Contractor Award shortlist: Paul Burtonshaw

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 talks to one of the finalists.

Paul Burtonshaw

Chesterton Estate Yard, Warwickshire

Most farmers find it difficult to get excited about land drainage. Unlike a set of pleasingly chunky tractor tyres or a fridge in the combine cab, the thought of sinking your hard-earned cash into invisible plastic pipe isn’t much fun.

But sitting down for a coffee with Paul Burtonshaw and his team at Farm Services changes your perspective somewhat. Because, when the tyres have been shredded for use in a children’s playground and the fridge is in landfill, his drains will still be improving yields.

Farm Services has been operating from the Chesterton Estate near Lighthorne, Warwickshire, for 70 years, and while many specialist drainage contractors have gone to the wall, it is thriving. That’s because, as well as providing an excellent service to his customers, Paul has been effectively promoting the benefits of land drainage for years.

The judges liked

  • Continually innovating to build on the success of the business

  • Educating others on the importance of land drainage

  • Slick logistics and a dedicated workforceDrainage crucial to up agricultural production

Paul’s son Rob is also following in the family footsteps. He’s enrolled in a Nuffield scholarship specialising in land drainage and his report Land drainage and its role in farming’s future will be completed after he finishes an eight-week world tour. This will include a visit to the Netherlands to look at the first GPS-graded, professional land drainage machine in Europe.

Rob also runs the company website, writes a blog and posts on social media to promote the business and land drainage as a whole. “There is great pressure to increase agricultural production and drainage plays a crucial role in this. We need to educate farmers to show them how important it is,” he says.

Rob is also planning to organise a drainage event for farmers and wants to do more research into its benefits. “We’re looking to get hold of some before-and-after yield maps to show the increases you can get from having a properly drained field.”

The field drainage business has gone through some tough times, but Paul hasn’t been afraid to adapt. In the mid-1960s agricultural land drainage was booming. Government subsidy covered half of the farmer’s bill and Farm Services was employing 25 men to keep up with the workload.

But even when subsidies were removed, Paul managed to keep the business coming in. He diversified into different markets such as sports field drainage and trenching for pipelines. But he still kept enough agricultural drainage jobs to account for more than half his workload. Even with a more modern and productive machinery fleet he still employs 15 full-time staff.

Business facts

  • Farm Services has been draining agricultural land for 70 years

  • Runs two open-trench and one trenchless drainage machine

  • The business employs 15 staff to run and maintain the machines

One of Paul’s biggest operational challenges is fitting around the ever-tightening arable rotations. While farmers used to have a break between harvest and establishing the next crop, they’re now going straight in after the combine, he says. “We sometimes use two of the machines when the turnarounds are particularly tight and last year we even did a job through the growing crop.”

To ensure a quality finish, Paul only uses small 20mm gravel to backfill the drains. “With 20mm you don’t get migration of soil into the gravel, but you do with 40mm.”

He also tries to keep the trench as narrow as possible, meaning he can use less gravel and offer the landowner a better price for the job. “We can get down to 100mm trenches while the average is about 150mm.”

Paul runs two open-trench drainage machines, both of which were bought outright and are maintained by the team. Because they are top-quality, specialist machines they have a longer operational life than most agricultural equipment, says Paul. “One machine was bought new in 2005 and another was completely refurbished by the manufacturer in 2009 – a process that took two months.”

Paul also owns one of the few Mastenbroek 25-20 trenchless machines operating in the UK, which can sink a pipe to 1.5m with very little mess.

Due to the seasonal nature of the business and fluctuations in workload from year to year, Paul’s replacement policy has to be more flexible than that of general agricultural contractors. “When times are good, we invest and buy kit, when times are bad we tighten our belts and make do.”

A word from our sponsors

JCB-logo“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

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Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.

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