Collaborative options available to help arable farmers

There’s a perception that farmers often felt they were in competition with their neighbours or more widely with others producing similar outputs. 

But the benefits of collaboration, rather than competition, have become more apparent in recent years with the rise of benchmarking groups, discussion forums and other collaborative opportunities – especially for improved environmental outcomes.

Within the Arable Insights farmer panel, there’s a mixed take-up of these kind of opportunities – from those who are keen to make the most of these types of projects or groups, to those who are yet to dip their toe in the water.

See also: Meet Farmers Weekly’s new Arable Insights farmers for 2024

Cluster groups

Arable Insights South West farmer, Dougal Hosford, in Blandford, Dorset, is the only panel member in a farming cluster.

With funding available through sources such as the Natural England Facilitation Fund, private companies or a membership subscription, these groups aim to build a collaborative approach to in-common environmental issues within the local area.

Activities within the 14-strong Mid Stour Farmer Group – facilitated by dairy farm business adviser Clare Eastham – have included bird and hedgerow surveys, soil, compost and dung beetle workshops, a guided river walk and regular water quality testing of the river Stour.

There have also been discussions around the local colony of greater horseshoe bats.

“I definitely think members are benefiting and realising there is much more to managing a block of land while at the same time growing food,” Dougal says.

“The hardest part is spending the facilitation funds because it is so specific on what you can use it for.

“It seems very weighted in favour of meetings rather than actions. And while that’s a great way of getting farmers together in a relaxed environment, people have limited time to attend all the meetings,” he says.

The farming cluster has been approached to join the Environmental Farmers Group, which aims to bring networks of farmers together to improve the farmed environment and trade in natural capital markets.

However, that’s unlikely to happen in the immediate future, according to Dougal, who points to a need to concentrate on their own cluster, which has only been running for two years.


Dougal is also a member of the Wildfarmed community, which brings together farmers  growing for the Wildfarmed business.

The centre point of the community is a WhatsApp group chat.

“It’s a brilliant community of about 150 farmers, that makes great spectator sport.” Dougal says.

“But it is also a fantastic opportunity for knowledge transfer in a world where there is so much to learn from some very innovative regenerative farmers.”

As well as discussion, the group provides support for challenges arising in-season, he points out.

“For example, both our Wildfarmed winter and spring wheat have yellow rust, which could become a serious problem, so we can use the group to ask for advice.”

WhatsApp groups

WhatsApp is an important sounding board for several Arable Insights panel members, including West Midlands farmer Rob Atkin in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire.

“We have a local NFU arable group, which is a good tool to alert to changes in grain prices or upcoming Sustainable Farming Incentive options.

But the main one is a local arable cultivation group where we discuss technical questions and grain prices, as well as indulge in some friendly banter.

“That’s a good tool to help keep you going, particularly when things aren’t perhaps going well.”

A WhatsApp group linking the clients of Heather Oldfield’s contractor serves as the East Midlands panel member’s main forum for discussion with other farmers.

This is alongside her role on the NFU Combinable Crops board and local and regional level NFU meetings.

“Our contractor covers quite a lot of acres over a number of different farms, so we have our own group which is really helpful when you are using the same contractor and independent agronomist,” says Heather, who farms in Kirton Drove, Lincolnshire.

“It’s opened up discussions around benchmarking – it’s almost like a mini AHDB Monitor Farm arrangement.”

While it hasn’t led to much change in the arable part of the business, discussions in the group have led to the farm including more legumes in leys grown for silage, after hearing it worked well for another member of the group.

Landscape scale groups

In East Anglia, Jack Smith, farm manager for AG Wright & Son in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, is part of several landscape scale collaborative groups.

These include the Ely Nature-Friendly Farming Zone, which covers 8,700ha around Ely and is supported by the RSPB.

The farm is also a peripheral member of the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network, which is undertaking a Landscape Recovery pilot project within the Environmental Land Management scheme.

In addition, Jack is a member of the Institute of Agricultural Management and various customer groups, such as McCain’s sustainable farming group and Greenvale carbon group.

But it is Fenland Soil which Jack believes will have the greatest impact on the business.

“It was set up for farmers by farmers, to combat the threat to farming on lowland peat off the back of a government proposal to reduce carbon emissions,” he explains.

“It’s a focus for research on how we farm these unique soils to reduce their climate impact.”

The research and resulting discussions should help farmers in the region with understanding best practices and the trade-offs between farming and greenhouse gas emissions.

“The knowledge learned from being part of this group has focused our minds on change, and provided us with other businesses to talk to,” Jack says.

YEN and Bofin

Scotland panel member David Fuller-Shapcott highlights three groups he’s part of that have – or potentially will – make a difference on his farm in Kelso, Borders.

These include a local AHDB arable business group, the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) and the British On-Farm Innovation Network (Bofin).

Being part of YEN has helped inform decision-making, particularly around the use of nutrition in his wheat crops.

“I had a low number of spikelets compared with a near neighbour, who had the highest number.

