Farm Manager Award shortlist: John Baker

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

John Baker
Thoresby Home Farm, Nottinghamshire

Broadening while intensifying cropping alongside a risk-based approach to marketing has delivered solid profits at Thoresby Home Farm since John Baker became manager here 15 years ago.

This is the in-hand farming operation of the Thoresby Estate near Newark in Nottinghamshire, where John’s can-do attitude extends to the whole team. The £4m-plus turnover business pays a market rent to the estate for the land it farms and is highly profitable.

The area farmed has increased by 500ha to 2,929ha in the past five years as John has taken on more rented and contract farmed land. About 250ha is in potatoes, carrots and brown onions, with 1,600ha in combinable crops and 188ha of sugar beet.

Contrasting soil types and topography range from largely level and irrigated sand land for root vegetables to combinable crops on heavier soil 21 miles from base.

Further diversity comes with more than 500ha of heath and ancient woodland. Part of Sherwood Forest, this carries 180 pedigree Longhorn cattle and 300 Jacob sheep in an HLS grazing scheme. There are also 1,000 commercial Mule ewes mainly on ancient river meadows but also making good use of crop residues and catch crops.

A recent development brings outdoor pigs on up to 50ha, improving soil fertility as they move around the farm, making better use of ground not suited to vegetables.

John has also brought in rotational changes to improve profitability, including block cropping on stronger land to improve efficiency and simplify. He has moved wheats from mainly Group 2 varieties to Group 4 for ease of movement and hosted crop trials for about 10 years, allowing early decisions about new varieties.

Identifying where to invest, then planning and seeing through that investment has been part of John’s role as the business expands.

Key recent investment decisions include upgrading irrigation and drying infrastructure, with much of the civil engineering and fabrication work done by farm staff.

A decision to share a self-propelled beet harvester with neighbours will further reduce costs.

John has a self-imposed rule never to try to outwit the market. “We see the combinable crops as solid but not necessarily exciting profit earners and so sell up to 60% forward when November futures prices open and provided a reasonable margin can be locked in.”

This suits workload and cashflow and balances the risk on the potato income. There is storage for 95% of combinable crops, 2,500t of onions and 2,000t of potatoes, with everything else leaving the farm from the field. While about half of the potato crop is contracted to McCain, vegetables are marketed 100% through producer organisation Sherwood Produce, where John is finance director.

The staff of 16 includes an arable manager, managerial assistant, 10 arable men, a fitter, two stockmen and a farm secretary. There are also four harvest casuals and up to eight grading staff.

Firm but fair is his motto where staff are concerned. “I’m proud we have a stable, settled team in a very high-pressure environment.” An annual harvest supper and social events help strengthen the team.

The estate’s health and safety committee meets four times a year and includes staff, while John brings in a health and safety consultant every two months.

“I’m proud we have a stable, settled team in a very high-pressure environment.”
John Baker

Between £3,000 and £4,000 a year is raised for charity by the annual Thoresby hay ride, giving the public a chance to see what the farm does. Thoresby’s shepherd is also key in organising a four-day lambing demonstration on a nearby farm, attracting 8,500 visitors.

Success is judged not only by profitability but also balance sheet growth, while John’s personal aim is to leave things better than he finds them and to be open to new opportunities and technologies.

A word from our sponsors

Claas logo“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.”

See more

Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.