The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British farming by recognising and rewarding innovation, hard work and passion for agriculture.
Three exceptional, but very different individuals, specialising in business restructuring, habitat improvement and egg production, are in the mix for this year’s Farm Adviser of the Year award. Philip Clarke profiles the finalists.
Jamie Gwatkin Consultancy, Suffolk
Farm business consultant Jamie Gwatkin is a man who likes to keep busy – which is just as well given the breadth and depth of his client portfolio.
From retained clients growing crops, milking cows and rearing pigs to groups of farmers sharing machinery, lifting sugar beet or supplying anaerobic digester feedstocks, not to mention the six joint ventures he is involved with, the list of demands on Jamie’s time is a long one.
But if you had to pin him down on one speciality, he would cite it as “business strategy” – helping individual businesses improve profitability while meeting the objectives of the owners.
The judges liked
- Clear, analytical approach to finding business solutions
- Recognises his own limits
- Commitment to continuous professional development
- Likes to be innovative and cutting edge
“I appraise businesses by looking at the core activities and then break them down into their constituent parts so I can see what is performing well and what is struggling,” he says.
“I then look at other businesses in the area and ask if there are ways we can add value. This is crucial. If you are just supplying a commodity, you are going to struggle unless your costs are well under control or you have sufficient scale.”
Having studied agriculture and farm management at Seale Hayne, Jamie’s career started with RH Mason & Partners in Hampshire, before he joined Andersons in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, where he worked for 15 years before branching out on his own.
He has about 60 retained clients who he advises on farm performance, developing farming operations with the aim of making them profitable without subsidies. This often involves training in financial governance – he has developed his own costings model for outdoor pig producers – and possibly diversification.
Jamie also has a strong track record in machinery joint ventures, with the aim of cutting costs to release capital for other investments. “Most farmers will be able to tell you the cost of their fertilisers or sprays, but they have no idea about their machinery costs,” he observes.
But perhaps his most innovative work has been in the establishment of two sugar beet groups and an anaerobic digester feedstock group.
The beet groups, which produce more than 200,000t of beet from 70 growers supplying British Sugar’s Bury St Edmunds and Cantley factories, were set up to maximise harvesting and haulage efficiency.
This is achieved by allowing heavy land growers to lift crops earlier, while compensating light land growers for delaying harvest.
The Cantley beet group has also signed a contract with the Biocore AD plant at nearby Ellough to supply 35,000t of energy beet, 25,000t of maize and 10,000t of rye. The tight terms of the contract drawn up by Jamie ensures payment upfront for the group’s 36 members, worth an additional £420,000 over the processed beet price.
Despite having a direct involvement in a multitude of businesses, Jamie is quick to recognise his own limits. “You can’t be an expert in everything, so I will tell my clients when I reach the edge of my expertise. Employment law, for example, is a real minefield, so I’ll recommend someone else.”
However, Jamie is always developing new skills, as well as keeping up to date by attending seminars and through his involvement with the Institute of Agricultural Management, which includes continuous professional development.
Working on his own with a large number of clients carries certain risks, for example should illness strike. But it also confers many advantages. “My clients know they can ring me at any time and I will talk through their issues immediately. I do all the work myself, so I am always familiar with their business affairs. I also have a low cost base and therefore keep my fees below my competitors.”
So what are his aspirations? “I always like to be cutting edge. I don’t want to do mundane things. I’m also keen to explore ways to reduce waste in agriculture and to use CO2 as an asset, rather than a liability.”
Client case study
Jimmy Butler, Blythburgh Free Range Pork, Suffolk
Pig producer Jimmy Butler first started working with Jamie 25 years ago.
“At that time we had two pig herds – one indoors, one outdoors – and were under pressure from the banks,” he recalls. “We called in Jamie and he immediately split the two businesses. Within six weeks we had closed down the loss-making indoor unit.”
The pair then decided to create their own premium brand to add further value, developing the award-winning Blythburgh free-range pork range, supplying butchers and top chefs across the country.
