Barometers take stock
Over the past decade 66
barometer farms have opened
their gates to farmers weekly.
Beginning with Peter Maylam,
near Ashford in Kent, who first
appeared in FW on Mar 8,
1991 the series has grown to
become a key feature of the
magazine, providing a detailed
insight into how scientific and
business developments have
affected farm practice. Who
better then to quiz about the
state of the arable sector as
we enter the new millennium?
Andrew Blake reports
ARABLE farmers are working harder for less reward – that is the familiar but clear message from our survey.
Nearly half our former barometer farmers say profitability on their own units is much worse than when they held the title, and another 39% judge it to be simply worse. Only 12% reckon the rewards are about the same, and just two say they are at least better off.
"I do not think I ever really believed that a British government would pull the plug on UK agriculture," says Brian Mitcham of Suffolk – one of the first to take part in 1991.
"We are living in a much more difficult economic climate which requires every decision to be constantly reviewed. There are also significant areas, such as the strength of the £ that we obviously have no control over."
Profitability is poor for Durham-based Michael Manners. "But it would be much worse without contracted potatoes," he says.
In Somerset, Andrew Hebditch blames high rents under farm business tenancies for his being worse off.
John Fenton, in East Yorks, is rare in believing his profitability compared with 1991 is much better. "We have made tremendous efforts to eat into overheads, chiefly machinery and labour," he says. "Where possible everything is grown on contract."
Organic conversion leaves Devon-based Stewart Hayllor, who took part last year, as the only other grower with an increased bottom line. "Our main profit this year is from 40 acres of organic vegetables, mainly potatoes and cabbages." More land and increased contract income have also helped.
Only four of 48 former barometer farmers consider their ability to control the success of their businesses has become easier. Most say it is harder, if not much harder.
Access to better data has made life much easier, says Charles Davidson, and Stewart Hayllors strategic plan is helping. "I feel well in control," he says. Peter Maylam says his ability to control the fate of his business is about the same as in 1991. "It would be harder without my son."
Outside influences are making matters more difficult for Tony Lister. Ian McLaren points to power wielding supermarkets.
"There are too many factors outside our control," says Robert Claydon. "There is no room for errors now," adds Mr Manners.
Despite record yields in 1999, profits will be small for John Bradshaw. "World market fluctuations and the strength of the pound make life difficult," says Andrew Kerr. "But I believe we are more street-wise marketeers now, thanks to British Cereal Exports and better overall varieties and knowledge of the markets."
"In my area there is little scope for expansion," says Richard Beachell. "Therefore, I have to improve on what I already have, which is hard when I consider myself an efficient farmers."
Philip Chamberlain suggests his own ability has made control easier. "But outside influences – politics, world prices and consumers – have a greater impact and have probably made it harder."
Profitability is harder to achieve, but running a professional farming business is getting easier, says Kevin Littleboy.
The fun of the job is not what it was in 1994, says Doug Fowlie. "That is mainly because of the drop in profit, but also because of the way we are portrayed to the public."
Market volatility, a common complaint, along with apparently increasing rainfall are making Scott Adams lot much harder.
"We are controlled by politicians who are now expert at their job," says Eric Haggart. "Farming is like playing football with someone constantly moving the goalposts," adds Keith Snowball.
But Matthew and Paul Dale reckon their control over the business is getting easier. "Having to justify all you do on the farm to a nosy journalist makes one more clear-thinking and open to ideas."
"It doesnt get any easier, but it has helped to share experiences," adds Graham Furey.
PESTICIDES just shade cultivations as the area in which most farmers surveyed believe they have made the most technical progress, many referring to the effect of strobilurin fungicides.
Managing the new generation materials is an exciting challenge, says Richard Beachell. Nick Harding reckons a switch to doing his own agronomy and becoming a member of Arable Research Centres has helped. Roger Lovejoy has also joined ARC.
"The new chemistry has made it easier to grow cereals and keep them clean," says Doug Fowlie.
Andrew Hebditch says he is tailoring pesticide doses much more to specific problems.
Many surveyed say they are using fewer cultivations to establish crops. Andrew Kerr is particularly keen on low cost cultivations. "We are experimenting with direct drilling and using our plough much less. Autocasting rape also looks interesting."
Vaderstad drills have helped both Robert Clayton and Roger Middleditch who uses a rubber-tracked crawler to pull his. "Buying one has reduced growing costs considerably," says Mr Clayton.
