Few things are more reassuring for a farmer than having a skilled, passionate and reliable farm contractor on the doorstep. The three finalists in this year’s Farmers Weekly Contractor of the Year award might be running very different businesses, but each is going the extra mile to ensure their customers receive a first-class service. James Andrews speaks to one of the finalist.
Spring Farm, Norfolk
Drive into Oliver Arnold’s yard and you might think you’ve strayed into a local machinery dealership by mistake.
To the left, a line of gleaming new John Deere tractors are waiting to go silaging, to the right, a brace of Krone foragers is being fettled in the workshop and ahead sit two Terragator muck spreaders and a Big A three wheeler.
Edge in a bit further and you’ll find a Holmer beet harvester, a JCB loading shovel and a couple of top-end Fendts. The amount of equipment is impressive and too numerous to list in one article. But it’s not just there for fun.
From his base at Spring Farm, Felthope, Norfolk, Oliver specialises in providing services farmers can’t justify doing themselves. And that means he needs a lot of specialist equipment.
1. Manages and harvests more than 2,500ha of maize for biogas and feed
2. Employs 20 full-time staff
3. Has more than 300 core customers on the books
Lime, fertiliser, muck and digestate spreading keep his team of Terragators busy and he’s also recently branched out into sugar beet harvesting. But it’s the pair of large concrete domes at the side of the farm drive that have demanded the biggest investment in horsepower.
Mr Arnold first saw the potential of biogas production during a visit to Germany. While watching a plant in action he saw the huge maize clamps built to feed it and realised there was a fantastic business opportunity to grow, harvest and manage the crop.
Not wanting to risk investing his own capital in the project, Mr Arnold found a company that was looking for a site to erect a new plant, as well as a contractor to do the work. They built the plant on his ground and he secured a 10-year contract to supply and run it. He also manages a similarly-sized plant on neighboring land and has recently started providing crop for four other plants in East Anglia. “It’s given us a huge amount of guaranteed work and has really helped us grow and secure the future of the business.”
1. Specialising in niche market and capitalising on opportunities
2. His drive for perfection and quality of service to customers
3. Strong leadership skills and management style
During the maize campaign Mr Arnold harvests more than 2,500ha with his brace of Krone Big X 1100 foragers and runs 24 tractors and trailers back to the clamps. Some of the tractors and trailers are drafted in from other local contractors. Two-thirds of the maize goes into biogas production and the rest is for cattle.
Keeping such a large operation running smoothly is a mammoth task and there are 20 full-time staff to manage, too.
But Mr Arnold and his wife Hannah are running a tight ship. To maintain the quality of his service, Mr Arnold says he only employs full-time, professional operators. “We try to avoid casual labour if we can.”
Staff are also thoroughly trained on each machine they operate, as well as being shown how to properly carry out all of the jobs they will be doing with it.
The whole machinery fleet is made up of top-quality equipment and Mr Arnold is fastidious about maintenance. A full-time mechanic is employed to make sure machinery is kept in the best possible condition and he won’t let it leave the farm on a job unless it is perfect.
Rather than having a fixed replacement policy, he replaces machines when he feels it is economic to do so. “The dealers know what I’ve got and if someone approaches me with a good offer I’ll take it.”
But before investing in new equipment, he works out how much it will cost to run and how much income it will generate. ” I also keep a close eye on the second-hand market and opt for machines that have a good resale value.”
Rather than push for large quantities of short-term business, Mr Arnold looks to build relationships with his customers. By delivering the best service he can and turning up on time he has managed to secure a base of 300 loyal customers in the area. “To avoid letting customers down, I also try to run more than one of the most important machines.”
A word from our sponsors
“This prestigious award showcases the dedication and professionalism of the finalists. Each has increased customer satisfaction while managing ever-increasing costs; they’ve invested in their business, and have purchased industry-leading technology to help them deliver.”
Steve Smith, JCB
Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.