“Knowing our costs also helps with getting a fair price,” says Jimmy. “While I now do the cashflows and budgets, Jamie monitors it and we have quarterly meetings to discuss any variances. Jamie is always on the end of the phone if I need him, and he always has something positive to say when things are looking down.”
Wildlife Farming Company, Oxfordshire
Marek Nowakowski has two particular passions – farming and wildlife – and bringing the two together has been his lifelong mission, both as a researcher and as a consultant.
With no formal academic background, Marek knew from the start that the two could go hand in hand. “From as far back as the early 1970s I could see the need for profitable agriculture, but without screwing up the countryside. It really is possible to say the words ‘wildlife’ and ‘pesticides’ in the same sentence.”
The judges liked
- Boundless enthusiasm and total conviction in what he does
- Highly influential – at government, NGO and individual farm level
- Great communicator, putting complex ideas in simple language
- Down-to-earth approach – literally
The first 25 years of his early career were spent as a conventional agronomist, initially for Heygates, and then for Willmott Chemicals, which later became UAP. “It is here that I began to build my environmental work from a hobby into a job,” he says.
This was taken a step further when, in 2000, he set up the Wildlife Farming Company “dedicated to furthering our farming and environmental knowledge through practical science”.
While much of Marek’s work has been aimed at influencing NGOs and government as they have developed various environmental schemes, he has also taken his knowledge direct to farmers, talking at group meetings, holding training sessions or as a retained consultant.
“I have spent my working life bringing farmers and environmental scientists closer together, giving us the best from both worlds.”
Perhaps his greatest gift is as a communicator – presenting sometimes challenging ideas in a way that farmers then buy in to. “I don’t know the Latin names of most of the insects we find – I just call them ‘food’ and know this will be good for birdlife,” he says, demonstrating the point nicely.
“Having lots of butterflies in the world when people are starving is clearly wrong. But having lots of obesity with no butterflies at all is equally wrong,” he adds.
Marek agrees that good, productive land should only be used for food production – and he does not much mind which system of farming is carried out on it. But less productive land should be given over to habitat creation, he advises, especially if government schemes such as Countryside Stewardship mean it makes more money than scratching out a meagre crop.
“The government takes your money. Going into Countryside Stewardship enables you to get some of it back. If someone will pay you more than £500/ha when wheat production is losing you £100/ha, why wouldn’t you be interested?”
Much of the evidence for Marek’s messages comes from work he has done with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, including the so-called Buzz project – which showed it was possible to raise profits and wildlife in tandem.
The Hillesden Project, with Defra, Syngenta and Natural England, also showed the biggest crop yields came from land with the highest levels of habitat creation, which Marek attributes to better pollination.
More recent work has included involvement with the National Pollinator Strategy, developing specific grass and flower mixes for specific bees. And Marek has started a project – the Woburn experiment – looking at using wildflowers, rich in wildlife, to reduce blackgrass.
Marek insists that, whatever their gripes, most farmers are actually interested in conservation. “Many farmers have had a go at farmland habitat creation, but with varying levels of success,” he says. “The disappointments often stem from ‘tried it, couldn’t make it work, so not doing it again’. But our training helps increase their level of confidence, success and delivery, with many farmers now understanding why this is important and how to make habitat creation work.
“Ultimately, we all depend on a healthy environment and everyone needs to do their bit.”
Client case study
Andrew Ingram, Green Fields Farm, Oxfordshire
Andrew Ingram first came across Marek when he saw him on a farming programme on TV, 20 years ago – and knew he needed to track him down. His farm, high up in the Chiltern Hills, was primarily focused on Christmas trees and he was keen to extend and improve the environmental features.
“We have since established more than 40ha of wildflower meadows, three miles of hedges and a network of margins,” he says. “They now boast more than 100 different species of grasses and flowers, including seven species of orchids. Well over 20 species of butterfly regularly present together, with a healthy population of yellowhammers and many LBJs [little brown jobs].
“Marek has been my agronomist, adviser, inspiration, supporter and friend for the past 20 years. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife and conservation. Without his guidance, commitment and encouragement, the enormous environmental gain we achieved would not have happened.”
Humphrey Feeds and Pullets, Hampshire
By his own admission, poultry adviser Colin Gravatt is something of a numbers man.
