23 August 1996

Consistency wins the day in tough contest

Finalists travelled from far and wide – from Devon to Dumfries – for the climax of this years Tractor Driver event, held at Silsoe Research Institute last week. Andrew Faulkner reports

JONATHAN Hills, who farms at Kiln Farm, Barnston, Essex, is Tractor Driver of the Year 1996.

Back for his second Silsoe Research Institute final in just three years, 35-year-old Mr Hills took the title after resisting tough challenges from his four fellow finalists: Mark Bowran, Mark Burgess, Julian Plank and Alun Sing.

As in previous years, it was solid performances in all five stages that secured victory for the eventual champion; Mr Hills came out on top in two of the tasks and was runner-up in the remaining three. In Tractor Driver of the Year, it would seem, consistency is the key.

"Jonathan was a good, all-round competitor with no obvious weaknesses. And that showed up in the results," says Robert Lockhart, assistant agricultural director at the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) and chairman of the judging panel.

"It was his second Silsoe final, which probably helped him relax a little quicker than the others. But thats not to take anything away from his achievement. He had obviously put in a lot of homework in the run-up to the competition, and thoroughly deserved his victory."

Mr Hills certainly had to work hard for his title. Tenacious challenges were put in from all four runners-up who were evenly matched in their final scores. They simply lacked the winners overall consistency.

That particularly applied to Devon farmer Alun Sing who was outstanding in two events, the materials handling and machinery evaluation. The other three sections – well, he probably feels he did himself little justice.

"There is no doubt Alun Sing knew his machinery," says Silsoe Colleges Robert Walker, who judged the evaluation section – a test which assessed competitors knowledge of a selection of used equipment. "Alun even knew how to use tyre serial numbers to estimate the age of a machine," Mr Walker adds.

Using his livestock background to full effect, Mr Sing also topped the materials handler task. "His performance – smoothness of operation, safety awareness and all-round confidence – reflected his greater materials handling experience," says JCBs Gordon Attwell. "He was also the only one to get 100% on the written questionnaire."

From there on in, it was all downhill for Mr Sing who put in disappointing performances in the ploughing, transport and spraying sections – events where eventual winner, Jonathan Hills, scored heavily.

Even so, Mr Hills could not quite match John Deere sales demonstrator, Julian Plank, when it came to sprayer calibration and operation. These two were, "head and shoulders" above the others, according to Knight Farm Machinerys John Holme, judge for the sprayer section.

"Not having tramlines seemed to unsettle most of the competitors, with basic mistakes made on when to turn the sprayer on/off – both at headland corners and in the land work."

In the last two events, it was all Mr Hill. Both plough and road judges, Jim Dalton and Martin McAllister, placed him top of their respective sections. Mr McAllister, in particular, was very impressed.

"Jonathan was the only one to put warning marker boards on the side of cultivator for the right reason – because it was too long (over 2m) rather than too wide."

So, at the end of a tough days competition, Mr Hills turned out to be a clear and popular winner, collecting the Tractor Driver trophy from Silsoes deputy director, Paul Biscoe, along with a cheque for £1000.

Asked what he planned to do with the money, Mr Hills replied: "I really dont know. The trophy was the most important thing, the cheque was just a bonus." Bizarre, perhaps, but there was little doubting his sincerity.n

&#8226 Tractor Driver 96 is organised by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE), Silsoe Research Institute and farmers weekly in association with leading tractor makers.

Tractor tasks

&#8226 Machine evaluation: Assess relative merits of 16-year-old IH1246 tractor, Claas Markant 55 and New Holland 370 balers, and Lely and Kuhn power harrow/drill combinations.

&#8226 Materials handler: Load and tow New Holland 7635 tractor/trailer with round bales using a JCB Loadall 526S.

&#8226 Sprayer: Calibrate and operate Knight KM1012 1000-litre sprayer, mounted on a 105hp John Deere 6506 tractor.

&#8226 Plough: Set up and work a 120hp Massey Ferguson 6180 tractor and Dowdeswell DP10 four-furrow reversible.

&#8226 On the road: Prepare a 100hp Case Maxxum 5130 tractor and Silsoe pig-tine cultivator for the road, and safely negotiate a 4.8km (3-mile) course.

Ploughing judge, Jim Dalton, keeps a watchful eye on finalist Alun Sing, a farmer from Devon.

Tractor drivers on parade. From left: Jonathan Hills (this years winner), Mark Bowran, Alun Sing, Mark Burgess and Julian Plank.

Oh, er, Missus! Jonathan Hills slips a rubber sheath over cultivator "pointy bits". The aim is to alert and protect highway users.

Julian Plank (red cap) and Knight Farm Machinerys John Holme discuss the finer points of sprayer calibration. Mr Plank turned in a winning performance in this section.