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How an organic farm has balanced profit and sustainability

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Jimi Collis does not profess to be doing anything out of the ordinary at Launceston Farm in north Dorset.

The 700-hectare unit comprises eight separate enterprises, thanks to diversifications and the mixed nature of the farm.

But by using tools such as Farmbench to benchmark his business, he is able to use accurate data to measure and monitor performance across the whole operation.

Ultimately, it allows Jimi and his family to be sustainable, profitable and to maintain a crucial work-life balance.

He said: “Farmbench is not rocket science and I believe that is one of the major attractions – it’s the simplicity for me to break down enterprises. All our enterprises can be scanned through for year-by-year performance with the utmost ease.

“Benchmarking against ourselves allows us to make marginal gains. However, the big gains come through comparing our figures against the highest performers – be that those with the lowest cost, highest yield or best combination.”

Launceston Farm, North Dorset

  • 700 ha of organic farmland
  • Mixed arable and livestock unit
  • Diversified wedding and events venues
  • Family-run partnership
  • 300 Angus-cross sucklers
  • Biomass boiler and solar panels

Innovative farming

An agriculture graduate, Jimi spent time in the banking sector before returning home to the farm which has been in his family for nearly a century.

Under his team’s stewardship the business has grown, but he remains determined to continue to make marginal gains by looking for new and innovative ways to farm.

Launceston Farm, near Blandford Forum, converted to organic production a little over a decade ago.

About 300 Angus sucklers graze the chalky down land, with all progeny finished on the farm and sold through ABP at Sturminster Newton. Combinable crops are marketed through a number of organic buyers and utilise 300 ha.

With the herd split into autumn and spring block calving, there is a heavy load of cattle work to do – including regular bovine TB testing. This results in a reasonable labour requirement, while arable operations are also kept in-house.

Jimi says he tries to run the appropriate level of machinery but jokes that it “looks like I have too much when benchmarking but not enough when I ask the operators”.

Diversification

He said: “We are a sustainable business first and foremost – that is our goal. Our business performance is focused to optimise three main outputs: financial, environmental and work-life balance.

“We operate as a family partnership and set one-, five- and 10-year goals. Most importantly, we review them.

“Perhaps the most rewarding element is our annual photobook, showing the year in a series of images, incorporating people involved in the business, machinery, stock, crops, weather and any developments, builds and diversifications.

“It is important to be proud of what you have achieved to inspire you to push on.”

This vision has driven diversity on the farm, the most significant of which is a tourism venture centring on a luxury farmhouse and cottages sleeping up to 16 people.

Elsewhere, The Old Workshop & Forge serves as an education and events facility, while outside there is a biomass boiler to run and solar PV array serving the properties and swimming pool with heat and electricity.

The farm has a strong emphasis on the environment, and Higher Level Stewardship, Organic Entry Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship Schemes are all renewing in 2020, with a particular focus on tying in to the local Tarrant and Allen Cluster.

Good management practice

With many income streams to monitor and grow, Jimi relies on benchmarking as part of the farm’s good management practice.

He said: “The attraction for me is to have a common programme to compare, contrast and challenge against.”

He began using AHDB’s Farmbench tool in 2015.

“You have to have 100% buy-in as your accuracy is as only as good as the figures you input,” he explained.

“David Pett, our AHDB Farmbench specialist, has been very supportive. As with programming and budgeting, the devil is in the detail and formulating and recording ‘rules’ for how costs are recorded and split. Fortunately, I have a background in finance and love a good spreadsheet”

He says benchmarking has driven changes in the business, but not in a material sense. The data has been put to work setting a bar which is to be either met or raised in future years.

Jimi said: “While all the outputs, costs and performance structures are very user-friendly, for me the key performance indicators (KPIs) are the go-tos. We are consistently challenging our system to find ways for any improvements on these.”

Goals are instilled into the three full-time staff on the farm in a structured fashion, with an ongoing, frank dialogue and weekly focus meetings in the beef enterprise.

Jimi says it allows the team to work together in planning as well as observing where processes are broken or can be improved.

Organic benchmarking

One area Jimi feels he would benefit from is more interaction with other organic benchmarking groups. “We benchmark against ourselves, but, unfortunately, there is a lack of organic benchmarked beef suckler herds at the moment,” he said.

“I would highly recommend the AHDB Progressive Beef Group as it allowed us to really question and challenge ourselves and other members, helping us drive efficiency.

“There are opportunities to benchmark against other organic arable farms, but I would obviously still like to see a larger group of organic cereal and beef producers coming together to drive performance.”

He believes the sky is the limit in terms of how far benchmarking can help his business.

“Each year, we review the business against ourselves and then hone in on a ‘special focus’ for that year. The data  allows more accurate partial budgeting and shows future implications of any seasonal challenges.

“This year, I had the great opportunity to work through some LEAN management with AHDB. This brought together a lot of ongoing recording and management, highlighting a major gain to our beef KPI to be made through our grass utilisation.

“While we have been rotationally paddock grazing for the past eight years, we are now installing several simple systems to take us to the next level.”

Jimi adds that he would be very interested in collaborating with organic producers and even conventional suckler herds who are willing to engage and drive their businesses forward, potentially facilitated by AHDB.

Want to fine out more?

An AHDB Horizon document has been produced,outlining the characteristics of top-performing farms.

It details what they do differently from others and highlights how apparently similar farms can record
drastically different performance.See more on the AHDB website

In the past year AHDB has worked with 16 business on Farmbench through a Facilitation Fund.

If you are interested in learning more about how it can help your business go to ahdb.org.uk/Farmbench.