Once you’ve found a decent farm contractor, there’s a good chance you’ll stick with them for good. This year’s Contractor of the Year finalists run very different businesses, but they all have a loyal bunch of satisfied customers, most of whom have been with them since the start.
Thickthorn Farm, Chippenham, Wiltshire
Farm contracting is a competitive business, so if you can spot a gap in the market and exploit it effectively, you’re on to a bit of a winner.
Realising that the market for broad-acre crop spraying was pretty well saturated in their area, Robert Boole and his father Tony looked at an alternative way to grow their business.
Boole Crop Specialists was first set up in the late 1980s and initially it was just a contract spraying service. But when the wrong chemical used to turn up on farm and smaller farmers were stuck with part cans of chemical they didn’t need, Tony – who was then running the business on his own – saw a gap in the market. “We thought the job could run a lot smoother if we supplied the chemical and only charged farmers for the amount they needed.”
This meant they didn’t need to worry about ordering chemical, storing it or disposing of part-used and empty containers.
Almost 30 years later, this approach has paid off. The father-and-son team’s force of self-propelled sprayers now covers more than 40,000ha/year and most of this falls within a 25-mile radius of the farm. They’ve also expanded the number of services they offer to include agronomy, crop consultancy, grassland rejuvenation, fertiliser and lime spreading.
- Offers a complete agronomy, supply and application service for smaller customers
- Sprays 40,000ha/year with four self-propelled sprayers
- Offers lime and fertiliser spreading services as well as grass seeding
Some of the firm’s larger customers ask for an application-only service, but there’s still a strong demand for a complete service from crop planning through to application. “We get a lot of farmers with 160ha or less that just want us to do the whole lot,” says Robert. “At the moment, 60-70% of our customers are taking the full package.”
Part of the reason for Robert and Tony’s success is that the area is packed with smaller mixed farms that don’t have lots of equipment. “There is 2,500 head of dairy cows within a four-mile radius of our base and that gives us a lot of grassland to look after,” says Robert. “It’s great for us as a lot of other contractors don’t seem to bother with smaller patches of grassland.”
Robert and Tony’s focus on customer service means they never prioritise farmers according to size. “Every customer is valued the same no matter what the size of the farm,” says Robert. This approach has helped them build long-term relationships with their customers and they can boast that they’ve never lost a customer to another contractor unless they’ve sold up.”
In a lot of cases, this relationship goes as far as sitting down with the farmer once a year to help him put his cropping plans together. Robert and Tony are both Basis and Facts qualified and share this responsibility between them.
To cope with the diverse range of work, Robert and Tony run a mixed fleet of self-propelled sprayers ranging from an old Frazier Agribuggy 4D with Avadex applicator to a Househam Airride with 30m boom. Smaller fields are generally tackled with newer Kelland Agribuggies and a Frazier Phantom, while the bigger fields are covered by the Househam and a Bateman RB26. Most of these are fitted with GPS.
Generally, frontline machines are kept for three years and they have a target of clocking up at least 1,200 hours/machine a year. During this time they’re maintained on farm and stored in a purpose-built storage and filling shed with workshop bay.
The seasonal nature of the work means there are slightly quieter times of year, which gives them a chance to carry out some of the bigger maintenance jobs and send drivers on training courses.
Robert is continuing to expand the business and one of the latest purchases is a variable-rate spinner. In the past two-and-a-half months, this has covered more than 10,000ha and he has supplied fertiliser for a good chunk of this.
The next step is to improve their soil sampling service. At the moment this is a bit of a sideline, but Robert is hoping to invest in an automated system. “This will add an important service to our whole crop protection package.”
Green Farm, Yoxford, Suffolk
If there were an award for the hardest grafter in the sugar beet industry, there’s a good chance the engraver would be etching Peter Butler’s name on it.
For the past 30 years, this Suffolk contractor has devoted his life to the sugary root crop and at the age of 65, he’s showing little sign of slowing down. During the last campaign he lifted more than 1,200ha of beet and he’s set to do the same again this year.
On top of this he offers a full range of sugar beet contracting services, farms another 180ha of mainly tenanted land and clocks up countless hours touring the eastern counties with his tractor and weed wiper.
He also harvests 800ha of cereals a year with his John Deere S690i combine.
It all sounds a bit too much to manage, but Peter says the system slots together nicely. “It keeps me busy all year round, but there aren’t too many overlaps,” he says. “When I need to go combining, the beet’s not being too demanding and when it comes to lifting, the arable work is usually finished for the year.”
He has also kept pace with the latest technological advancements, running a state-of-the-art Agrifac Big Six beet harvester. This is changed every two years to make sure it doesn’t let him down and keeps pace with the competition.
His intimate knowledge of the machines means Agrifac also drafts him in to help with new developments and refinements. That means regular trips to the company’s headquarters in the Netherlands and testing of new machines before they go on sale.
