The 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards finalists have been announced and the judges have visited each of the contenders for a three-hour interview and tour.

This year’s contracting businesses are particularly geographically diverse, but what they all have in common is a careful eye on machinery costs, a keenness to invest in the latest equipment and top-drawer management of a large workforce.

See also: Book your table for the 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards night

The 2017 Contractor of the Year finalists are:  

  • Robert Chapman, Westover Farm Contractors, Calbourne, Isle of Wight
  • Russell Price, Russell Price Farm Services, Castle Frome, Herefordshire
  • John Drew Watson, Drew Watson Agri-Services, Mouswald, Dumfries

The judges:

  • Tina Bartlett, Bartlett Contractors, the 2015 Farmers Weekly Awards Contractor of the Year
  • Oliver Mark, Farmers Weekly Machinery editor
  • Jill Hewitt, Springtime Consultancy

Robert Chapman, Westover Farm Contractors, Isle of Wight

Robert Champan

Robert Champan © Hugh Nutt

The contractor

Business facts

  • 40 customers across the Isle of Wight
  • Offers arable and grassland operations
  • 10 full-time staff, plus 10 seasonal
  • Purpose-built workshop with full-time mechanic
  • Fleet includes 10 Fendt tractors, Claas Lexion combine and Krone forager

Robert Chapman’s contracting business is still in its infancy, but it’s already taking care of huge swaths of arable fields and grassland across the Isle of Wight.

The business was built on his love for farm machinery and, coupled with shrewd buying decisions, he has built up an enviable fleet of 10 Fendt tractors, a combine and forager in seven years.

The rapid growth is largely down to Robert’s relentless work ethic that, for a long time, saw him putting in dawn-‘til-dusk stints on the forager and sprayer until he had built up a big enough team to support him.

Machinery

As with any contracting operation, tractor purchases, servicing and rotation is important in making the sums add up.

Machines are bought from a dealer on the mainland – Compass Tractors – at a year old and with 1,000 hours on the clock.

That means someone else has to take the big hit on depreciation, and Westover has a full-time mechanic to reduce the reliance on dealers for servicing and fixing, minimising any knock-on breakdown disruptions to customers.

The team takes tremendous pride in the fleet, which helps secure a decent used value further down the line.

Most other kit purchases come second-hand, too. It allows Robert to buy bigger equipment than initially required, leaving capacity for extra work during busy periods.

 

Staff

Robert’s attention to detail has rubbed off on his staff and he’s in the unusual position of having a waiting list of would-be employees keen to take on work for Westover.

His 10-strong team returns to the same jobs every year, which allows the company to play a more involved role in customers’ cropping decisions.

Range of work

Running spraying, foraging, combining and cultivation operations makes for a hectic spring, summer and autumn, so winter workloads are reduced to give the staff a chance to recharge their batteries.

It gives Robert an opportunity to catch up with customers and talk through payment plans that are often shaped around milk cheques or livestock market dates.

Increasingly, Westover is also taking the reins of full farming systems, rather than piecemeal jobs. That makes management much easier and is a glowing endorsement of the quality of his work.

The judges liked

  • Good understanding of costs
  • Spots opportunities to save money while still providing a quality service
  • Cares deeply about his reputation
  • Immaculate machinery fleet
  • Excellent staff management
  • Shrewd machinery purchases
  • Every job priced individually to reflect the factors involved
Well-planned purchases, a sharp eye for costs and a fastidious maintenance regime helps get more from each item in Westover’s contracting armoury, where a quality service is the priority.

Russell Price, Russell Price Farm Services, Herefordshire

Russell Price

Russell Price © Richard Stanton

The contractor

Business facts

  • Travels within 50-mile radius of Ledbury
  • 150 customers
  • Combinable crops, potatoes and spraying
  • Also has a rented farm and machinery dealership
  • Buys inputs in bulk and acts as mini buying group for customers
  • Works across Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire

Any wannabe contractor can tout for work as a man-and-machine operation, but Russell Price goes the extra mile.

His one-stop farming shop sees him take an active role in the full farming cycle, offering agronomy and tillage suggestions to give him and his customers the best chance of getting the most out of the land and the crop.

You have to wind the clock back to 1991 to see the first shoots of his business, which was built on Herefordshire’s potato sector.

In his spud harvesting heyday, he had five gangs and 800ha but the market has tightened in recent years, forcing the smallest farmers out of production and Russell to create a more diverse range of services that now includes a home farm and machinery dealership.

