2015 Farmers Weekly Awards: Farm Employer of the Year finalists revealed

David Metcalfe, Robert Smith and David Knott

From left: David Metcalfe, Robert Smith and David Knott ©Jim Varney and Tim Scrivener

Behind every successful business there’s a great team. Farming is showing the way with these outstanding examples of team management and motivation. Meet the 2015 Farmers Weekly Farm Employer of the Year finalists…

See also: Find out more about the Farmers Weekly Awards

Metcalfe Farms

David Metcalfe, Leyburn, North Yorkshire

Brothers Brian, David and Philip Metcalfe

From left: Brothers Brian, David and Philip Metcalfe ©Jim Varney

There’s a buzz about the Metcalfe brothers that infects everyone around them – not least their team of 43 full-time farming staff.

The three brothers meet every weekday morning for breakfast to discuss the operations of a farm that is now a multimillion pound arable, contracting, sheep, dairy, anaerobic digestion (AD) haulage and repair business.

Each of the three brothers has his own business unit; the eldest, David, is the financial director for the whole company but also has responsibility for the 700ha of arable and forage including a new AD plant.

Brian manages the 900 head of sheep, contracting and haulage businesses and Philip is responsible for the 900-cow dairy unit and followers.

“Our approach is to ask, rather than tell, people what to do. We try to make everyone feel part of the business,” says David.

This openness fosters ideas from the team. One-pass round baling and wrapping is now a significant new development in contracting operations thanks to tractor driver/shepherd Simon Kirby.

People are at the heart of this business and that’s obvious when you meet the team.

Gerard came to the farm from Ireland for two weeks and is still there 14 months later: “I was made to feel part of the family when I arrived and I just enjoy the people, as well as the work,” he says.

Farm facts

900 head Holstein dairy unit

900 sheep

700ha arable and forage crops

6,000 ha contracting

AD plant

77 heavy haulage lorries

Flexibility is a crucial element in recruiting new staff: “Although we employ people for a specific role, we make it clear that they will have to work in other areas, such as lambing, at certain times of the year,” explains David.

There are staff opportunities as the business has expanded: “Several employees have developed from milkers to sub-managers and basic tractor drivers into specialist machine operators,” he says.

There’s a waiting list of people wanting to work at Metcalfe Farms, which is the largest employer in the area.

It wasn’t always like that explains Philip: “We struggled to find good people for the dairy five years ago. But now many milkers come from local villages with no farming background.

“We train them, so they develop with us, and it has worked very well.”

Ten of the 20 milking staff on this pedigree Holstein unit are female.

The teams in the individual units meet regularly and also hold monthly staff meetings, which may include the vet.

Each member of dairy team has “job cards”. Mastitis and lameness scores are on display so everyone can see the impact of what they are doing on herd health

A purpose-built training room is used for staff and third parties. They host many open days and farm walks and have been shortlisted for the RABDF Gold Cup.

The dairy is central to Metcalfe Farms and its future. It is undergoing a major expansion from a 32:32 rapid-exit parlour to a 72-point rotary unit.

For many businesses the efficiencies of scale might result in less labour, but here expanding cow numbers to 1,300 helps maximise the investment in people.

The new parlour is a brave move with milk prices as they are, but the vision is to ride out the bottom and build for the future.

Given their track record to date, it is an approach that is likely to succeed. Every new business venture delivers synergies, as well as new revenues, to the core farm.

Digestate from the AD plant is saving £55,000 on fertiliser. The new HGV MoT centre “will save more than £10,000/year in time and fuel related to MoTs on our haulage lorries because we will get them done on the site,” explains David.

The family invested in a new arable business in Russia, which David was asked by other investors to manage.

It was a huge cultural. linguistic and bureaucratic challenge, but in five years David and his 300-strong Russian team were producing 25,000ha of highly profitable crops.

The experience has helped shape their ambitious expansion programme at home and defined the way they work together.

As a new generation of Metcalfes come into the business – Richard on contracting and Thomas in the workshop – you wonder what Metcalfe Farms will be 10 years from now.

Russell Smith Farms

Robert Smith, Duxford, Cambridgeshire

Robert Smith talking to a farmworker

Robert Smith ©Tim Scrivener

Casual workers come back year after year to Robert Smith’s College Farm, a 1,000ha potato, sugar beet and organic combinable crop business.

It is testament to the farm’s reputation as a good employer, providing mobile homes, canteen, a shower block and regular social events for the loyal band of 20 east Europeans that come to help with the harvest.

The farm has seven full-time staff, which includes farm manager Ralph Grindling, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of producing organic vegetables for supermarkets and seed crops of cereals and peas for local breeders.

A team that understands the importance of attention to detail is essential to deliver to exacting standards for some of their high-value crops.

King Edward potatoes, organic onions and specialist salad varieties that are only grown at College Farm add to the pressure to get things right: “It’s essential to have a team that knows what they are doing and can be left to make the right decisions.

The room for error when dealing with supermarkets is wafer thin,” says Robert.

Ralph endorses that sentiment: “We have a really great team here, who have a good amount of autonomy to get the job done well.”

Farm facts

1,000ha (200ha organic)

Seven full-time staff

Cropping includes sugar beet, organic onions, organic potatoes, cereals, seed crops (peas and cereals)

1:8 potato rotation

Director of Produce World

Ralph meets the team every morning to discuss the rota and farm checklist and they are encouraged to share their ideas on the operations.

Any new member of the team has a job description and undergoes a formal induction.

Four of the staff have accommodation provided by the farm, everyone has healthcare and is enrolled in a pension scheme.

