20 February 1998

Cheque book? Shut tight…

South-west growers are

preparing for lower prices

and higher costs in the

years ahead. John Burns

explains how some plan to

weather the storm

A CLOSED cheque book is Lister Tamblyns recipe for farming survival. Mr Tamblyn, who farms about 324ha (800 acres) in partnership with his parents near Landrake, Plymouth, plans "to keep the cheque book closed for up to five years. Were quitting potatoes, and the future for cereals doesnt look bright either. We dont get high yields so we rely on subsidy."

The farm will continue with cereals because there are no obvious alternative enterprises and they spread fixed costs.

About 200ha (500 acres) is eligible for arable aid and it will all be cropped. They have dedicated grain stores, a drier and a cleaner, and are applying for the combinable crops assurance scheme. Some grain is fed to their 110 beef cattle (bought in at four to five months old) and 470 ewes. The rest is sold through the co-op, Wessex Grain.

The work force comprises Lister, his father, three full-time employees and a trainee. The Tamblyns have so far resisted further staff reductions because the farm is in two blocks four miles apart and travelling between the two can be time consuming on narrow lanes or busy A roads.

Consultants advise more use of contractors but changeable weather, relatively small fields, and slow travel on roads, make waiting for a contractor too risky, according to Mr Tamblyn. "It might be all right in East Anglia where they have scale, better weather, and more contractors, but it can be a nightmare here."

Taking on more land to spread costs is not an option at present. The area they farm is surrounded by Plymouth, the moors, and the sea. And land prices and rents are far too high for safety.

"Farmers should be adding value to their produce, politicians tell us. But they dont realise the scale needed. Food processors operate on an international scale today and two attempts to set up chip factories here both went bust."

Diversifying into tourism is not the attraction it first seems. "We have lots of traditional farm buildings we ought to be converting for holiday lets. But we are tenants, apart from 170 acres I own. We would have to put up all the capital and that would be foolish."

Like most farmers, Mr Tamblyn is driven to distraction by the ruthless demands of supermarkets and their habit of preaching one thing and practising another. "They tell their customers they are helping to protect the environment. They tell us to grow potato varieties which need extra blight sprays and to use irrigation purely to ensure a good skin finish. Last year I used more chemicals on potatoes than ever.

"They haul them long distances on bigger and bigger lorries and they force prices down to the point where we give up. The contract we were offered for second earlies this year was below our cost of production. We couldnt get one for maincrops."

Until two years ago they grew 24ha (60 acres) of potatoes and had invested heavily in storage, irrigation, and modern equipment. But they were losing money heavily. Costs included about £5000 a year to co-ops Mayflower and Anglian Produce, and the British Potato Council.

His assessment was confirmed by his accountant and a detailed ADAS business review, half funded by Objective 5B money. A fire which destroyed all their potato grading equipment, a materials handler, and other tackle, served to crystalise his ideas. No potatoes will be planted this year and all the remaining potato equipment and surplus machinery will be sold.

Other break crops will be needed to maximise area of first wheats. Winter oats do well here and are cheap to grow. Triticale, now common in the area, will be tried because it needs few inputs and appears to be less attractive to rabbits than other cereals. More spring crops will also be grown to spread labour demand and improve cash flow, says Mr Tamblyn.

Lister Tamblyn: Fed up with the ruthless demands of the supermarket.