21 June 2002

FINDING A PLAN FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

After a years absence thanks to foot-and-mouth, the

Farm Planner of the Year competition is back again.

There is a difference, though, as David Cousins explains

FOOT-AND-MOUTH gave a lot of individuals and organisations a chance to rethink the way they do things and that has been the case with the Farm Planner of the Year competition, too.

For the past 10 years, this battle of financial and entrepreneurial wits has been between individual students. But this year teams as well as individuals have been able to enter.

The change raises an interesting question. Will a team, with its ability to call on a range of experience and aptitude, always win over an individual? Or does one inspired entrant tend to come up with more radical ideas than a committee-like team?

Either way, the basics of the competition are the same as in previous years. Six colleges, whittled down from an initial 15, will be battling it out to produce the best five-year development plan for a real-life farm.

Hartley Park Farm, this years host farm, is a 596ha (1473 acre) all-arable unit near Alton in Hants. Farmed by Tim Butler and his son Simon, it is a good example of that increasingly common modern phenomenon, the diversified, entrepreneurial-minded business.

In fact it sounds like the sort of place that should be big and efficient enough to make a good profit on its farming enterprises alone. It is certainly efficient, but in the upside-down world of early 21st century agriculture big farms are finding their profits hit as hard as small ones.

The farm has not been slow to diversify, either, though (as many farmers will testify) diversification is not the be-all and end-all of modern agriculture. The six teams will need to consider if further diversification is needed.

&#42 The farm

There is a solid combinable-crop core of 275ha (680 acres) of winter wheat, 61ha (150 acres) of winter rape, 44ha (143 acres) of winter oats, and 50ha (123 acres) of spring barley.

Added to that is a substantial 55ha (135 acres) of potatoes, 44ha (108 acres) of peas, 52ha (128 acres) of rented-out grass and an intriguing 11ha (27 acres) of lavender and rosemary and 2acres of hops. There is also 44ha (108 acres) of set-aside.

&#42 Potatoes

Potatoes are still an important crop at Hartley Park Farm.

A total of 53ha (130 acres) is grown, half of it on contract to Walkers crisps. Recent years have not been easy, with wet springs, poor lifting conditions and more damage than Mr Butler would like. Though the crop can earn good money in some years, there is no cooled storage and the farm is considering installing a 1500t cold store. Equally, though, given that potatoes are a high-cost crop to grow, another option may be to stop growing them altogether. This is another key question our six student teams have had to consider.

&#42 Hops

The farm used to grow 20-25ha (50-60 acres) of hops and it was an important revenue earner.

But falling prices, ageing staff and the frightening investment needed to move into low-labour dwarf hops meant that this once-profitable enterprise has dwindled to a couple of acres grown to produce dried hop bines sold to pubs and restaurants to drape them around their premises.

&#42 Rented-out land

Land was let out to a vegetable grower for 20 years, which brought in a good rent, but, says Mr Butler, left the land looking like a battlefield.

Similarly, some other ex-hop (ie non-IACS) land was let out to a nursery stock grower. But the veg grower moved his operation to Notts and the nursery grower decided to import instead. Such changes illustrate how alternative sources of income can have a habit of drying up suddenly.

&#42 Lavender

The lavender enterprise may only involve a relatively small acreage (27 acres), but it is proving to be a useful sideline.

The farm bought English Hampshire Lavender, a small lavender processing business, in 1999. It now distils its own oil and gets an outside firm to incorporate them into soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. These are sold by mail order and via farmers markets and bring in a useful income.

&#42 Converted barns

Farmers may be falling over themselves to convert redundant buildings into offices, workshops and storage, but they were well ahead of the game at Hartley Park Farm.

The first stock buildings were converted into light industrial and offices in 1989 and several more buildings have been converted since then.

A total of 12,500sq ft are let out to a variety of businesses including a mower maintenance firm, architects, kitchen and cabinet makers, builders and engineers. It is a good area to be operating in and the demand for rural business premises is strong.

But it is by no means pure profit; £200,000 has been spent already on building work and there is a tendency for much of the profit to be swallowed up by the next phase of building.