Machinery

Like most contracting outfits, kit purchases take an almighty bite out of the business’ capital, but Russell tries to limit the financial hit by timing purchases and sales to get the most out of every item.

Tractors clock 1,500 hours/year and come with the safety cushion of a 6,000-hour warranty as well as the support of a good mechanic on the payroll.

Russell is also keen to be at the front of the queue for new technology that could improve his productivity, provided it justifies the investment.

He has dabbled with N sensors, uses GPS on the tractors and yield mapping on the combine, and has his eye on adding variable-rate drilling and telematics systems in the future.

 

Staff

A team of nine core staff balloons to 25 during busy periods.

Lots of those are subcontractors who come with their own tractor but Russell still likes to spend time in the driver’s seat where possible, which helps keep his finger on the farming pulse.

Several of those have been there for close to 20 years and are rewarded annually with a bonus scheme, and he also employs an independent agronomist for in-house crop protection services for his customers.

Workload

Herefordshire’s agriculture sector is one of the most diverse in the country and Russell is always scouting for opportunities to reduce his dependency on arable work.

That will spread the risk and offer a steadier income, provided the sums stack up and he is able to offer a quality, reliable service.

The judges liked

  • Plays an active role in the farming community
  • Broad range of work dovetails with own farm and dealership
  • Offers a complete package, not just machinery and driver
  • Mix of customers and crop types spreads risk
  • Gets involved in courses to develop his skills
  • Balanced workload
Russell is in his dream job, but it has been 26 years in the making. His enthusiasm is the bedrock to a contracting operation that is fully committed to getting the best crop yields for every customer

John Drew Watson, Drew Watson Agri-Services, Dumfries and Galloway

John and Drew Watson

John (left) and Drew Watson © Jim Varney

The contractor

Business facts

  • More than 100 customers in a 30-mile radius
  • Full grass and cereals service package
  • 14 full-time staff, plus up to 30 during busy periods
  • Vast machinery fleet including more than 20 tractors, three foragers and three combines
  • Operates throughout the Borders and southern Scotland

The Watson family’s 50-year-old contracting outfit is one of the most versatile in southern Scotland, catering for grass harvesting, gritting and everything in between.

It’s a competitive area where start-up one-man-bands constantly undercut the old guard to get a foot on the ladder, so having a proven, streamlined service is key.

Geographically, the company works within a 30-mile radius of the main base, from which it organises its massive fleet of more than 20 tractors, three foragers and a shed load of implements.

Machinery

Having such a large machinery arsenal gives the Watsons a strong hand in negotiating new purchases and means it can cater for customers both small and big.

John’s interest in technology is reflected clearly through the ranks of kit parked at the firm’s Mouswald base. Many of the tractors run on guidance and auto-steer, while foragers are fitted with telematics to monitor job progress without bothering drivers.

Similarly, the business was one of the first to get into drilling maize under plastic and now runs three Samco drills, and has also been trialling variable slurry nitrogen rates with John Deere’s Harvest Lab system.

Yield mapping grass is offered too, and will be paired with variable rate drilling in the future. Providing such an integrated system gives customers access to cutting edge tech and allows the Watsons to tie up longer-term agreements.

Staff

During busy times the staff numbers can swell to 30, which is large enough to account for holidays that inevitably interrupt a job. Of that, 14 are full-time, live locally, and get a big say on kit purchases.

With a large team capable of offering silage and umbilical services at the same time, many of the staff average north of 60 hours/week and regularly hit 100 hours/week.

 

Workload

The range of services has helped build a varied customer base not reliant on one single commodity.

Some jobs are worth less than £200, but are considered a great opportunity to establish new relationships that often develop into more fruitful sources of business.

Amenity work such as gritting also occupies the team through the leaner winter months, ties up less capital than a forager gang and keeps the company at the sharp end of health and safety rules.

The judges like:

  • Complete package keeps team busy year-round
  • Well-balanced machinery buying policy
  • At the sharp end of machinery technology
  • Key player in the local area
  • Keen to invest in kit where opportunities arise
  • Amenity work fits nicely with mainline ag services
Versatility is key to happy customers and there are few jobs that the Watsons can’t handle. A monster fleet means combines, foragers, balers, wrappers and rakes can all run simultaneously.

Fendt is sponsoring the 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards Contractor of the Year

Fendt logo“The three businesses are all tackling the challenges of running a modern contracting operation head-on.

In particular, they are willing to invest time and money in exploring fresh ways to improve the service they deliver to their customers.

Often that involves new technology, which also helps improve their efficiency and gets more from their machinery fleet.”

Martin Hamer, national sales manager, Fendt