4 June 1999

PLOTTING THE

FARMS FUTURE

For this years Farm Planner

of the Year competition, the

case study farm was a 343ha

arable and beef business with

land spread about a bit.

The five finalists task is to

find ways of developing it

over the next five years.

David Cousins was there too

WHAT would a perfect farm look like? It would be on deep, black fen soils, maybe, with fields that are rectangular and level and grouped so that none stuck out on a limb.

The farm buildings, new, spacious and solidly-built, would be in the exact centre of the land, with pristine farm roads to allow machinery to speed from one side of the farm to the other. Livestock buildings would be handy for silage clamps and rabbits, slugs and pigeons wouldnt know it was there.

Perhaps just such a farm exists somewhere, but if it does its a rare thing. Most farms are imperfect things, with awkward hills and buildings that always seem to be in the wrong place.

Paul Curtis, manager of this years case study farm Park Farm, Brampton Abbots, near Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, would probably not use the word perfect to describe the land he manages. The 343ha (850-acre) arable and beef farm is, by Mr Curtiss own admission, very spread about, with a distance of 3 miles from one side of the farm to the other and a lot of fields not very accessible.

There is some 83ha (205 acres) of permanent pasture – a lot for a farm of this size – and it too is scattered around. Some, in fact, is on very steep slopes where its difficult to keep the pH up. The old red sandstone/clay soils are also very drought-prone, so wheat production is aimed at quality milling varieties rather than barn-busting feed ones. The relatively large area of woodland also means that rabbits and pigeons are a particular hazard and resident badgers a feature that has to be lived with. Yet despite these natural disadvantages, the farm is tightly-managed and well-run.

So where does that leave this years five students? They have a particularly tough task this time round. They have to suggest ways in which Park Farm can be developed, improved and made more financially secure for the uncertain future that lies ahead of the whole industry. They have to suggest which enterprises should be dropped, which should be expanded and whether new ones are in order.

They have to judge whether the current machinery policy is the right one and whether more reliance should be placed on contractors. More controversially, they must decide if the current level of labour is the right one or whether (as many farms have chosen to do) there is still scope for manpower to be replaced with horsepower.

If this were a time when farming was going through one of its rare steady periods, this might be a reasonably straightforward task. Yet, now, predicting anything in farming more than six months ahead is becoming increasingly difficult, so they must somehow combine boldness with prudence and imagination with clairvoyance.

This is no exercise in vague, off-the-cuff guesses, either. All suggested changes to the crops, stock, machinery or labour must be fully argued, both financially and from a management point of view. In fact the whole five-year development plan must be presented as thoroughly, concisely and logically as a tender for a tenancy (or an application to a bank for a big loan) would be by an experienced farmer or farm manager.

You might think that such constraints would mean that any suggestions from the five students would be overly cautious. In fact, experience of seven years of the Farm Planner of the Year competition shows that plans of considerable boldness are the rule rather than the exception. The students only have a few weeks to assemble their plans (and many have to fit it in with revising for finals!), but the judges will be hoping for a plan that belies their relative inexperience in practical farm management.

The students task

The owner of Park Farm, HA Clive, wants to know whether the present enterprises are sustainable, given:

&#8226 Changing cereal production patterns within the EC.

&#8226 World prices and the effect of worldwide demand and the changing green £.

The five students have to present a plan for the next five years at Park Farm, including:

&#8226 Cash-flows taking the business until at least the year 2003.

&#8226 A schedule of both working and fixed capital.

&#8226 Indications of the cash borrowing required.

IagrM objectives

The Institute of Agricultural management has organised the Farm Planner of the Year competition since it began. The Institute, originally founded as the Farm Management Association 30 years ago, has three key objectives:

&#8226 To promote high standards in the business and practice of management in agriculture.

&#8226 To promote training in management understanding, skills and experience.

&#8226 To encourage the provision and attainment of professional qualifications in agricultural management.

To fulfil these aims it holds conferences, workshops and farm visits. A quarterly "Farm Management" journal is produced and there is a network of local branches.

Membership is open to all engaged in agricultural management. For further details contact Philip James on 0118-935 1458 (tel) or

0118-931 6747 (fax).