From grass cutting to skip hire and green waste compost, Gary Short is quick to spot business opportunities.

The outskirts of London isn’t the most obvious place to set up an agricultural contracting business, but 20 years ago that’s exactly what Gary Short did.

His passion for agriculture pulled him away from the family’s established demolition business and instead, with one Hesston forage harvester, he set up Shorts Agricultural, which today turns over about £3m.

The business serves about 100 customers in a 20-25-mile radius, including several large estates in Berkshire and Oxfordshire – not bad going considering the logistical challenges of a base sandwiched between London, Slough and Bracknell.

“We’ve always focused on silage and baling, rather than arable,” Gary says. “Most arable farmers around here are well-equipped and don’t need a contractor.”

But, as in so many areas, the number of dairy farms in the region has declined and the business has had to find new ways of making money. “There aren’t many farms around here, so we have to set up to appeal to a range of clients. As a result, it’s very progressive. We don’t get it right all the time, but the important thing is we never stand still.”

Indeed, the diversity of Shorts Agricultural is incredible. From council grass-cutting and skip-hire services to car-park gritting and green-waste compost production, it seems there are few options Gary is not willing to consider. As well as providing new income streams – the compost alone generates about £500,000 – these ventures also help better use existing staff, machinery and buildings, he says. “You’ve got to try to stand back and spot opportunities. Diversity is a strength.”

Gary’s strong, business-minded attitude is clear to see when it comes to managing the firm’s finances. “Ag contractors are big spenders on kit, but a finance company’s nightmare,” he says.

To manage cash flow, many regular customers are on a payment plan, with monthly instalments timed to suit the customer (eg payments to coincide with milk cheques). All invoicing is through the central office on a weekly basis. “The sooner invoices get into the system, the sooner any problems can be sorted out.”

Most of the kit – owned or on fixed-hire arrangements – is run under warranty to reduce downtime and maintenance, he says. “If you’ve paid for the kit and the man, you’ve got to maximise their use throughout the season.” That’s particularly relevant given that staffing costs so close to London are greater than just 20-30 miles away, he says.

Despite the scale of Shorts Agricultural, Gary is still keen to work closely with other local contractors. He is a member of Thames & Kennet machinery ring and regularly shares equipment such as bale wrappers. “We’re never going to compete on price alone with a lot of smaller outfits, so it’s far better to co-exist and help each other than be in competition. At the end of the day, if people believe in what you’re doing and can see a benefit from a quality job, they will pay more for it.”

Being based in such an urbanised area, Gary is all-too aware of the need to keep the local community on-side. School groups and the local Rotary Club have visited the farm and he is also keen to do more with the “tractors in schools” project. Illustrating his desire to keep local residents happy, all reversing tones on the composting kit have been changed to the sound of a curlew!

What the judges liked

  • Strong business focus and professionally run
  • Quick to spot new business opportunities
  • Good understanding of all aspects of the business – even down to detail about individual pieces of kit
  • Modern kit used to offer a “premium” service
  • Down to earth attitude
  • Green ethos behind a lot of what they do – eg composting, farm waste recycling
  • Works with local community

Farm facts

  • Work undertaken: 1000ha (2500 acres) grass silage, 500ha (1200 acres) maize silage, hay and straw baling (50,000 bales per year), muck & lime spreading, mowing, compost production, ag waste baling
  • Machinery fleet: Tractors – 4x John Deere 6930, 2x JD 7530, 2x JCB Fastracs, 2x New Holland TL90, plus several compact tractors.
  • Other: 3x telescopic handlers, 1x 13t 360 excavator, 1x 6t 360 excavator, 1x 500hp self-propelled NH forage harvester, 2x Claas 2100 balers, 1x Claas 2200 baler
  • Labour: Seven full-time, plus eight seasonal part-time staff