16 August 2002

BEST 5YR FARM PLAN

SHOWS HOW ITS DONE

This years Farm Planner of the Year competition was open to

teams of students as well as individuals for the first time.

But it was an individual – Rob Addicott – who produced

the best farm development plan. David Cousins reports

WEVE said it before, but its worth repeating. The task of the students in the annual Farm Planner of the Year competition is far from an easy one. They have a brief tour of the host farm and a chance to chat with the farmer or farm manager.

On the basis of that, they then have to produce a five-year development plan that will recommend what enterprises the business should either keep or drop and whether it should branch out into some new agricultural or non-agricultural diversification. Basically, they must judge whether the business is on the right track or not.

This years host farm was Hartley Park Farm, Selborne, Hants. Farmed by Tim Butler and his family since 1930, the 557ha (1376 acre) all-arable unit majors on wheat, rape and potatoes. Like many in the area, it used to grow a big acreage of hops, but that has all but gone, with a couple of acres of the crop grown for their bines the only remnant.

It headed down the path of diversification some years ago, with several barns converted for light industrial or office use. There is also a fledgling lavender business that has considerable scope for the future and a further set of barns is earmarked for conversion.

Shares machinery

Aware of the need to reduce machinery and labour costs, Mr Butler shares machinery and staff with two neighbouring farms. He hasnt gone mad with the cheque book at the local machinery dealer and buys second-hand where he can. Its a well-run, efficient farm.

Sounds like a business that is ideally placed to withstand the chilly trading conditions of early 21st century agriculture? Well yes, but Mr Butler is candid enough to admit that its only the rental income from the converted barns that is maintaining a decent income. Without it, the farm would be struggling to make a worthwhile profit.

So this was the situation into which our plucky students strode. There were key questions to answer – Is the farm concentrating on the right enterprises? Should it continue with potatoes, which (though turning in a good profit in some years) soak up a lot of labour and are currently bedeviled by eelworm? Should it head even further down the barn conversion route and start to think about opening tearooms or restaurants? Should it head down the environmentally-friendly road and put a lot more land into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme?

And the winner is…

In the judges opinion, Rob Addicott from Cannington came up with the best five-year plan. The team from Bishop Burton College were the runners-up and Chris Tolley from the University of Nottingham was highly commended.

So what were Mr Addicotts suggestions and did they get the thumbs-up from Tim Butler? Here are the key ones, with Mr Butlers comments on them.

&#8226 Sell some of the 12 farm

cottages and use the money to pay off outstanding loans. Also reinvest some of the

capital in further development of the farm buildings into offices or light industrial.

"We have been considering this option over the last two or three months," says Mr Butler. "Its quite feasible and our financial adviser has said it would certainly be an option if we felt we were under pressure from borrowings. However we wouldnt want to sell until that point came."

&#8226 Develop the beef building and silage bunker into office/light industrial and make use of any England Rural Development Plan grants available.

"This is one route we have already decided to go down. In fact the planning on the buildings is due to come through next week and the bank has said it will lend £200,000 for it. However we probably wont have it completed until the end of 2003 or beginning of 2004. We think there is still a strong demand in this area for good quality buildings.

"Im not sure whether well get a grant for the farm buildings. The trouble is that these schemes stand up well on their own so you fail the need condition which says that you will only get a grant if the project wouldnt go ahead without it. We dont want to waste a lot of time going for something we may well not get. I think we may try for a grant for the lavender enterprise, though."

&#8226 Keep the potato enterprise but look at ways to extend the interval between crops to keep down the eelworm problem.

"Rob Addicotts thinking was very much along the same lines as ours here. We have decided to keep the potato enterprise. The returns are small but we think its worth persevering with. We will rent land from a neighbour who has not grown the crop for many years and the rent for that is probably no more than what we are currently spending on controlling eelworm.

"We want to keep costs down, so the possibility of building a £200,000 cold store has been postponed. We were also unhappy with the amount of damage to the crop being done by our current harvester, but didnt want to have to spend £50,000 to £60,000 on a new one.

"Fortunately a good second-hand Pearson which had only done 250 acres came up this summer for £29,000. We think that should reduce the damage and we have made some changes to the grading line to improve output from 100-120 boxes/day to 160-170.

&#8226 Expand the area of land in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme by increasing the

current 2m conservation margins to 6m.

"Good idea. Weve already filled in the form!" says Mr Butler. "The payment for 6m margins is much better and we always found the 2m ones a bit difficult to manage. We have a total of 13,777m of 2m margins, which will all become 6m ones. The loss of crop is small and it gives better control of things like cleavers.

&#8226 Develop the farm workshop to provide local farmers with off-season servicing facilities.

"This is certainly an idea worth considering. We do have a well-equipped workshop and a good fitter, Tony, though he is close to retirement. We dont know what the demand is locally for servicing facilities and Im not sure what would happen at busy times on the farm, but its a distinct possibility. Another similar option we have considered when Tony retires is offering the workshop to a local person to use; they would then do our repairs in lieu of rent."

&#8226 Overall comments?

"It was remarkable what Rob Addicott achieved, considering that he and the others had only a brief chance to get acquainted with this business. His review of the current situation rang true and his suggestions chimed very much with our own ideas."

Bishop Burton ideas

The Bishop Burton team came up with broadly similar ideas on the potato enterprise and Countryside Stewardship Scheme plans. For space reasons, we wont repeat those here, but the team also proposed several other interesting and well-though-out ideas, including the following.

&#8226 Increase the area under minimum tillage to further reduce machinery costs.

"We already have a block of 300-400 acres that was minimum-tilled for the first time last autumn. We would like to expand it, but are not sure whether min-till is suitable for some of our greensands that dont hold their structure so well. Also this land is quite cheap to plough."

&#8226 Grow beans as a break crop.

"Yes, we will start growing beans for the first time next year. Weve never grown them in the past as harvesting would have clashed with the hops. However, now the hops have gone, theyre better after potatoes than rape because they dont encourage the slugs so much."

&#8226 Convert the old hop processing shed into stables.

"Its a good idea and we have considered equine as a diversification. However we think that building has more potential as offices/light industrial or possibly as a retail shop for the lavender enterprise.

"All our buildings are also quite close together and its sometimes a bit difficult to fit stables in with other commercial users of converted barns. However, if we had a block of buildings slightly away from the main ones, we would certainly have a go at it.

&#8226 Expand the lavender

enterprise.

"This certainly is in line with our thinking. The equipment for processing the crop was moved to the farm earlier in the summer and we see considerable scope for expansion here. We are also considering opening up the lavender fields to visitors from mid-June to mid-August."

&#8226 Farm Planner of the Years organised by the Institute of Agricultural Management

sponsored by Farmplan and HSBC Agriculture and supported by farmers weekly.