A search is on to find two arable monitor farms in Scotland with the aim of helping growers improve the performance and profitability of their arable enterprises.
An extension of the traditional discussion group, the project allows a group of local farmers to share experiences and develop ideas on how they can collectively grow their businesses, says SAC rural business consultant, Julian Bell, who is managing the monitor farm project in the Lothians and Borders.
Ten monitor farms have been operating successfully in the livestock sector for the past three years.
“It should work very well for arable farms where farmers will be able to see the outcome of their deliberations more quickly than in the livestock sector,” Mr Bell says.
The three-year project is being driven by the HGCA with financial support from the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise.
“The livestock model proved highly effective in generating knowledge transfer,” says HGCA project manager, Jenny Batchelor. “We hope this project will deliver benchmarking, price risk management concepts and supply chain development initiatives for Scottish growers.”
It will be done by the farmers exchanging practical information, experience and ideas, rather than lectures from experts. The monitor farms, themselves normal commercial farms, allow other farmers access to the farm and contribute to the decision-making process.
The financial performance of the business is also monitored although how much information is disclosed is up to the farmer. In practice, it has been found farmers are very willing to exchange figures on a confidential basis once confidence and trust have been built up.
The wider monitor farmer group visit the farm around six times during a year to monitor the progress of agreed changes. All meetings are open to anyone interested in attending, and other interested parties, such as bankers, accountants and grain traders, are encouraged to participate.
“The host farmer needs to be open-minded and receptive to new ideas,” says independent consultant, Peter Cook, who is managing the East Scotland project with Jim Booth of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society.
“The final decision about what happens on the farm is up to him but we are looking to him to adopt and try out new ideas suggested by the community group, which will ultimately be to the benefit of all members in helping them improve their business performance. It is very much a two-way exchange of information.”
Experts are brought in to give advice as required but decisions and recommendations are very much down to the group.
It is also hoped to establish six smaller arable business groups working with the monitor farm to investigate new techniques in greater detail. More than 30 groups are already up and running in England but they do not have the benefit of a monitor farm as a focus.
Robert Chapman, a beef sector monitor farmer from Aberdeenshire, strongly encourages farmers to get involved.
Being a monitor farmer had helped him improve the performance of his suckler herd.
“Working in isolation you tend to think the management problems you face are peculiar to you, but once you start discussing it, you find everyone has the same problem, with different solutions to offer,” he says.
- Farmers interested in becoming an arable monitor farm should contact Chris McDonald, SAC, on 0131 535 3436, email firstname.lastname@example.org (Lothians and Borders) or Jim Booth on 01651 843 607, email email@example.com (East Scotland)
Q Farmers attending an East Coast arable monitor farm meeting were highly enthusiastic about the concept, although reticent about putting themselves forward as a monitor farmer.
“I would be keen to find out just how my business is performing in comparison with my peers,” said Andrew Moir, who grows 243ha (600 acres) of combinable crops at Thornton, Laurencekirk. “I want to establish if my business is going in the right direction.”
He said he would have no qualms about divulging financial information. “It is an essential element in getting the best out of a monitor farm project.”
He hoped monitor farms would encourage more co-operation among farmers, including the development of buying groups for fertiliser and other farm inputs.
Angus farmer, David Pate, Kincriech, Forfar, who grows 263ha (650 acres) of combinable crops, saw monitor farms as a “tremendous opportunity” for farmers to learn from each other.
“We have to constantly look at our cost structure to ensure profitability. Involvement in a monitor farm project will encourage us to do that.”