Farm Adviser Award shortlist: Derek Gardner

Farm advice can take many forms and this year’s 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards finalists are examples of the vast array of services offered to farming clients. From pig marketing, through wildlife and conservation, to dairy consultancy, all three contenders show total commitment to their sector, as Julian Gairdner reports

After a 40-year career at what was the Milk Marketing Board and which is now Promar, there’s not much Derek Gardner doesn’t know about dairy farming.

As the company’s national dairy consultant and previously a regional manager for 20 years, Derek has not only witnessed huge change in the sector, but also had a hand in many of its successes.

His wealth of experience has been gleaned not only from his work in the UK, but also projects that have taken him as far afield as New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere around the world.

What his clients say
With his father approaching retirement and the need to create an extra wage on the farm, Derek’s involvement at Will Sheppard’s Quarry Hill Farm near Frome in Somerset has been vital. “He’s been key in pushing us forward,” says Will. “In the last year or two we’ve really pushed hard for milk from grass. Derek helps with our rationing, charts my weekly grass measurements and provides annual, quarterly and monthly budgets to really keep a track of costs.”

Currently, much of his time is spent in a crucial “refereeing” role between farmer supplier and their buyer in the work he does for the Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group.

“It takes up a large proportion of my time now,” says Derek. It’s clearly time well spent. His detailed analysis of all the participating farm accounts in the group allows him to budget a representative cost of production on which the Tesco tracker price is set.

It’s not a job he takes lightly since it’s his neck on the line if his budgets are out. That’s where his experience proves so invaluable. “We compare actual with predicted to prove the figures to farmers. We’re usually within 0.1p/litre.”

Away from the dairy group, Derek’s core client base provides an important foot on the ground and his approach is one that has made him a much sought-after adviser. “It tends to be the things you hear rather than see,” he says of the way he initially looks at a farm business.

Benchmarking has been a key focus for Derek over the years. With his ability to take raw data and turn it into easy-to-digest graphs, his clients can quickly get a measure of how their business is performing. “Using scattergrams is a good way to show data without giving away commercial secrets.”

Business facts

  • Wide range of consultancy services to UK and international dairy sector
  • Provides services to some 2,000 dairy farmers across UK
  • Formed out of the Milk Marketing Board’s Farm Management Advisory Service

Another key string to his bow is training within the Promar business. “As a company we take on relatively young staff. They’ve got to earn their corn. You’ve got to give them experience quite quickly. It’s very rewarding seeing young staff doing the job really well.”

Despite such a lengthy career in the sector, Derek remains able to retain an objective approach to his clients’ businesses and the UK dairy industry as a whole. “A lot of farmers focus on yield per cow, but you rarely maximise profit when you maximise output,” he says. “Farmers should focus on cost and profit.”

He’s realistic about the current price crisis, too. “There’s been huge expansion in milk production in New Zealand, Australia and North America. And in Europe they’ve taken the brakes off quotas. Milk prices are more set in China than in Cheshire.”

What the judges liked

  • Results-focused approach to client’s businesses
  • Obligation to bring on younger members of staff
  • A wealth of knowledge with an accessible way of presenting complicated facts and data

Despite ever-tightening demands on the environmental impact of dairying, he’s optimistic about the future. “Getting farmers to buy into changing their carbon footprint might take longer than we think. A lot of the things that reduce the carbon footprint increase profitability – keeping feed costs down, rearing heifers to calve at two years old so there are fewer cattle around, not throwing away milk because you have mastitis.”

As ever, a pragmatic approach with practical solutions.

A word from our sponsors

Alltech is incredibly proud to sponsor this category. Farm advisers are often underappreciated. These exceptional people are crucial elements of the food supply chain and we need champions who embrace challenges, change and innovation. The finalists epitomise this sentiment and I congratulate them.”
Ian Leach, Alltech

Read more

Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about theincluding details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash