Anyone who doubts that you can carve out a good career in the ultra-competitive world of agricultural contracting should take note of Mark Bowran. He started his business almost four years ago with just £2500 in savings. Now he has 150 customers and a machinery fleet worth more than £1m.
Mark, 32, is not a farmer’s son, but he had always been fascinated by farm machinery. After doing his HNC in Agriculture at Barony Agricultural College at Dumfries, he spent a year on a beef and sheep farmwork placement and followed that up with six weeks’ silage work with a local contractor at Mouswald.
This must have gone well because it resulted in the contractor offering him a full-time position which gave him 11 years’ vital experience operating a wide range of machinery. After that came a short spell on a beef farm again – he was keen to work more regular hours – that convinced him that machinery, rather than stock, was where his heart lay.
Going it alone
“There are two main reasons I decided then to give working for myself a go – I didn’t want to wonder ‘what if?’ when I was 60 and I realised I didn’t want someone else calling the shots about when I had to work,” he says.
By raking together all his savings – a grand total of £2500 – Mark found he had enough to make the first three payments on a tractor hired from a local company. He started contracting on his own in spring 2003 based at his uncle’s Collochan Farm, Terregles, near Dumfries.
“I’d put every penny I had into leasing the tractor and knew there would be no money in for 60 days. I was really stony broke. I approached our local dealer and said I wanted to buy a drill which I couldn’t afford. The idea was I’d take it at the start of sowing and sign up after the sowing was finished when, hopefully, I would have some money in,” says Mark.
The first year he drilled 140ha (350 acres), giving him enough money to pay the tractor instalments, sign up the grain drill and buy a baler.
The business now employs three full-time members of staff and up to 22 casuals at peak times. Mark’s wife Gillian, an assistant accountant, has also played a big part in the successful growth of the business. As well as staying on top of the books and invoicing, she is an invaluable sounding board when it comes to investing in machinery.
“She wants to know what it will cost and how much it will bring in. If anything won’t pay for itself and leave us something, too, it gets a ‘no’ – no matter how tempting a prospect it may seem. That keeps my feet on the ground.”
Mark, who won the title of Farmers Weekly Tractor driver of the year in 2003, now has 150 customers in south-west Scotland, mostly in a 35-mile radius of his base near Dumfries.
At this time of year the workload includes spreading 150,000gal of slurry a day and hedge-cutting. Annually, Mark’s team will plough 809ha (2000 acres) and drill up to 1214ha (3000 acres). He will also cut 2833ha (7000 acres) of grass, 405ha (1000 acres) of whole-crop and 121ha (300 acres) of maize along with baling 14,000 round bales and 9000 big square bales, spreading 400t of fertiliser and combining 242ha (600 acres) of cereals.
While Mark has ambitious plans for the future, including taking on an extra man this spring, he admits the capital outlay required at the start to expand his machinery fleet required nerves of steel.
“With a new chopper costing £120,000, you are looking at a minimum £12,000 deposit plus £21,000 in VAT,” he points out. “Set the cost of buying machinery against very limited savings and an overdraft of just £2000 when we started up – because I didn’t own my own house, had no proof of income and no savings – and you can see why starting up in this business is not for the faint-hearted.”