Casting vote decides farm business award winner

Harper Adams University scooped the Institute of Agricultural Management Farmplanner competition “by a nose”, with a business plan and presentation the judges said was one of the best they had ever seen.

Converting redundant farm buildings into a residential estate, introducing onions into the rotation, changing the insulation system for carrots and constructing two new broiler sheds formed the backbone of Harper’s winning business plan, for the 600ha Sundorne estate in Shropshire.

See also: Total income from farming sees small real-terms rise in 2016

“We’ve done this for roughly 25 years and this is by far and away the best year for the three presentations,” said IAGrM chairman Tim Brigstocke.

“Normally it’s a pretty quick discussion where it’s clear who are the winners.

winning harper adams team

Harper’s winning team (from left): Tim Vries, Will Ayre, Gwesyn Davies, Rhys Jones and Joshua Caswell

“This year we’ve had a detailed, frank and thorough discussion because there were disagreements upon who should win,” added Mr Brigstocke.

The judging was so close that the decision was tied between two entries, meaning farm manager Jon Birchall had to cast the deciding vote.

“The debate amongst the judging panel centered around whether the winner should be the most innovative team or the team that had the safest possible option for the farm,” said Mr Birchall.

Farmplanner of the Year – what is it?

  • Run by the Institute of Agricultural Management (IAgrm)
  • An estate or large mixed farm is chosen as a case study
  • Aimed at agricultural students
  • Teams visit the farm then are given several months to prepare a business plan
  • Finalist teams present their cases to the judges
  • The award is sponsored by Farmplan, Bayer, Hutchinsons, CF Fertilisers, Lloyds Bank and Farmers Weekly.
  • Judges: Piers Costley (Farmplan), Darren Adkins (Bayer), Jon Birchall (Sundorne Estate), Helen Davis (Farmplan), Jack Yates (Farmers Weekly), Andrew Sayer (Estate Trustee) and Bridget Marshall (Trustee)

“We’re running a live business; it needs to be run on solid foundations.

“So the proposal that changed the shape of the business but wasn’t too risky was the one that I felt was the best option for the farm and that’s why Harper got there by a nose.” 


Farm buildings at Sundorne estate, Shropshire

The Sundorne estate manager said he was particularly interested in Harper’s suggestions for carrot insulation, where the team would cover the straw used in the current system with polythene.

Rhys Jones from Harper Adams predicted that the change would reduce straw input by 66%, as well as lower nitrogen lock-up leading to a saving of £2,300/ha, with no need for specialist equipment or contractors.

Who entered?

  • Bishop Burton College, East Yorkshire
  • Harper Adams University, Shropshire
  • Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Bridgwater, Somerset
  • University of Reading, Berkshire

Members of the winning team were also commended by the eight judges for their identification of onions as an addition to the estates cropping, the use of cover crops and renting around 35ha to a local salad and fresh produce grower, PDM.

The latter proposal would earn the estate an estimated £35,000 per year in rent.

“The onions looked particularly interesting and two teams came up with that idea so we shall certainly be looking at that,” added Mr Birchall. 

“With PDM and the salad crops, we are aware of the company but the Harper presentation gave us some contact details so we will certainly be speaking to them as well.”

He added: “The competition has highlighted for us that we want to improve the organic matter levels of the soil here.”

Challenges set for student teams

1. Produce a business plan which maximises returns from the farm, intensifying where appropriate, while maintaining and enhancing the asset (How do we put sustainable intensification into practice)? 

2. Consider the opportunities for the redundant farm buildings. 

3. Identify how to maximise and improve the organic matter and quality of soil across the farm. 

4. There is a severe ryegrass problem on the farm and blackgrass is beginning to be a problem. How can this be eliminated? 

5. What cropping or enterprises should the farm look at to mitigate a possible in reduction in BPS? 

“The teams had a very good command of that subject but it’s apparent that there’s no easy solution to it; it’s something we’re going to have to work really hard at.”

The judges were impressed by the forensic level of detailed market research carried out by Harper.

farm buildings

Redundant farm buildings at Sundorne estate

The winning team spoke to local consultants, planning officers, buyers, transport firms, growers and storage companies to assess the feasibility of their proposals.

“They had found out which contracts were available and had done all the groundwork for me if I wanted to pursue those options,” added Mr Birchall.

Harper Adams’ business plan

  • Convert the redundant farm buildings into nine residential units
  • Replace rye with conventional bulb onions
  • Change the insulation system for carrots
  • Use cover crops between the summer/autumn harvest and spring drilling
  • Rent land to a local salad grower
  • Invest in two 1,950sq m broiler units to house between 80,000 and 100,000 birds

Harper team member Gwesyn Davies was commended for his intrinsic knowledge of the poultry industry, proposing two 1,950sq m broiler units capable of housing 80,000-100,000 birds, generating a profit of £43,000 per year to the business.

Mr Davies identified and approached a nearby processor for the unit and recognised that planning permission had a better chance of being approved within the next two years as regulations were set to become more stringent.

“Bringing home the trophy means a lot for ourselves, the team and the college,” said Harper team member Will Ayre.

“The competition was very tough, but it was really interesting to go on a working farm and have the opportunity to do a real project against other colleges and universities was really beneficial,” he added. 

The winning Harper team will travel to the International Farm Management Association Congress in Edinburgh in early July and make a presentation to delegates, courtesy of competition sponsor, Bayer.

Other finalists’ plans

Bishop Burton was commended for a detailed and ambitious presentation and plan, made more impressive as it was a solo effort.

Jonathan Dearlove proposed a new crop rotation which included the introduction of soya, the redevelopment of existing buildings to create a high-end residential estate and improving water retention and storage capabilities at Sundorne.

“The thing that really jumped out at us and captured our imagination was Bishop Burton’s idea of selling carbon storage on the farm – that looked really interesting,” said Mr Burchall. 

Newcastle University was highly commended for their innovation and thinking outside the box with some of its solutions.

The Newcastle team recommended including early potatoes, dry bulb onions and spring barley in the rotation, as well as proposing a dairy sheep herd as an alternative to a conventional broiler unit.

The judges were impressed by its plans to create a high-end retirement village – complete with a biomass boiler to add to the future sustainability of the enterprise.