All three Farm Manager of the Year finalists have been running complex, growing businesses for more than 12 years. They also share a dynamic, energetic and innovative approach to their work, keen to harness technology at the same time as respecting their environment. Suzie Horne reports
Westrope Farming, Suffolk
Andy Rankin’s challenge is to manage a rapidly expanding business producing a complex mix of arable and vegetable crops on in-hand, tenanted and contract farmed land.
Westrope Farming, owned by Philip and Carolyn Westrope, was farming about 1,000ha and set to almost double this when Andy joined in 1999. Expansion has gathered pace under his management to cover 3,500ha across eight farms. “But it’s not a question of land at any cost,” says Andy. “We’ve turned down two opportunities in the past four years.”
Turnover is almost £8m and the aim is for at least a 10% profit as well as asset growth. Every year since Andy joined has been profitable and he became a director in 2007.
Expansion has sometimes come in large steps – for example, the addition of 890ha in the past 12 months at Kelsale Hall Farms. Recognising that different landowners have different attitudes to risk is important, says Andy, with potato land being taken out of some contracting agreements and farmed on Westrope’s own account.
Reducing risk in general is an important part of his approach – soil types range from heavy clay to blowing sand, with some crops highly dependent on irrigation. This combined with the British weather and competitive markets provide a real test.
Retailer demands mean that each stage of potato, onion, carrot and parsnip cropping must be micro-managed, requiring meticulous planning, clear lines of responsibility and, above all, good communication.
Andy has a staff of two managers, two foremen, 13 full-timers, one permanent and one part-time farm secretary. Further help comes from three former employees at busy times, plus up to 22 New Zealand, Irish and Romanian workers.
“Job ownership is key, and good communication links. Our youngest staff member is 18 and our oldest is approaching 70. We consider this continuity to be an important part of our business.”
Staff are given responsibility and the opportunity to develop a broad set of skills, which helps with motivation.
Despite the pressures of producing vegetable crops alongside sugar beet, cereals, oilseed rape, forage maize, wholecrop triticale and energy beet, Andy is adamant everyone must have one day off a week. “We’ve all got families who need to see us.”
His machinery policy sees tractors doing at least 10,000 hours and ex-hire or ex-demonstration machines preferred to new, with extra capacity hired in. Andy was an early adopter of GPS tractor guidance, while in-field neutron probes collect soil moisture data.
Collaboration with other growers is key. The business was a founder member of 3Ms, a marketing and storage group of six root growers, where Andy is a director and which enables benchmarking against similar operations.
He sees the development of 3Ms as one of his best decisions, making the most of opportunities and allowing the business to intensify. “Investment in water has been important, too, making us more sustainable.”
The past five years have seen five winter fill reservoirs built. All landowner-funded, these investments demonstrate the level of trust in the farming agreements, says Andy.
Beet harvesting costs are minimised through membership of Wickham Beet Group. Further collaboration includes investment with five other growers in an AD plant, fed by maize and outgrades from members’ vegetable crops.
Westrope Farming’s carbon footprint has been monitored for the past five years, with recycling, waste reduction, more fuel-efficient tractor engines and increased use of farmyard manure, broiler muck and compost contributing to reducing this.
All farms are in ELS, with 1,600ha in HLS. Land has also been taken out of production to create wetland habitats, working closely with Suffolk FWAG.
School visits and a stand at the Suffolk food and drink festival help to tell the public about the business and promote its produce.
A word from our sponsors
“Claas is investing heavily in new tractors and harvesting machinery to improve efficiency on farms. But as managing a farming business becomes more challenging, Claas recognises that it’s the people who make the real difference on British farms today.This year’s three finalists are all exceptional people and are making a difference.”
Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.