FW Awards 2011: Farm Manager of the Year finalist – Charlie Russell

Charlie Russell

Glenapp Estate, Girvan, Ayrshire

Charlie Russell is a big guy with big ideas. Though only 24 when he applied for the farm manager’s position at the Earl of Inchcape’s Glenapp Estate, he had no doubt about whether he was up to the job. The estate’s board decided he was far too young for a job of this size and scale, but agreed he could join as farm grieve, or foreman. If this came as a disappointment to Charlie, it was only a temporary one. A few weeks later, any doubts were dispelled. Charlie was in the boss’s chair.

Since then he has worked tirelessly in his expanded role of estate factor and farms manager to transform much of the farming operations on the estate, with a clear eye on enterprise profitability.

But he still remains very much a hands-on farm manager – Farmers Weekly‘s initial, gentle enquiries about how much time he spent in the office apparently drew howls of laughter from the estate’s staff.

Thirty-four years old, and from a farming family in Aberdeenshire, Charlie studied agriculture at Aberdeen University and went on to read rural business management at the Scottish Agricultural College.

Charlie prepares his own budgets and updates the estate’s board on forecast and actual performance regularly. Information technology is used extensively, particularly within the dairy business, but also to monitor lamb and calf weights. Charlie admits he likes his figures and using key performance indicators to set goals for him and his team. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t do anything about it.”

Over the 10 years he has been in the post, Charlie has driven some remarkable changes at Glenapp. The suckler herd, which was based on a purchased, Holstein Friesian cross Angus cow, has been replaced with a homebred blend of performance-recorded Beef Shorthorn Angus, Luing and Simmental bloodlines. Cows are spring calving and are expected to produce a calf which grows at 1kg a day from birth to weaning. Calves are retained for breeding, sold as breeding replacements or finished on farm.

The old system of lambing 2,000 mule ewes indoors plus 2,500 Scottish Blackfaces on the hill ground is gone. Instead, Charlie has introduced new, wool-shedding, easycare genetics and an outdoor lambing system in order to “breed the ultimate sheep for our grazing, climate and cost structure, to maximise sustainability and profits”.

But perhaps the most impressive development at Glenapp has been the creation of a new, extensive dairy enterprise, producing milk from grass – New Zealand style. The years 2009 and 2010 saw the conversion of three beef and sheep units to a paddock-grazing system with a 70-point rotary parlour and stand-off areas. Crossbred Jersey and New Zealand Friesian cows are block-calved between early February and late April and dried off in mid-December. The herd average is 18.5l days, but Charlie is producing milk at an impressive margin over the cost of production. For him, the commercial opportunity was clear. “We have a land base here where we can run a milk-from-grass system and we could establish a diary herd for £1,000 a cow instead of £6-7,000 a cow.”

The people at Glenapp are as important to Charlie as the land and the stock. “Labour is the key to any successful breeding stock business and I am delighted to work alongside some of the most technically-proficient stockmen and women in the business. At Glenapp we aim to be the best and therefore we must employ the best.”

But, rarely for a young, ambitious farm manager, Charlie is equally mindful of the importance of time with his wife and young family. “What I’ve tried to build here is a sustainable, profitable system that isn’t all-consuming. Family time is very important to me and my staff.”

Good-humoured and upbeat about the future of farming, Charlie’s vision is as clear as the view of the Atlantic from the 1,400ft summit of the estate, which provides a habitat for hen harriers and other raptors. “If I’m trying to do anything here, it’s to show that hill farming can really perform. It’s not the poor relation any more.”

Box: Farm Facts

* 350 elite health status suckler cows

* 4,200 hill and upland ewes

* 700 outwintered, grassfed dairy cows

* 1,633ha (4,035 acres) commercial and amenity forestry

* Environmental management – 1,493ha (3,690 acres) in the Glenapp and Galloway Moors Special Protection Area

The judges liked:

* In-depth knowledge of the detail of the business

* Can justify management decisions environmentally

* Stress-tests ideas thoroughly

* Solid enterprise mix

Simon Thompson, Sotterley Estate, Beccles, Suffolk

Simon Thompson is one of those individuals who, when you meet them, makes you wonder if there are far more than just 24 hours in a day and somehow you’re not aware of them.

Now 36, Simon has been at Sotterely for eight years, after working his way up through a series of farm management positions. His considerable energy has seen the farmed area grow by 25%, while his excellent grasp of financial management has reined in depreciation costs.

But Simon doesn’t believe there’s anything particularly unusual about what he has achieved. Modestly, the most he will admit is that: “The improved profits have come from getting crops established in time and in good condition.”

In reality Simon has expanded a narrow wheat/rape/beans rotation to introduce more high-value spring cropping – allowing major opportunities to strike at blackgrass and other problematic weeds. An innovative joint-venture arrangement with British Sugar saw him growing sugar beet this season, while there are 100ha (247 acres) of vining peas. Land is also let to specialist growers for potatoes and carrots, and a fledgling rose-growing enterprise.

“The objectives I have to meet are to safeguard the future of the estate, enhance its environmental aspects and remain farming in-hand, but profitably.” Simon’s personal objective is to increase the farming business further.

His energy and imagination have caught the eye of others too. Discussions are underway with three local farms to create a significant contract-farming venture, bringing economies of scale and other efficiencies to all the farms involved.

As well as changing the rotation, Simon has introduced an improved tillage system. He’s also been a local pioneer for establishing oilseed rape behind a subsoiler, and there’s no doubt that in this dry season the rape has benefited from the improved tap root growth.