“That was a fertility issue, and once I knew that zinc was involved – which I didn’t previously – I was able to look at tissue and soil tests, and had a little light bulb moment,” David says.

“Now we put more zinc on and don’t have as much of a problem.”

Bofin promises to bring a similar sense of community plus learnings from the specific innovations being trialled within the network.

David is involved in two projects investigating interactions between roots and soil health, and another helping to develop better slug control strategies.

“I’ve done a lot of trials over the year, especially for Adas, and being part of Bofin enables me to earn income from doing trials, as well as knowledge.”

AHDB groups

Both David and Arable Insights North panel member Tamara Hall, based in Beverley, Yorkshire, have been part of AHDB arable business groups, which have provided useful business insights.

On David’s farm, benchmarking helped him understand second wheats were not profitable, so these were dropped in favour of spring oats.

That helped increase the area of first wheat in his six-course rotation.

He also found winter barley performance was relatively poor – a crop he needs to ensure can be planted in good time for his winter oilseed rape.

But his winter barley is drilled later than ideal because of late harvests.

“We know we need to plant winter barley earlier, so there’s some strategic thinking needed to help do that. Without benchmarking I don’t think I would have recognised that.”

On Tamara’s farm, a key insight involved exploring whether to contract or rent land to spread costs.

“We costed it properly and realised it wasn’t going to make us any more profit at that time, due to increased costs, so it was good to stop us aspiring to get bigger,” she says.

The downside was when funding for a facilitator stopped, interest in her group waned and discussions lacked variety, she adds.

Hosting a trials site

Currently Tamara’s main discussion opportunities come through hosting a Frontier Agriculture Soil Life trials site, which includes a few open days each year.

“We are very open about what we do, and find it becomes a good open discussion, which provides us with feedback from both other farms and experts.

“I also find it makes you question what you are doing when you have to explain it to somebody,” she says.

On her wish list, however, is a local group to discuss regenerative farming practices honestly.

“It would be helpful to be able to discuss how to massively reduce fungicides and nitrogen without cutting yields and quality to an unviable level,” she says.

Arable Insights South panel member Tom Carr, in Fareham, Hampshire, says access to a high-level finance team within the Southwick Estate portfolio has rendered benchmarking mostly obsolete.

“I’d like to think our numbers are the most pored over and drilled into on a monthly basis in the South.”

Other, more collaborative, partnerships are all in the future, he adds, with the estate relatively “young” in terms of its in-hand farming business.

“We did start thinking about setting up a farming cluster, involving our tenants and a few neighbouring farms, with the hope of being involved in a Landscape Recovery pilot a couple of years ago.

“Unfortunately, it never got much further than a couple of discussions, and other events overtook it. But it would be something we would like to do at some point.”

Northern Ireland

Like many government-led schemes currently in Northern Ireland, farm business development groups or anything similar are on hold – victims of the lack of a sitting government in Stormont until recently.

“The current farm business development group scheme, like lots of things in Northern Ireland, has finished after running for about 10 years,” explains Northern Ireland panel member Neill Patterson, who farms in Downpatrick, County Down.

“Originally, farmers were paid to attend – which obviously incentivises people – but when the funding stopped, numbers fell away.

“Personally, I don’t think you need to be paid to attend something that’s obviously educational or will help you improve what you do on your farm.”

Sharing and social side

Another issue Neill found with the groups was an unwillingness to share information or experiences.

“We’re all there to learn, and one way of learning is from others’ mistakes – or from the financial side, what it costs to grow crops. But too many weren’t happy to give out figures.”

The willingness to engage and share information and experiences is vital to the success of discussion groups.

And support, encouragement, practical advice and help are crucial for collaborative projects, according to the panel.

“As a member, you’ve got to bring a keenness to participate and engage,” Dougal stresses.

“And as a facilitator, you have to organise inspiring things to make people want to come and keep people engaged.

“You get out what you put in. But just like any meeting, you have to give the quieter attendees a chance to contribute.”

The social element of being part of these types of groups shouldn’t be underestimated, David points out.

“There is a time commitment, and if it was purely social and no benefit to the business, that might change the picture a little. But some networking is good for your mental health.

“By going to a meeting or event, there is a chance to chat and that’s an important element in an industry which tends to be fairly solitary.

“It’s an unseen benefit of more collaborative networking type activities.

“If you come away from an event thinking I didn’t learn anything, it’s probably because you weren’t paying enough attention.

“You don’t have to pick up much of a nugget to make quite a lot of a difference. Which is why I think the time element and the effort to be part of such groups is worthwhile,” he concludes.

What drives successful discussion groups and collaborations?

  • Engagement both inside and outside of meetings
  • Sharing relevant information, successes and failures
  • A variety of topics to maintain interest
  • A good facilitator, preferably a farmer, who ensures all members of the group have a chance to speak, so the group isn’t dominated by one or two individuals
  • Farmers making own decisions, supported by expert advice where applicable
  • Informal communication such as WhatsApp, rather than email
  • Friendly competition
  • Working together
  • Groups of 15-20 farmers are optimum

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