Each machine comprises 2,500 parts, coming from all over Europe, including France, Germany, and Denmark.
With such an international operation, the added cost and complexity of post-Brexit trade has affected the firm - particularly its parts imports.
"If we wanted something urgently prior to Brexit you could expect delivery within 24 hours," said Mr Smith. "Now it could be 5-7 days.
"It is not so much an impact on production, but spare parts can be problematic, because when the machines harvest they are 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I would hate to think what it would mean if we kept somebody waiting for five days."
Claire Dunnett, the company's finance and administration manager added: "We have safety stocks of the critical items, and for the length of time we have been producing you tend to know which items they tend to be, so thankfully we have not had to keep someone waiting for that length of time."
Shipping costs and documentation costs have also increased, and one of the biggest problems is the cost of steel, which has risen by between 30-60pc. As a result, the cost of the machines has increased this year, said Mr Smith.
But the continued financial growth means the company has also added to its team, including four apprentices who joined in September, and is still recruiting to add to the 53-strong workforce.
One employee who has a unique perspective on the company's development is acting deputy supervisor Liam O'Sullivan.
The 44-year-old initially joined as an apprentice but left in 2000 to run the Gallery Bistro in the town centre.
He rejoined Ploeger UK 20 years later, when the Covid pandemic forced the closure of his business, which he later sold.
He said while the machines' basic principles are the same, the technological innovations now include load-sensing hydraulics and touch-screen electronic control systems.
"When I was here 20 years ago, principally the harvesting procedures are the same, but technologically it has advanced significantly and being part of that now is really interesting," he said.
Mr O'Sullivan said the firm's manufacturing heritage should be celebrated, adding: "We should shout about that and make people proud that we have got this world-leading product in Fakenham, and that the people in and around Fakenham have been working on it for many years."
The company was originally known as FMC Technologies, then PMC Harvesters after it was bought by Dutch firm Ploeger in 2002.
Re-branded as Ploeger UK in 2020, the company builds harvesters for peas and beans and detasselers for corn.