David Richardson: Why I use contractors

So, the government wants to assess farming’s resilience and competitiveness. Forgive me for being a little terse. But those farmers who have not been resilient over recent years have not survived. Furthermore, production by those who have weathered the economic storms has been maintained, albeit at slightly reduced levels from 10 or 15 years ago.

As DEFRA’s discussion document concedes “Farmers are keen to maximise their profits by producing more food, but if their profit margins are low or negative then simply increasing production will not help them. The only way for farmers to successfully expand their businesses by producing more food is by focusing on increasing their competitiveness.”

Quite right, but it’s a bit rich coming from a department whose salaries, annual increments and pensions are guaranteed; whose performance can hardly be described as competitive or resilient; and where producing regulations that make farming uncompetitive is a way of life.

In any event, we are invited to comment on DEFRA’s document and I suspect some responses will be similar to mine. For the record, on this farm we have managed to survive in business by making several crucial changes to stay as competitive as possible.

One of the most important was to develop our horse livery, the profit from which has, in some years, subsidised crops of wheat, sugar beet and pulses whose collective sale value has been substantially lower than the costs of production.

That is not to say we have allowed our production costs to go unchecked. Contrary to DEFRA’s allegation that many farmers do not benchmark – we do, and we know precisely what each crop on each field costs to grow and harvest each year.

That knowledge has led us, since 1995, to cut our full-time farm workforce from four to none, to gradually replace them with a handful of local contractors with expertise and tackle suitable for different jobs, leaving my farm manager son (and occasionally me) to co-ordinate them.

Most of those contracting for us are interchangeable and keen for work to spread the cost of their equipment. This ensures the rates they charge are competitive. It also means they are usually timely in responding to our requests for work to be done.

The system works well, to the mutual advantage of ourselves and the contractors and apart from a rough terrain forklift that’s used every day, a tractor and trailer and a few bits and pieces for emergencies we’ve cashed in most of our unused machinery. We don’t have a labour bill to pay each month and our costs of production have been cut. As indicated above they haven’t been cut enough to leave a profit every year but at least to the point where losses have been bearable.

I’m not saying employing contractors is the right route for all but it suits our circumstances and we fully intend to stick with it. That was one of the reasons I agreed to chair a couple of sessions at the National Association of Agricultural Contractors conference at the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh on Dec 10.

There is an exceptionally good line-up of speakers who will be addressing the title “Making Sense of the Future” and it is the day before the opening of the two-day AgriLIVE show on the same site. It’s the latest reincarnation of the Smithfield Show of fond memory and as I’ll be there I might just have a wander round to see if I can learn anything to make me even more competitive and resilient.

To read more from David Richardson see his blog