Mike Hambly: From Cornwall to chairman of combinable crops board

The Hambly family have been farming near Callington for almost 400 years, moving to the present Westcott Barton nearly 200 years ago. Coming from a relatively traditional West Country mixed farm, one might ask how Mike Hambly ended up representing England’s arable industry – but his credentials are second to none.

“I graduated from Harper Adams’ first degree course in 1985, and ended up being a rep for Cornwall Farmers,” he says. “I qualified as an agronomist and later ran its grain division before becoming commercial manager for First For Forage, running its sales team across Britain.”

After 20 years, Mr Hambly was made redundant, and was appointed to the HGCA board, on which he served two three-year terms. “I’m still chairman of British Cereal Exports, as well as a director and past chairman of Kernow Grain, and vice-chairman of West Country Grain,” he says. “I like being busy and being involved in the industry.”

The home farm

Mr Hambly has worked in partnership with his parents on the 200ha home farm throughout his life, producing winter wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape. They have 145ha of arable land, with the rest in permanent or temporary leys, and finish 110 beef cattle a year.

“We own 145ha, with the rest on a mixture of farm business tenancies and grass keep.”

Mr Hambly buys dairy calves in batches of 40 through Quality Calves at Chippenham, and finishes them either as bull beef at 13 months old, or traditional beef at 24-26 months old. “I sell everything to St Merryn – it’s easier to sell deadweight if there’s a risk of TB.”

He uses some of the home-grown barley for cattle feed and sells the rest through West Country Grain, alongside the wheat and oilseed rape.

“We grow milling oats on contract and store them at Kernow Grain,” he says. “With the cattle I go for the best margin I can get – and with the cereals I aim for high input, high output. The biggest heap pays best.”

Political career

Having always had a lot to do with the Young Farmers’ Club, Mr Hambly started to attend NFU meetings as he got older. “We’d always been members, but my father wasn’t very active,” he says. “But I feel that if you want to have a say and influence an outcome, you have got to turn up and engage.”

Initially taking on the role of Cornwall’s county arable representative, Mr Hambly sat on the South West crops board. He then became chairman of the regional board, moving up to vice-chairman of the national board before being voted in as chairman this year.

“It’s the first time there’s been a West Country chairman, and although Cornwall is outside the main arable area of the country, I think it’s more about the skills that you bring to the post,” he says.

Arable farming in the 
South West

So, will Mr Hambly’s appointment raise the profile of arable farming in the South West? “Progressive, committed arable farmers in the South West are just as good as those in other parts of the country – they just don’t do it over such large acreages,” he says.

“But as chairman, it’s not my role to favour one area over another – the way the board is structured, with a representative from every region, ensures that everyone’s voice is heard,” he adds.

“I bring a range of arable and commercial skills to the job, as well as the opportunities to look at the broader picture, and intend to represent the whole cereals industry to the best of my ability.”

However, arable farming in the West Country certainly presents different challenges to other arable areas. “Our biggest challenge is rain, rain and more rain. We have to cope with almost 60 inches of rain a year – so when I choose a variety, the first thing I look at is sprouting resistance, and the second is lodging resistance.

“Only then do I look at yield – the first two can lose a lot more crop that I can gain by a few extra points for improvement in yield on the Recommended List.”

Regional progress

During his time with the HGCA, Mr Hambly was part of the board that successfully introduced regional managers, to better serve levy payers across the country.

“We’ve got one of two pilot cropping system projects at Duchy College and now have HGCA monitor farms in the South West, which gives arable farmers the opportunity to engage and become more competitive,” he says. “I was also instrumental in setting up Ginsters’ sourcing of local milling wheat – before that nobody thought we could grow milling wheat in the South West.”

Perhaps surprisingly, research by the Yield Enhancement Network revealed that parts of the South West have the potential to produce the highest wheat yields in the country, at 24t/ha, adds Mr Hambly.

“The difficulty is in delivering that – our yields swing wildly from one year to the next, according to the weather. We don’t have resistant blackgrass here, but we do suffer dreadfully from septoria and fusarium.”

In 2012, Mr Hambly’s wheat yielded less than 4t/ha due to appalling fusarium, but last year the farm averaged 10t/ha. “I’m a huge fan of research and development, and we host a lot of trials on the farm here for HGCA and Niab Tag,” he says.

“We’re also starting to use precision farming tools in the form of auto-tracking and variable-rate fertiliser. Just because we have smaller farms in the South West doesn’t mean we can’t buy in the technology through contractors.”

The Healthy Harvest campaign

Following its launch at Cereals, Mr Hambly has been busy promoting the NFU’s Healthy Harvest campaign across the UK and further afield, in a bid to retain active crop protection ingredients for the future. “I’ve just got back from the IOPD conference in France, and discovered that farmers across Europe and North and South America are facing similar problems to us,” he says.

“Germany is introducing glyphosate restrictions – but with the weed resistance problems we’ve got, farmers are becoming increasingly dependent on spraying off stale seed-beds.

“Governments want us to produce more food from less, but yields are pretty static. Then they take away vital chemical tools – it’s just not going to work. We’ve got to have the technology to do the job.”

As vice-chairman of Copa-Cogeca’s cereal and oilseeds group, Mr Hambly is working to get farming organisations to take a joined-up approach to crop protection.

“At the moment, politicians keep cutting the active ingredients available to us, which is stupid, because you’re putting more and more reliance on the few that are left, which increases the development of resistance.”

With new products taking 10 years and about £250m to develop, governments must take a pragmatic approach, he warns. “Once you remove a product, you don’t get it back quickly – governments must think through the consequences of what they’re doing.”

GM crops

On GM cropping, Mr Hambly is keen to keep all avenues open. “But having spent time with farmers from the USA and South America, I know it’s not a panacea,” he says.

“After 17-18 years of growing GM soya beans in Argentina, there are incidences of resistance to some herbicide and insecticide traits. In all that time I’m not aware of anyone who’s had a health problem from eating GM food – but there is still a lot of work to be done in the EU and UK to develop a market for GM crops. We need to take the emotion out of it and think objectively.”

Having a mixture and balance of technologies looks to present the brightest future, he adds. “We need to gather scientific evidence to support and justify our decisions, and lobby politicians at home and in the EU to get our objective views across.

“We also need to engage across the industry and with the general public, and demonstrate that, as farmers, we shoulder responsibility for the stewardship and sensible use of these products.”

CAP reform

Another key issue affecting all growers is CAP reform – and in the South West, farmers have been very dependent on the single payment for their profits. “In difficult years it has been a critical factor. There are some people who would prefer to farm without subsidies, but at the end of the day it’s a subsidy for cheap food, and without it food prices would have to adjust. I’m not sure that politicians really want that.”

But Mr Hambly is convinced that British agriculture has a bright future. “There are some really exciting opportunities ahead,” he says. “Long term, the global population is growing and the one thing that isn’t increasing is the area of land we can produce food from. The industry is going to become increasingly sophisticated at producing food while still protecting key environmental areas.”

British farmers must be allowed to compete on global markets, he warns. “We do not need constraints that add cost and make us less competitive. We’ve also got to get through this year, when prices have slumped and input costs remain high. Although the crops look really well, we do not need 30 days of rain in August, which has happened before.”

Politicians keep cutting the active ingredients available to us, which is stupid, because you’re putting more and more reliance on the few that are left, which increases the development of resistance”

If you want to have a say and influence an outcome, you have got to turn up and engage”

Mike Hambly grows winter wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape on the 200ha family farm in the West Country.

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