So far, so good, for advice
Big changes are afoot in the
inputs supply trade. Brown
Butlins move to demerge
agronomic advice from
product supply is the most
radical to date. Charles Abel
takes a closer look
BOOKINGS ahead of plan and keen interest from farmers have sent shock waves through the arable industry. Lincs-based distributor Brown Butlins move to split agronomic advice from agchem sales seems to have been vindicated – so far.
"We are ahead of plan, with more farmers signing up in the first month than the entire pilot project last year," says Farmacy managing director Mike Young. Over 23,000ha (57,000 acres) are already being advised under Farmacys new advice-only contracts.
The move was from choice not necessity, Mr Young insists. "Look at our balance sheet. We were not forced into this. If a pesticide tax is announced this autumn, forcing agrochemical costs up, that could force other suppliers to split advice off too."
Most significantly Farmacys advice is separate from agchem, seed and fertiliser ordering. Commercial goals can no longer influence agronomy advice, as has been the concern within the industry for some time, Mr Young says.
Product sales will continue separately through the Brown Butlin Group, with independent Farmacy advice to support the companys 45 agronomists generated from out-sourced trials and research. Few extra in-house trials are planned.
"Some farmers may want to keep their service bundled with their product supply and if that is what they want that is fine. But for those who want to see what their advice is costing and who want to source some inputs more widely, Farmacy provides a whole new level of flexibility."
The company claims to be setting new standards in agronomic service, particularly by specifying what clients will get, providing detailed computerised reports and working within a clearly defined contract. "We are well ahead of any other consultancy."
The new more flexible approach is made possible by computer software developed in-house. It allows farmers to specify the level of advice they want on each crop in each field. Farmade software looks after field recording and recommendations.
Levels of service available are picked from a menu of options, ranging from one or two field walks for an industrial crop on set-aside to 10 or more for potatoes, sugar beet and other specialist crops. Every Farmacy contract includes basic planning, budgeting and review sessions.
"We are offering a lot more than just agronomy. We are looking at how cropping should be planned, monitored and reviewed at the end of the season, to make the most of the business."
Training for Farmacy agronomists, who are mostly former Brown Butlin technical sales representatives, includes farm management, computing, gps systems, organic farming, produce assurance and specialist cropping, Mr Young says. All Farmacy advisers are on the BASIS professional register and FACTS qualified.
During a pilot run of the scheme across 11,500ha (28,400 acres) last season the more focussed approach was found to bring big efficiency savings, including fewer, but longer farm visits, more time spent in discussions and more land walked per visit.
His prediction is that within five years the company will be servicing most clients through the Farmacy independent advice route. "Bringing all our existing customers across will take time. But it makes sense."
Professionally managed farms are the companys key targets, he says. "Those are the clients we want and quite frankly we dont mind where they come from – competitors, traditional independent consultants or ADAS."
Pricing depends on package. "We offer complete cost flexibility, throughout all crops, in line with the level of service required," Mr Young says.
• Independent advice, separate product sales.
• Fast initial uptake.
• Retrained agronomists.
• Menu of options.
• Quality advice pricing.
• Tested 1998/9.
• 54 clients, 11,500ha.
• 30% new service area.
• 22% fewer visits.
• 14% longer visits.
• 12% more time discussing and budgeting.
• 9% more land inspected a visit.
Early user gives thumbs-up
Chris Mountain was one of the first farmers to switch to Farmacy advice. Freedom to buy inputs on the open market, but still receive advice from respected and trusted crop walker Martin Gibbs, was the main reason for the change.
"I dont like having my hands tied and we wanted to source inputs more widely. But Martin knows the farm and knows the fields," says Mr Mountain, whose family farms extensively around Sleaford, the south Lincs fens and Oakham, Leics.
Being BASIS qualified himself, Mr Mountain appreciates the value of good agronomic advice. "At first I thought I could keep on top of it. But things change so rapidly, you really need technical support.
"Through Farmacy we can now pick and choose which crops justify intensive agronomy, like the sugar beet which needs at least eight field checks in a season, and opt for the bare minimum for others, like linseed and oilseed rape on set-aside, which will get just two field walks."
Significantly Farmacy uses computers to support advice, rather than generate it, he says. "It isnt a case of what the computer says, but how can it help steer the advice in response to what is happening in the field."
During last years pilot scheme, 40-50% of Mr Mountains agchems still came through Brown Butlin. But other suppliers were also used. Yields are described as very pleasing. "I know I am getting better value, without a doubt. At the end of the day it comes down to cost, and it is costing us less overall."
• As a Farmacy agronomist, Martin Gibbs likes the wider perspective now being taken. "No longer is it product A versus product B. Now it is more rounded, looking at the management implications and the overall effects on the crop."