Managing a farm business is a complex, varied job.
Our Farm Manager of the Year finalists tackle the challenge with attention to detail, a drive for innovation and deep pride in what they produce.
The Hayshed Experience, North Yorkshire
Robin Asquith measures success not in pence a litre or pounds a tonne, but in the number of people he helps.
He is operations manager at The Hayshed Experience, a 35ha care farm high on the North Yorks Moors.
As well as looking after the Highland cattle and sheep flock, he is responsible for the trainees.
Since Robin joined in 2012, he has increased the number of placements from 17 a week to 53. Each is worth £45.
He is responsible for everything, from finances and farm work to liaising with social workers.
The adults are referred by social services in Whitby or Teesside. They either have mental health issues, or a learning or physical disability.
When they come, the trainees carry out farm tasks as diverse as AI’ing pigs, planting vegetables and making burgers from a finished steer.
The activities have had a huge impact, improving confidence and skills.
One trainee has been coming for six years. Another has stayed on as an apprentice.
“We use the farm as a vehicle for helping trainees,” Robin says. “But we run it as a working farm and we make no bones about that.
“They are coming to work. Every job we give them is a job that needs doing.”
While helping the trainees makes the small farm viable, Robin has also improved the productivity with very limited resources.
35ha hill farm
54 care farming placements a week
12 highland cows and followers
25 North Country mule ewes and eight Shetlands
Two other full-time staff, four part-time
The Highland cattle were not producing enough muck to keep the pasture fertile, so he organised for a neighbour to help.
He is in the process of reseeding all the improved pasture, and has already seen silage production double.
There was no nearby market for Highland calves, so he bought a Beef Shorthorn bull.
Meat that is not processed on the farm is sold to a local butcher for a premium.
To improve the flock, he bought in 25 mules to replace some Wensleydale Longwools.
They are put to a Texel ram and lambs are finished on grass and sold live in September.
He has also cut feed costs, one of the biggest expenses, by rolling his own barley on farm – another job the trainees help with.
The upper reaches of the farm are boggy moorland. Robin entered the farm into Upland Entry Level Stewardship when he arrived, grazing some Shetland sheep and the cattle on the rougher land to keep the bracken at bay.
He is planting 200 trees a year, fencing the sheep out of seven acres of native oak and birch woodland.
Robin has managed to build up diverse income streams, which is important for a business turning over close to £100,000.
Holiday cottages bring in significant cash. Sausages are sold on the roadside.
Robin is now trying to build up more even production from his three sows and work on marketing. As well as social media, he has created a website with an online ordering facility.
The Shetland fleeces are donated to a group of nearby knitters who meet weekly on the farm and make woollen products that can be sold to help the Hayshed’s income.
Any offcuts are used to line hanging baskets the trainees make, which are also sold to raise money.
All these products and activities were on show at Open Farm Sunday. This year’s event (7 June) was the third Robin has hosted, and drew 500 visitors.
He says the day plays an important role in communicating the unusual kind of farming at the Hayshed to locals.
Looking to the future, Robin is aware of the limits of the farm. With the current two full-time staff and four others, he says they could take up to 60 placements a week.
His efforts will be focused on building the Hayshed brand through selling the products the trainees help make. “They have a hell of a story behind them,” Robin says.
On a personal level, he wants to be an advocate for care farming. He believes commercial farms could introduce placements alongside their day-to-day operations.
“I would like to spread the word of care farming. It is a fantastic thing and it does a lot of good,” he says.
Home Farm, Goodwood Estate, West Sussex
If farmers are either price-takers or price-makers, Tim Hassell is very much the latter.
He manages 1,375ha organic Home Farm on the Goodwood estate, best-known for its annual motorsport festival and racecourse.
Amid the bustle of the estate’s event preparation, he runs 1,400 ewes, 50 Sussex sucklers, 45 breeding sows and a 200-cow herd of dairy Shorthorns.
Tim’s aim is to turn out top quality meat, milk, cheese and beer for sale on the estate and beyond. In almost seven years he has built a broad customer list, from Fortnum & Mason to locals buying bottled milk at the farm gate.
Three years ago the estate was sending off 40kg of product a week: now it sends 4,000kg.
And there is no flash marketing department – Tim throws a rucksack full of samples on his back and heads up to London to meet potential customers.
“I could be feeding calves in the morning then going to the Ritz in the evening,” he says.
As a manager, Tim has built a complex but flexible business.
There is plenty of integration between different enterprises. The pigs are rotated across the fields to ensure all are cleared. Slurry from the dairy is essential for soil fertility on the organic system.
The cereals grown are all used for feed, apart from barley sold off the farm for brewing Goodwood beer.
1,375ha on Goodwood Estate
200 dairy shorthorns, 1,400 ewes, 400 beef cattle, 50 Sussex sucklers, 45 breeding sows
Milk processing and bottling, butchery, wholesale
23 full- and four part-time staff
Three cattle, eight pigs and 12 lambs are processed on the farm each week.
Home Farm’s butchers can speak directly to the stockmen, asking what carcasses are needed for different customers.
The variety of outlets also helps carcass balance.
Cull sows can end up in sausages that sell for more than £8/kg, while cow beef sold from Goodwood vans at events such as Twickenham rugby and the Cheltenham festival retails at £9/burger.
Tim’s focus is not just on squeezing down costs of production, but getting the very best price.
He targets a 25-30% gross margin for each product through adding value.
The farm sells 40% of its produce to the estate, which means it is priced at a discount.