Eggs per hen, weight of bird at onset of lay, shed-stocking density, feed conversion rates, water consumption – all are available pretty much off the top of his head for any one of his 100 or so clients.
As Colin is eager to point out: “The macro stuff is important, but the micro stuff is even more important, especially when you are dealing with million-pound-turnover businesses.”
This attention to detail is based on knowledge that has been built up over 25 years of working initially for BOCM Pauls (now ForFarmers) and then, since 2002, for Humphrey Feeds and Pullets.
The judges liked
- Detailed knowledge of bird health and egg production
- Calm approach to problem solving
- Dedicated to his customer base, who trust his judgement and discretion
- Prepared to go the extra mile
As well as being a numbers man, Colin is very much a people person, talking the same language as his farming clients and exuding an enthusiasm that is infectious.
“I always wanted to be a farmer, but never had the money to do it. Being an adviser is the next best thing and is why I always like to get physically involved.
“My main learning has come from speaking to customers – always asking questions and building up knowledge I can share with other farmers and with my colleagues at Humphreys.”
His advice majors on the technical aspects of keeping hens, such as gut health, ventilation and lighting. Colin’s knowledge is second to none, and he prides himself on not overmedicating the birds.
But he also acknowledges when more specialist advice is needed, and won’t hesitate to call for the vet if circumstances dictate. If there is ever a health problem, he will call back again and again to check the flock is getting back on track.
With almost 100 customers, Colin is responsible for the sale of about 46,000t of feed a year, and the placement of 675,000 pullets. His region covers the south-west of England and he has been helping drive the business into Wales, where free-range egg production has been expanding.
Getting around so many clients and giving each the attention he believes they deserve involves long distances, long hours and being available even at weekends. “It all comes down to good logistics.”
His rationale is always to work with, rather than against nature, with a particular emphasis on keeping good feather cover, as this provides defence against disease and bolsters production efficiency.
Colin says he encourages every one of his clients to come and see their birds when they are “in rear” – before they are delivered to the farms at 16 weeks of age.
He also makes sure he is on the farm to oversee the arrival of the birds – whatever the hour – to check everything is in order.
He also weighs the birds once a week until they come into lay, as ensuring they are fit and strong at this stage is crucial to the long term productivity of each flock. He continues to monitor bird weight at least monthly for the rest of the flock’s life.
The depth of Colin’s knowledge is truly impressive. He even feeds back information to the company’s nutritionists to tweak diets for specific challenges.
“We always try to be proactive rather than reactive, to keep us ahead of the game.”
He is also able to advise his customers on business strategy, support them with planning applications and has developed his own costings template to help producers monitor their flock and financial performance.
As well as being on hand at the start of a flock, he is also available at the end, going through the flock data with his clients, to assess what went right and what could have been done better.
So what gives him most satisfaction from his job? “Seeing the birds fully feathered as they get older – this shows me the system is working.”
Client case study
Jeremy Pratt, Till Valley Eggs, Wiltshire
Jeremy Pratt moved into free-range egg production in 2007, running a 30,000-bird conventional unit in Wiltshire on one site, with another 8,000 organic birds nearby. “Colin has been with me every step of the way, and has overseen improvements in every single flock,” he says.
“We changed our ventilation, lighting, water supply, overhauled our cleaning routine and fine-tuned the feed specs.
“We are now on our seventh flock [on the conventional site] and each year has been better, lifting peak production from 72% birds laying a day to more than 90%. In egg numbers, we were at 280 a bird a year 12 months ago. The last flock that went through was about 320 a bird.”
Jeremy says Colin will respond to a phone call whatever the time of day. “He calls in almost every week when he is passing by. If he was to ever move from Humphreys, we would move with him.”
The Farmers Weekly Farm Adviser of the Year 2016 award is sponsored by Koch Advanced Nitrogen fertiliser.
“Providing quality advice to farmers is essential to the success of our industry. The three finalists showed innovation and all that is best about the profession, and we congratulate them on their achievements”
UK technical crop nutritionist, Bunn Fertiliser (maker of Koch Advanced Nitrogen fertiliser)