Matt Solley is not a man fazed by a challenge, which is just as well, given that at only 29, he has 2250ha (5500 acres) to handle.

Matt’s task is to manage the farming operations of a large-scale, limited-liability partnership formed by three businesses to drastically reduce their power and machinery costs. He is responsible for making sure a profit is delivered within careful and demanding budgetary constraints by three equally demanding partners. Effectively, he is three businesses’ farm manager.

There is no mistaking it is his attitude and initiative that drives Gilston Crop Management. “It’s a ‘yes’ world we live in,” he says. “There’s always a way to overcome difficulties if you have the drive and enthusiasm.”

Matt Solley

From a family farm in Kent, Matt had no doubts that his future lay in farming. A degree in agriculture and management at Writtle College, Essex, followed, but even then he was looking for the next challenge. “I always said to myself: I don’t just want to go straight home and muscle in and get in the way. I wanted to go off and do something off my own bat.”

With this objective in mind, Matt took a position as assistant manager with Gemmill Brothers, a 1600-acre tenanted farming operation near Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire. But when the farm manager left the business, Matt seized the opportunity and convinced the partners he could run it himself. The summer of 2005 saw him running 1600 acres single-handedly, including contract spraying and drilling on a further 500 acres.

Against this background, Gemmill Bros were beginning a dialogue with neighbouring farmer Stuart Tinney about setting up a joint-venture partnership to cut power and machinery costs. It was Matt who led the process to equip the new business, Gilston Crop Management, which saw him raise his hand for the winning bid on a Claas Lexion 480 Evolution combine – a bargain at less than £100,000. “That was quite a bold moment for me,” he says.

Matt Solley

As the new business began to take shape and Matt dealt with finding the right cultivator and drill for a much bigger acreage, right before harvest, he developed a strong working partnership with Neville Kett, the head tractor driver, and a team of up to five casual staff. But there were further changes afoot.

Businessman Gordon Morrison, who owns the nearby Chaldean Estate, was impressed by what Gilston Crop Management had already achieved and joined the partnership. His aim was to reduce power and machinery overheads on his 1300 acres and joining the partnership saw these direct costs fall by 30%.

“Matt has taken on the responsibility for delivering this and has successfully driven costs down,” says Mr Morrison. “Basically Matt drives the whole business himself and come in spot on the budget.”

Matt Solley

Matt manages upwards effectively too, presenting a convincing business case to the partners for the capital reinvestment he needs to ensure the business remains properly equipped to do the job. He admits the logistics are challenging – the machinery fleet is right on its operating limits – but it is delivering value and justifying the working capital employed.

“We aim to keep costs as low as possible and still do a first-class job, with better machines and on a far greater area than before,” he says. “We pride ourselves on doing that.”

And Matt knows he’s not operating alone. As well as hosting school visits – his wife is a primary school teacher – he is also prepared to take the lead with serious issues affecting farmers locally. A growing problem with travellers damaging crops and a fly-tipping epidemic saw him take the initiative to bring local MPs, farmers, police and rural stakeholders together to drive the problems away.

“I endeavour to be the ultimate, hands-on farm manager and find that an extra hour spent in the evening will always pay dividends in planning the day ahead,” he adds.

Farm facts

  • Gilston Crop Management
  • Limited liability contract-farming partnership owned by three partners
  • Growing mainly high-quality milling wheats
  • 5500 acres in total
  • Land spread over 30m radius.
  • What the judges liked
  • Invests in relationships and long-term commitment
  • Excellent budgeting and capital planning
  • Strong ambassador for agriculture