While this has an impact on the farm’s finances, Tim says that is just part of the symbiotic relationship between the two businesses.
There are other intricacies. Many fields are out of action when car parks are needed, and turkeys and guinea fowl mingle with cattle in the closer pasture.
Lady March, of the owning family, is passionate about unpasteurised milk – more than 200 litres is bottled each week, selling for £1.45/litre.
Tim wants to show the farm is contributing alongside Goodwood’s many other enterprises. He meets monthly with managers from the other departments.
“Within the estate, it is about having the respect and having that notoriety.”
Tim runs a big team. He employs 27 people from milk processing to stockmen to wholesale.
His attitude is to find good people and let them do their job. When he wanted to expand dairy processing, he recruited a cheesemaker from award-winning Quickes in Devon.
Tim describes the staff’s annual appraisals as “two-way”; if they have ideas, they are encouraged to give them a try, including letting his shepherd show the pedigree Southdown sheep at agricultural shows across the country.
“Anything they want to do, we see if it is feasible and let them go for it,” he says.
The business has grown significantly under Tim. On the farm, he has bred the suckler herd from the dairy Shorthorns and built sow numbers from 17 to 45.
Growing the wholesale business and preparing to upgrade the farm’s core dairy enterprise are ambitious plans for the future.
The 1960s dairy will be revamped with a new 24:24 herringbone parlour, silage pits and housing for 400 cows and youngstock. This will increase production efficiency, while letting him grow the dairy herd to 300.
Tim is the reigning Sussex Farmer of the Year, and his vision is to help the estate owners put together a complete package of Goodwood products, spreading the word about the brand.
“Producing a top-quality product you get feedback about gives me the buzz,” he says.
Fawley Court, Herefordshire
A strong grasp of detail and a thirst for experimentation has helped Mark Wood expand his business quickly and profitably.
When he arrived at Fawley Court in September 2003, he was managing a 240ha arable estate.
In the intervening years, he has helped the owners take on a neighbouring estate and take tenanted land back in hand.
Today he manages 1,000ha clinging to a bend in the river Wye. About 690ha is arable, with the rest pasture or woodland.
Mark has freedom to ensure the expansion is profitable. He was handed the chequebook on his first day and charged to make money in the first year.
He did that, but still reports monthly to the owners on financial performance, compared against that year’s budget.
His operating profit is averaging about 33% of total business revenue.
“I have been lucky with the autonomy while I have been here,” Mark says. “As long as I am meeting their aims and making money they are happy for me to do it.”
The changes Mark has made mix production efficiency, smarter marketing and sustainability.
On the arable side, he pulled potatoes from the rotation after just one year, as they were damaging the soil. He now grows winter wheat, oilseed rape, peas and oats.
Mark tries precision farming techniques where possible. He has found variable seed rates pay, delivering even crops for varied fields.
He manages the grain marketing himself, having previously tried pools.
His rough rule is for a quarter to be sold when markets open, another when the year’s cropping is confirmed, another in May/June and the rest post-harvest.
Mark is in a local benchmarking group, allowing him to compare costs and performance with those of nearby producers. His is also the current HGCA monitor farm for Herefordshire.
As part of this, he has been looking at the cost-benefit of precision farming and investigating if he could introduce hybrid barley and triticale into his rotation.
In the beef enterprise, Mark has focused on breeding for his end market and hassle-free calving.
The continental-cross sucklers are bred for easy calving and frame before being put to a Blonde or British Blue as the terminal sire.
They calve in a tight six-week block from February, making sure there is no crossover with arable work.
Mark uses cattle manager software to measure costs and liveweight gains, and stock is mostly finished on grass. Mark aims to kill out at about 420kg deadweight and hit 4L for fat.
1,000ha estate (part-owned, part-rented, part contract-farmed)
690ha arable in wheat, rape, peas and oats rotation
Finishing 80 cattle a year
Three other full-time staff
He receives the 5-10/kg Marks & Spencer premium at Dawn Meats’ abattoir at Cardington, Bedfordshire.
On the estate, Mark explores non-commodity revenue streams where possible. With grant funding, he built a 7,500t grain store in 2010.
Two-thirds is let out to merchant Frontier for ease of management and he is planning a second store next to the first.
He is also looking into prospects for a farm shop, which could draw customers off the nearby M50 to buy products from the farm and game from the estate’s shooting.
Caring for the environment is a big concern for the Mark and the owners.
About 400 acres of the second estate are not shot commercially in order to boost bird numbers.
Grey partridge has also been reintroduced and can be seen hopping through field margins.
The changes to the arable rotation have helped cut soil run-off into the Wye.
And he has hosted a BioBlitz with the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, bringing families on to the farm to count wildlife.
Mark calls himself a “working farm manager” but is supported by three full-time staff and his wife Hazel. The farm enterprises, plus the woodland, gardens and shoot days, keep them busy year-round.
But he makes sure they have annual appraisals, involves them in the longer-term planning and lets them help pick the machinery they use.
Mark admits a challenge will be staff succession, with all three over 50. He is currently recruiting for a head sprayer operator and grain store supervisor.
He wants new staff to draw on the long experience of existing ones.
With the two estates now run together and making money, Mark says he is ready to focus on pushing the business harder over the next five years.
“We want to keep moving forward. Because as soon as you stand still you are going backwards.”
“These outstanding finalists show how farm managers take on incredibly different challenges.
“All three have built tight, highly productive businesses, but it’s the extra they bring that makes them stand out.”
Lynn Chilvers, sales promotion manager, Claas UK