But he’s also willing to take a calculated chance if he thinks the benefits outweigh the risks. Wet conditions in the autumn meant he was forced to broadcast a second wheat and roll it in the following spring – but the even canopy, even in a season as dry as this, is proof it was worth the risk. “My agronomist did say: ‘I’m glad that worked out for you, because a lot of other people would have thought you were mad’. But that’s farm management. You have to be willing to give things a try.”

Benchmarking is used extensively to assess the farms’ performance and Simon is rigorous in his approach to using information – whether that’s to monitor internal performance or qualify marketing decisions. He’s formed close working relationships with independent grain traders and uses options on future contracts and other tools to manage exposure to volatile grain markets. This has helped him produce returns consistently ahead of merchants’ pools for the past few years.

He’s also still very much hands-on. “I’ll get involved in a bit of irrigating, relief spraying and drilling, and a bit of combining.”

Simon has thrown as much energy and drive into the estate’s environmental aspects as the farming operation. When he arrived from Dorset, he found a blank canvas, with no existing Entry Level Stewardship scheme or Countryside Stewardship legacy. Simon’s response was typically ambitious – a major Higher Level Scheme is now in place. “Being a traditional estate with small fields, miles of hedges, woodland, parkland and a Site of Special Scientific Interest means environmental management is paramount.”

He’s also determined to demonstrate to the public exactly what farmers do for the public money they receive. So he’s teamed up with Natural England to host visits by school classes in nearby Lowestoft, where children can learn about food production and ecology, taking part in “mini-beast hunts”. Sotterley also provides a home for a care-farming project, where people suffering mental health issues can find respite through creative activity with others.

While Simon’s ambitions for expanding Sotterley’s farming business are clear, he’s someone who prefers his achievements to speak for themselves. “The main focus of my management is getting the work carried out in a timely manner, which is paramount to profitability.

Box: Farm Facts

* 1,620ha (4,000-acre) traditional English estate

* Farming 810ha (2,000 acres) in hand

* Renting and contract-farming additional hectares

Box: The judges liked

* Kept machinery and depreciation costs in check

* Vision to expand the business

* Changed cropping to increase returns

Andrew Nottage, Russell Smith Farm, Duxford, Cambs

In a letter to Farmers Weekly, one of Andrew Nottage’s business associates – a technical production manager for a supermarket chain – described him as “the complete farmer”. He couldn’t have put it better. Andrew’s upbeat, optimistic personality and up-for-anything attitude reflect an outstanding individual running an extremely complex and sophisticated business.

“Next year will be my 25th at Russell Smith Farms. It is an exciting, fast-moving business and still gives me a buzz every day.”

Born not five miles from the farm gate at Duxford, Andrew isn’t from a farming background but quickly caught the bug while still at school. A three-year diploma at Shuttleworth followed, with a sandwich year at Russell Smith Farms. Andrew then returned to what was a “fairly traditional south Cambridgeshire farm, growing cereals, sugar beet and a few acres of potatoes”.

The Russell Smith business today couldn’t be more different. High-value root crops, both organic and conventional, are supplied to leading retailers including Tesco and Waitrose. Every day throughout the growing season, onions, carrots and potatoes are being managed or lifted on a series of farms, with the combinable cropping fitting in around them. A mix of Countryside Stewardship, Organic Entry Level and conventional ELS stewardship ensure environmental standards are exemplary.

“To supply Waitrose, you need to have 5% of your business in environmental schemes. I am very interested in monitoring the levels of wildlife on the farm and have each of the main blocks of land surveyed once every three years as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer Farmer Alliance Survey. I started this in 2000 and it’s been interesting to see the numbers of species of breeding birds grow.”

Andrew has also wholeheartedly embraced the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, adding areas of wild bird seed mixes and skylark plots this spring. College Farm is also a LEAF demonstration farm.

About 95% of potatoes are grown for specific markets, as are 100% of onions. “Cereals are the breaks inbetween the other crops, but we are still trying to do the very best we can with them. Our rotation is no less than one-in-five for potatoes, one-in-six for onions and one-in-three for sugar beet. Part of the challenge for me here is in making the jigsaw fit together.”

Managing such a diverse business, particularly one growing vegetables, means people are central to its success. Along with Andrew’s new assistant, Ralph, there are six full-time staff, two part-time employees and up to 25 casual staff through agency Concordia YSV. Andrew’s wife, Liz, runs the farm office. Two years ago he introduced a staff bonus scheme, to give his team an extra incentive and interest in the overall performance of the businesses.

Marketing high-value crops and meeting retailer specification – particularly when you’re supplying a range of retailers with a range of crops – makes a significant demand on Andrew’s management time. But he’s also a businessman looking to give his products and services a competitive edge. “My attitude to marketing is to make a point of doing what other growers think might be impossible.”

Spending time with customers, whether upmarket retailers or pre-packers, is central to Andrew’s philosophy of building and maintaining valuable business relationships. His policy of listening to their needs and wants has not let him down. “For instance, I was the first grower of organic loose-skin Maris Peer potatoes for Marks & Spencer and the first LEAF Marque grower for Waitrose.”

Nor is he afraid to make dramatic shifts in his farming business if that is what his customers want. “Farming organically has been a challenge, but also fun over the years. It’s been very rewarding growing high-quality organic vegetables for the supermarkets, and some of the lessons I have learned from growing these crops I am now using in the conventional ones, where I can reduce inputs.”

If Andrew has a mantra, it’s this: “Always maintain a good relationship with your end customer.” It’s one that has stood him in good stead.

Farm facts

* 850ha (2,100 acres) part-owned and rented

* Organic and conventional

* High-value roots dominate: potatoes, onions, carrot and sugar beet

The judges liked

* Excellent client relationships

* Community and environmentally-minded

* Integrated organic and conventional husbandry


2011 Farmers Weekly Awards

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