Joint venture boosts labour and machinery use efficiency

Faced with falling margins, the Solley family decided to enter into an agreement with a neighbouring estate to bring efficiencies by nearly doubling the cropping area.

This coincided with Matt Solley (pictured) giving up his management post at Gilston Crop Management in Hertfordshire and returning home in January 2010 to run the new partnership known as JS Crop Management.

Predominantly growing combinable crops on adjoining units between Deal and Sandwich, the partnership comprises of the 650ha family farm (Solley Farms) plus 600ha Betteshanger Farms.

Almost immediately, there were tough decisions to be made, says Mr Solley. “We’re a contracting company and our aim is to provide power and labour to both companies at a break-even cost.”

That meant drastically reducing costs to as low a level as possible, while delivering a first class service. While the cropping is virtually unchanged, the business structure is radically different and still subject to further change.

Streamlining the machinery was one of his first tasks, as both farms were running their own fleets. All duplication has been eliminated and bigger machines purchased, with one combine, cultivator and sprayer now covering the whole operation. Similar decisions had to be made about the workforce.

“These are always painful processes, but they’re necessary for the long-term future of any business. Market volatility is something every farm has to be able to cope with.”

Mr Solley now has three full-time employees on the farm, all of which are kept busy throughout the year. One has exceptional workshop skills, so as well as carrying out all the repairs and maintenance for the partnership’s machines, this service is also offered to other farmers in the area.

“It’s essentially a repair service which reduces our business costs, as well as providing an income stream. And it keeps him occupied at quieter times on the farm.”

Winter wheat, oilseed rape, spring beans and peas are grown, with milling varieties accounting for one third of the wheat area. The remainder is high yielding, feed types.

“This is good land for wheat growing, so we can get yields of above 11.0t/ha,” comments Mr Solley. “It makes a pleasant change after farming on heavy clay – this ground is far easier to work.”

A potato-packing warehouse meets the requirements of the paper bag trade, with low-grade quality potatoes and onions being repacked and sent out. “We’re not in the supermarket game at all – the warehouse has always been on the farm and has good customers. It employs five people.”

The business also has an established small caravan site with five pitches. Mr Solley reveals that it is very busy from March to the end of September, bringing in £10 per caravan per night.

What about the future? He has no hesitation in saying that he is always looking for opportunities and is keen to continue expanding the business. “I’ve found that expansion does tend to find its way to you,” he says. “Wherever there are challenges, there are also opportunities.”

He stresses that working away from home at the beginning of his career proved to be the best experience possible. “I was lucky that I had a good mentor when I started. It persuaded me to become a good mentor to others.”

Gaining a variety of experience and learning to move forward have also been essential. “Without the lessons I learned from working for a partnership of three businesses, I wouldn’t have been in a position to create and run a new joint venture.

The experience gained in his previous role in Hertfordshire is proving invaluable as Mr Solley gets to grips with the farming operations at JS Crop Management – a joint venture arrangement between his home farm in Kent and a nearby estate.

Mr Solley, who graduated from Writtle College in 2000, started his farming career as an assistant farm manager with Gemmill Brothers on a 650ha tenanted unit near Sawbridgeworth.

Just five years later, after a period of rapid expansion, he ended up being responsible for almost 2400ha spanning a 30 mile radius, as the farm manager of a contract farming partnership formed by three businesses and known as Gilston Crop Management.

While there, he won the 2008 Farmers Weekly Farm Manager of the Year title, at the age of 29.

In that role, he had to deliver a profit within tight budgetary constraints. “It proved possible to do and showed me that there are always opportunities in farming,” he comments. “Working for someone else was an important start to my career and one that I would recommend to others.”

See more