- 1,200ha sugar beet harvesting with an Agrifac Big Six
- Offers most additional sugar beet contracting services from establishment to weed wiping
- Farms 180ha of mainly tenanted land growing feed wheat, barley, oilseed rape and sugar beet
Due to his years in the game and his reputation for getting the job done whatever the conditions, Peter is in the enviable position of not having to tout for work. “Everything is through word of mouth and I’ve got about 40 loyal customers that have been with me for years,” he says. “I’ve got a personal relationship with all of them and they’re not just numbers.”
Peter also prides himself on the fact he always turns up when he says he will and he never fails to get the job done. “You’ll often see me running the beet harvester from dawn till dusk – as I always say, if you want to get a job done, ask a busy person.”
Peter’s profile in the world of sugar beet means he’s also filled countless column inches in the local agricultural press. He was also invited to drive his beet harvester through London during the Lord Mayor’s Show.
As well as beet planting and harvesting, Peter has carved himself a bit of a niche with his weed wiping service for controlling weed beet.
When it comes to financing equipment, Peter has opted to keep most of the frontline machines on hire purchase agreements. This means he knows his costs and the fleet is kept bang up to date.
“I try to deal with manufacturers direct rather than dealers and I generally manage to keep the monthly payments the same each time I switch.”
He’s also just invested in a state-of-the-art electric-drive drill with GPS auto shut-off this year. The reduction in overlaps means he’s cut seed costs by so much it covers the cost of drilling the crop.
Peter now has one full-time employee, Sam, to help spread the hefty workload.
“I’m training him up as best I can and he’s also studying at Otley College,” says Peter. “I’ve put him through a number of courses and we always make sure we take time out to go to agricultural shows.”
Green Farm, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Setting up farm contracting business is far from straightforward. Even with farming blood coursing through your veins and a contacts book bursting at the bindings, it’s tough to get started. For an Oxfordshire pilot’s son setting out in Suffolk, it would appear near impossible.
But after 10 years of hard graft and a few shrewd business decisions, Olly Neil has grown his one-man-band operation to one that employs seven men full time and takes on work across four counties.
The core of Olly’s buzzing business is growing and supplying maize to seven biogas plants, but he also owns a spreader hire company, runs a separate contract spreading service and carries out construction work at equestrian facilities.
It all started a decade ago when Olly decided to study at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. This convinced him of his career of choice, but he was less keen on the academic drudgery.
He decided to go straight in at the deep end and set up his own business. After scraping some cash together having worked on a landfill site, he bought a second-hand JCB Fastrac with a KRM Bredal spreader and got some work with British Sugar.
Initially it was tough to get going, but eventually the customers started coming in. “It took about three years for me to get the business off the ground,” says Olly. “But when people saw me sticking with it, they seemed to respect that and I gradually got more work.”
From there the spreader work took off, allowing him to take on more men and machines and to set up a spreader hire business.
He then set up a road reclamation business that was later sold to Sentry Farms and got into the supply of maize for biogas plants. He also had the opportunity to diversify into equestrian construction work at Newmarket, which meant he could keep his employees busy year round.
- Growing and managing 2,600ha of maize crops for seven AD plants
- Spreads lime, muck and AD plant digestate and sewage sludge cake for Anglian Water
- Owns spreader hire company Eastern Counties Hire and a construction division that works on equestrian projects
Secret to success
Olly reckons one of the secrets to his success is the fact that he wasn’t from a farming background. “Because I didn’t know what to expect, I took every opportunity at face value,” he says. “If I’d had a bit more farming knowledge I might have let some of the better work pass me by.”
It has also meant he has been able to carve himself a bit of a niche without stepping on other contractors’ toes.
Now that the business is well established, Olly spends a fair chunk of time making sure it runs efficiently and profitably.
One of his more successful managerial moves was to switch the way he charges for his spreading services. “We now charge everything by tonnes spread rather than the more common hourly rate and we have a sliding rate scale depending on the application rate requested.”
Because he is running high-capacity machines with skilled operators, this has significantly improved his profit margins and it is also fairer for customers, as they are only being charged for the work completed, he says.
Operations manager Andy Gregory keeps tabs on the staff and machines and co-ordinates all work to make sure travel times are kept to a minimum. Olly has also appointed a workshop fitter to keep the machinery fleet in good fettle.
Before, most machines were maintained by the dealer on service agreements, but it proved most cost effective to have a man on site. He also drives tractors and carries out additional work for neighbouring farmers.
To help keep the business rolling in, Olly takes a regular pitch at the Suffolk show, advertises in the local agricultural press and sends out flyers to potential customers. He is keen to develop and grow the business, but doesn’t want to take on too many other services. “We’ve carved out a bit of a niche with our services and I’d prefer to do a few things really well than be average at everything.”
But it’s not just the farming fraternity Mervyn entertains. Encouraging schoolchildren and non-farming groups alike, last year he welcomed more than 250 visitors to the farm.
“Acknowledging the efforts to create successful contracting businesses within British agriculture is extremely important to JCB. We understand the challenges they face, and believe the three finalists are all worthy of the title Contractor of the Year 2014”
Find out more about the 2014 Farmers Weekly Awards