Staff bonuses are calculated on the areas of the business that they can influence, such as yield, explains Robert.

Trips abroad, local events such as Cereals, Lamma and regular socials help to keep the team motivated, says Robert.

There’s a healthy mix of experienced staff who have been at College Farm for more than 30 years and relative newcomers.

Three of the casual staff from Bulgaria have remained full-time at College Farm for several years, including George, who is the official translator for new casuals coming in.

“Polish Pete” is a trained accountant, but loves the outdoor lifestyle, satisfaction of a job well done and autonomy that working at Russell Smith Farms gives him. He doesn’t plan to return home any time soon.

Training needs for all the team are assessed regularly by the Saffron Walden Training Group.

Some of the men have attended sub-manager training to enable them to direct teams at harvest: “Quality control and full traceability are essential, which is why it is important to have gang leaders that know how to manage this,” says Robert.

Staff also go on visits to other farms to see how things are done elsewhere, which generates new ideas, bringing in new technologies and fresh thinking.

A new “laid-on” weeder, which is more comfortable for the team to use is the result of one of those visits.

Water is fundamental to the business. Irrigation is highly automated and can be controlled by mobile phone. There are already four reservoirs and Robert is embarking on an ambitious project to build a 100m gallon reservoir, which spans 13ha of water.

More than 28km of underground piping has been laid across his and neighbouring farms to secure the business’ growing irrigation requirements across rented land that enables him to have 1:8 rotation.

He is hoping that the reservoir could become the Cambridge equivalent of the Cotswold Water Park, with holiday housing, water sports and wildlife areas.

The week the judges visited the farm, preparations were under way for Open Farm Sunday, which all the staff like to be part of: “It’s a great way of involving the general public in what we do, and why we do it,” says Robert.

Trumpington Farming Estate

David Knott, Cambridgeshire

David Knott

David Knott ©Tim Scrivener

Five members of the 15-strong team on the Trumpington estate received long service awards (more than 30 years) at the East of England Show recently, which is testament to the loyalty and commitment of staff on this impressive 3,200ha arable operation just outside Cambridge.

Professionalism and precision are the hallmarks of this estate, where owner Richard Pemberton and manager David Knott work hand in glove to maximise cropping productivity while improving the landscape and wildlife assets.

Richard comes from a distinguished line of Pembertons. Sir Francis, a lawyer and Lord Chief Justice, bought Trumpington for 1,000 golden guineas in 1675.

Richard’s grandfather, also Francis, hosted the Royal Show at Trumpington and was the architect of the permanent showground at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire.

Today, Richard wants to secure an income for current and future generations, but also enhance the estate’s landscape and wildlife assets.

He has planted 15,000 trees and more than 12km of hedgerows as well as 30ha semi-permanent wetland at River Farm.

It is clear to the judges as they tour the estate that David, and his team of assistant manager and four tractor drivers, are delivering management of these conservation areas and the cropping to very high standards.

Well-groomed and even crops are visible across the whole estate, despite a big variation in soil type within and across fields.

Precision farming technologies, from variable-rate seeding to fertiliser and sprays, are crucial to productivity, with average wheat yields now just shy of 10t/ha.

Farm facts

15 full-time staff

3,200ha of combinable cropping

14ha solar park

18ha willow coppice

Biomass boiler

Machinery is replaced every five years

Two new grain stores (6,000t each)

This means staff with good computer skills.Everybody across the wide-ranging employee age profile has embraced new technology.

Input instructions are received on iPads, which also record operations and outputs and are linked to Soyl and GateKeeper software.

“Latest machinery provides comfort, reliability and productivity as well as pride in what the team achieve,” says David.

Investment in experienced, well trained but self-motivated people is essential when you are rolling out these types of innovations, says David.

Attractive salaries, accommodation and a career path are offered to each member of the team: “We want to recruit and retain the best,” he says.

Everyone, including the gamekeeper and two amenity staff, report to David.

He will meet the team daily if possible, but does so formally every week to go through the operational plans.

Self-reliance is crucial: “We want the team to be able to judge when to adapt their work priorities if conditions change, which they often do,” he says.

So a rolling programme of training for all staff to ensure safe working but also to develop their technical and personal skills is essential in delivering that goal.

Agronomist reports are seen by all the team, so that they can take an interest in the decisions being made and the impact their operations have on the outcome.

“It’s really important to encourage everyone to share their ideas and views,” says David.

Open communication and anticipating reactions to potential problems before they arise is crucial to keep everyone on side, says David.

He and Richard have an informal open-door policy which enables staff to say things more readily than they might in the weekly meetings.

Respect for each other is an attitude fostered across the team. “There’s a can-do attitude which permeates through the whole team and is reflected by the willingness of staff to demonstrate a high level of commitment, co-operation and dedication,” says David.

In addition to an attractive salary, there is a discretionary bonus linked to productivity, a pension scheme and social events every year as a thank-you to all the staff.

As well as willow coppicing for a biomass boiler that provides heat for three houses and the office, fishing syndicates and amenity contracting, there are more than 100 houses on short-term lets or occupied by farm staff or pensioners who pay a peppercorn rent.

It is a benefit not lost on worker Charlie, who has been on the estate for more than 30 years: “Keep the wives happy and the workers will be content too!” he says.


Farm Employer of the Year is sponsored by Safety Revolution.

Oliver Dale, managing director, Safety Revolution, says:  “Showcasing the professional standards of safety and staff management in farming is essential to attract and retain new talent.

“These three finalists are fine exemplars and an inspiration for other to follow.”



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