7 June 2002

SPECIALISATION HELPS TAKE ON THE COMPETITION

Central Farmers has taken

an innovative sidestep from

mainstream contracting

operations by providing

potato growers with

specialist spraying and

lime spreading services.

Andy Moore went north

of the border to take

a closer look

STAVING off competition is a challenge for all contracting firms and Central Farmers, which is based near Cupar in Fife, is no exception.

Four years ago the company saw two other contracting firms start up almost on its doorstep and, to make matters worse, both of them offered a spraying service – Central Farmers backbone business.

After building a solid customer base since the 1960s, the company had no choice, but to take a deep breath and set about competing with the new contractors.

"The first 18 months were a nightmare when the two other contractors started trading," says manager David Steel. "Competition was intense and there was divided loyalty between some of our customers which forced us to freeze our charges for spraying."

With no less than nine self-propelled sprayers competing over a relatively small area, the firm had to tighten its belt and rely on the loyalty of its core customers for a steady stream of work.

Since the business started 40 years ago, its stomping ground has increased from an area situated in east Fife to a larger belt extending from Edinburgh to Arbroath.

"Back then there were many mixed farms growing potatoes which were reluctant to buy their own sprayers and do the job themselves," adds Mr Steel. "We were presented with a captive market which is now the mainstay of our business and has enabled us to survive the competition."

With many of his customers growing about 142ha (350 acres) of potatoes destined for seed and processing, Mr Steel says he is committed to providing a high level service.

Crop assurance schemes and exacting quality standards demanded by supermarkets require growers to produce near perfect potatoes, he says.

Spraying the 9000ha a year (22,230 acres), is handled by a pair of MB-Tracs and a Fastrac 2135 each of which is saddled with a 24m 2000-litre Berthoud demount unit.

"We chose the MB-Tracs as prime movers for spraying because of their high speed mechanical transmissions," says Mr Steel. "A lot of our customers have steep ground, which would take its toll on self-propelled machines fitted with hydrostatic transmissions."

Tackle replaced

This year, with 12,000 hours on the clock and a gearbox on its last legs, the smaller MB-Trac 900 will be replaced with Landquips Field Leader self-propelled sprayer with mechanical transmission.

Covering an average of 121ha a day (300 acres), the two MB-Tracs along with the Fastrac, contribute a £170,000 turnover.

Central Farmers other main spraying enterprise is Sulphuric Acid treatment for potatoes, a service which saw 680t applied in 2001 and 1000t last year.

"The acid application service has gone great guns with larger growers of seed potatoes as there are few other viable treatments," he says. "Acid application normally begins in early July on spuds destined for processing, while seed potatoes are treated from August to October."

Applied using two saddle tank sprayers mounted on a John Deere 6200 and Case 895, both outfits see off up to 2834ha (7000 acres) in a good year.

Although contract rates are just £10/ha (£4/acre), Mr Steel says the operation remains popular because few contractors are prepared to offer the service due to strict safety regulations.

"Each tractor with acid sprayer can cover about 100acres a day in good going which is right on the limit of their capacity," he says. "We aim to replace one or both of the outfits with the services of the Field Leader sprayer. This will be specially modified to handle sulphuric acid."

Lime spreading

Another specialist service which has seen significant expansion is lime spreading, which is now into its third season.

The operation includes a soil sampling service used to create field maps so lime can be applied selectively to field areas by a GPS system fitted to the spreader.

Central Farmers takes the soil samples using an ATV. These are then analysed for pH by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC).

"About 80% of lime spreading customers require the soil sampling service," says Mr Steel. "Growers can cut lime application considerably by having their land accurately mapped and spreading carried out selectively." &#42

Above: An example of a customers soil map which shows pH levels in different colour bands. Samples are taken at a rate of three/ha.

Left: David Steel: "The acid application service has gone from strength to strength with larger growers of high quality seed potatoes.

The Fastrac 2135 with Transpread

applies lime at variable rates to selective

field areas based on prescribed soil maps.