Andrew Nottage, Russell Smith Farm, Duxford, Cambs

In a letter to Farmers Weekly, one of Andrew Nottage’s business associates – a technical production manager for a supermarket chain – described him as “the complete farmer”. He couldn’t have put it better. Andrew’s upbeat, optimistic personality and up-for-anything attitude reflect an outstanding individual running an extremely complex and sophisticated business.

“Next year will be my 25th at Russell Smith Farms. It is an exciting, fast-moving business and still gives me a buzz every day.”

Born not five miles from the farm gate at Duxford, Andrew isn’t from a farming background but quickly caught the bug while still at school. A three-year diploma at Shuttleworth followed, with a sandwich year at Russell Smith Farms. Andrew then returned to what was a “fairly traditional south Cambridgeshire farm, growing cereals, sugar beet and a few acres of potatoes”.

The Russell Smith business today couldn’t be more different. High-value root crops, both organic and conventional, are supplied to leading retailers including Tesco and Waitrose. Every day throughout the growing season, onions, carrots and potatoes are being managed or lifted on a series of farms, with the combinable cropping fitting in around them. A mix of Countryside Stewardship, Organic Entry Level and conventional ELS stewardship ensure environmental standards are exemplary.

“To supply Waitrose, you need to have 5% of your business in environmental schemes. I am very interested in monitoring the levels of wildlife on the farm and have each of the main blocks of land surveyed once every three years as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer Farmer Alliance Survey. I started this in 2000 and it’s been interesting to see the numbers of species of breeding birds grow.”

Andrew has also wholeheartedly embraced the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, adding areas of wild bird seed mixes and skylark plots this spring. College Farm is also a LEAF demonstration farm.

About 95% of potatoes are grown for specific markets, as are 100% of onions. “Cereals are the breaks inbetween the other crops, but we are still trying to do the very best we can with them. Our rotation is no less than one-in-five for potatoes, one-in-six for onions and one-in-three for sugar beet. Part of the challenge for me here is in making the jigsaw fit together.”

Managing such a diverse business, particularly one growing vegetables, means people are central to its success. Along with Andrew’s new assistant, Ralph, there are six full-time staff, two part-time employees and up to 25 casual staff through agency Concordia YSV. Andrew’s wife, Liz, runs the farm office. Two years ago he introduced a staff bonus scheme, to give his team an extra incentive and interest in the overall performance of the businesses.

Marketing high-value crops and meeting retailer specification – particularly when you’re supplying a range of retailers with a range of crops – makes a significant demand on Andrew’s management time. But he’s also a businessman looking to give his products and services a competitive edge. “My attitude to marketing is to make a point of doing what other growers think might be impossible.”

Spending time with customers, whether upmarket retailers or pre-packers, is central to Andrew’s philosophy of building and maintaining valuable business relationships. His policy of listening to their needs and wants has not let him down. “For instance, I was the first grower of organic loose-skin Maris Peer potatoes for Marks & Spencer and the first LEAF Marque grower for Waitrose.”

Nor is he afraid to make dramatic shifts in his farming business if that is what his customers want. “Farming organically has been a challenge, but also fun over the years. It’s been very rewarding growing high-quality organic vegetables for the supermarkets, and some of the lessons I have learned from growing these crops I am now using in the conventional ones, where I can reduce inputs.”

If Andrew has a mantra, it’s this: “Always maintain a good relationship with your end customer.” It’s one that has stood him in good stead.


Farm facts


* 850ha (2,100 acres) part-owned and rented

* Organic and conventional

* High-value roots dominate: potatoes, onions, carrot and sugar beet


The judges liked


* Excellent client relationships

* Community and environmentally-minded

* Integrated organic and conventional husbandry

 

2011 Farmers Weekly Awards