&#42 Machinery sharing

One of the reasons why potatoes are looking less profitable than they did is because for the past 20 months Hartley Park Farm has shared all its combineable crops machinery with two neighbouring farmers.

The set-up is working well and is doing much to trim the considerable machinery cost on a farm of this size. But Mr Butler is the only one growing potatoes, so the cost of all potato machinery is borne solely by it. That makes the potato job relatively costly.

Initial judging of the entries took place at the end of last month. The teams who produce the two or three best entries will give a "live" presentation to the judges at next months Royal Show. There will be a follow-up feature in farmers weekly in the next few weeks featuring the best proposals made by the various teams.

Farm Planner of the Year is organised by the Institute of Agricultural Management, sponsored by Farmplan and HSBC Agriculture and supported by farmers weekly.

Above: Tim Butler (centre, in overalls) explains Hartley Park Farms grain storage arrangements to the contestants.

Above: A total of 12,500sq ft

of buildings have been converted into light industrial or office

use. This mower repair

business is a good example.

The overall winning student or group will receive a framed certificate, free attendance and

accommodation for the Institute of Agricultural Management conference in November, free Farmplan farm management software and free entry to the

Royal Show.

The winners university/ college will also receive a framed certificate, rose bowl and £1000-worth of Farmplan software.

The other finalists will receive a commemorative goblet, free membership of the Institute of Agricultural Management for a year, Farmplan farm management software and free entry to the Royal Show.

THE STUDENTS TASK

The teams have to produce a detailed five-year development plan – with full costings – for the host farm. This will need to be virtually of the quality that would be expected by a bank from a farmer asking for a substantial loan or by a landlord applying for tenders for a farm tenancy.

Teams have to specify what enterprises they would expand, slim down or drop. They need to look at the cropping plan, decide whether current diversifications are the best ones and think of new ones that would be feasible within the time, management, labour and financial constraints of the farm concerned.

Right: Chris Tolley is in the last year of a three-year degree course in agriculture at Sutton Bonnington Campus of Nottingham University. His family has a 160ha (400-acre) arable and beef farm near Shepshed, Leics, plus a similar acreage contract farmed. He plans to return to the farm to join his father and grandfather.

Left: Craig Thompson is in the final year of a four-year course in world agriculture at Bangor University. Work experience ranges from three months working for farm management company Velcourt to working on a

agricultural research station in Nepal. His family has a small stock farm near Preston, Lancs.

Left: Wye Team. All four of the team are in their

second year of agricultural business management degrees at Imperial College at Wye. (L to r) Jonathon Thompstone has a dairy background in Staffs, Ian Warman comes from a north Cornwall dairy farm, Thomas Bradshaw is from a mixed farm in north Essex and

Alex Archard comes from a dairy farm in Wilts.

Right: Bishop Burton Team. All four of the team are at the end of their final year of an HND in agriculture and all plan to go on to do a BSc or masters degree next year. (L to r) Vicky Fletcher does not come from direct farming stock (though an uncle farms) but is keen to move into practical agriculture. Robert Shepherd comes from an arable and beef farm near Middlesbrough and plans eventually to get into farm management or consultancy. Andrew Betts doesnt come from a farming background, but spend four years working on an agricultural project in the former USSR and plans to return there after his

studies. Craig Lewiss family have an arable, sheep and pig farm near Leominster, Herefords.

Above: Harper Adams Team All three of the team are at the end of their final year of a BSc in agriculture with a specialisation in land and farm management. (L to r) John Watkin Foulkes family have a sheep and beef farm on Anglesey, which Mr Foulkes plans to return to after his studies. Sarah Machin comes from a dairy and arable farm near Bangor on Dee, near Wrexham, north Wales. She plans to do an accountancy or law degree with a specialisation in agriculture. David Packs family have a mainly arable and horse-hay farm in Herts and he would ultimately like to manage a farm himself.

Above: Rob Addicott is doing an HND in agricultural

management at Cannington College, Somerset on day release while working as a partner on the family farm at Radstock near Bath. The

farm is mainly arable but also contract rears dairy heifers.

It is also in the process of converting a set of farm

buildings into offices.