College farm goes local to stay ahead
Co-operation with a local
contract farming company is
giving one Leics college a
chance to turns its farm into
the sort of well-run, profitable
farming enterprise that
students can learn from.
David Cousins explains how
ONCE upon a time, all respectable land-based colleges were expected to manage all aspects of their own farm and to have a good spread of enterprises. But as farming became steadily less profitable, it got harder to keep up the investment in machinery and good staff. Some colleges reacted by selling off their farms, others pushed on with their existing set-ups. But a third group looked to maintain the quality of their farms by joining forces with local farmers or farming companies.
Brooksby Melton College in Leics opted for the third category. It has had a relatively large 345ha (850 acre) farm for many years, with 220ha (550 acres) of arable cropping, a 180-head dairy herd and a 1000-ewe sheep flock.
But in May 1999 principal Tony Gray decided that the arable side of the colleges farm operation couldnt continue in its current form. Considerable investment in buildings and machinery was needed and he knew that it would only be a genuinely useful educational asset for students if it showed it could hold its head up in economic as well as technical terms.
"The farm was still making money and achieving satisfactory yields," he says. "But as profits fell, it got harder and harder to put the investment back into the farm. We also have to show students the commercial reality of farming as well as the latest technology. The pace of change in farming is so fast that you need support at the sharp end of farming to keep up with developments."
Tenders to run the arable side of the farm were invited and some 40 individuals and firms applied, including some of the famous-name farming companies.
In the event, the college chose a relatively unknown and youthful contract farming company called TopEnd Farming. Started by local farmers Neil Gilby and John Stanley, TopEnd promised a realistic return to the college as well as having a good reputation in the area.
But being able to promise a good return is one thing; having the technical skills and organisational ability to achieve it year after year is another. And it was here that TopEnd impressed with its sensible level of machinery investment and the admirably low costs that come from not having to buy in advice from agronomists, consultants, accountants or anyone else.
Almost more important than that, says Mr Gray, was what TopEnd could offer to boost the educational value of the farm. While existing agriculture courses at Brooksby Melton could give students a sound knowledge of the basics of farming, he points out, there is a massive benefit in having someone like Neil Gilby assisting them and staff to keep bang up-to-date with the month-by-month developments in machinery, chemicals and agronomic techniques.\
Not only can the students see for themselves how the job is done on the farm, but Neil Gilby also comes to the college once a month to lecture. As well as that, all the farms costings are accessible to students via the colleges IT network.
A good range of crops is grown to provide maximum educational benefit.
"The point being it wasnt just a case of getting contractors in to do the fieldwork," says Mr Gray. "We knew with TopEnd Farming we were getting fieldwork, agronomy, input choice, plus the educational benefits -the whole package."