Lower seed rates are frequently mentioned. Wherever possible cost-saving lower rates and earlier drilling have been adopted by Caley Sackur. "Thinner stands are usually cleaner and stiffer strawed with better yield potential."
"If wheat is over-thick you are in trouble from day one," says Andrew Cooke. Target populations now get far more attention, say Matthew and Paul Dale.
Simbas Freeflow system has allowed Richard Payne to cut rates considerably.
Philip Chamberlain is one of the few saying fertilisers have provided the most progress. GPS-guided field mapping and application, a switch to liquid nitrogen and better use of farmyard manure and other bio-solids have all helped, he says.
Running a pneumatic spreader has allowed Scott Adam to use cheaper low grade products.
For Brian Hammond installing irrigation has been the biggest advance. "Our potato quality has improved immensely." Turning a large area over to strob-treated continuous wheat has lifted Charlie Edgleys average yields.
DESPITE the advances made, most farmers surveyed believe pesticides and cultivations still merit more attention than seed and fertiliser.
Next to machinery, pesticides still represent the most expensive inputs, points out Alex Stephens. Choosing the right product and timing is becoming critical, adds Kevin Littleboy.
Ian McLaren considers reduced rates of strobilurins in spray mixtures will prove very useful.
LERAP restrictions are causing Guy Tindale problems. "Integrated crop management deserves more attention and strobilurin use needs investigating further," he adds.
"If we could keep blackgrass under control we could use less seed and pesticide," says David Brightman. Control of grass weeds, especially sterile brome and herbicide-resistant ryegrass, remains the biggest challenge for Charlie Edgley.
"More reliable weather forecasts would be invaluable for determining seed-bed preparation techniques," says John Bradshaw. "To subsoil or not is always a dilemma," he adds.
Reducing fixed costs is imperative for many. Jeremy Walker reckons his rent is "unsustainably high" and is trying to reduce machinery costs by extending equipment working life.
Ian Brown is moving towards precision fertiliser use. "We are soil sampling in 1ha blocks this year." Andrew and Tony Symonds are investigating the merits and costs of GPS-guided variable fertiliser spreading.
Caley Sackur is giving priority to buying quality inputs as cheaply as possible.
For Eric Haggart marketing and matching supply to demand is the key area for attention. Natural soil fertilisers could also be better harnessed, he believes.
Simon Oates is busy getting to grips with completely new challenges. "We are now six months into organic conversion of the whole estate."
farmers weekly barometer farms expect seed and agrochemical technology will give them most by way of scientific advances in the next decade. Machinery has relatively little to offer, they say.
But as Brian Mitcham points out, many advances could take place which cannot be foreseen.
Many think genetic modification will have a big role to play, though only a minority would be prepared to grow GM crops were they available commercially now.
"Genetically modified seeds must be where the biggest step forward will come," says Doug Fowlie. "But we have to educate our consumers to the needs and advantages."
Resistant varieties, not necessarily GM, and chemicals for use at lower volumes should be a great help, says Ian Brown.
Seed dressings are likely to do away with the need for blanket spraying against foliar diseases, predicts John Fenton. At least they will permit longer spray intervals, says Charles Davidson. Similar products will do the same for BYDV, adds Andrew Kerr.
Steven McKendricks forecasts a single cover-all T1 spray for cereals.
Blackgrass, an on-going headache for John Bradshaw, requires more effective herbicides to save money and lift yields. Likewise David Brightman hopes for a solution to herbicide-resistant blackgrass.
John Best feels the benefits of strobilurin fungicides are only just being fully realised, and Bill Harbour expects all new chemicals will be much safer.
A high yielding wheat with good disease resistance that combines in July should not be beyond plant breeders capabilities, suggests Charlie Edgley.
Patrick Godwin is alone in thinking biological controls, not GM, will have most to offer.
Matthew and Paul Dale believe machinery offers the greatest scope. Thats because of the potential to target inputs with satellite mapping, they say.
MOST barometer farms are recording their activities better, but there must be a question mark over how those records are being used. Analysis comes second to recording in the list of business areas where most progress has been made.
Other aspects, such as buying and selling, planning and managing labour and machinery, have given lesser but about equal advances.
Many respondents say they have progressed equally in several areas.
Several barometer farmers, including Roger Lovejoy, have become computerised since they were profiled. Alec Stephens uses one to keep detailed records for Assured Produce, Natures Choice, and LERAPs. Computing has also helped Doug Fowlie, albeit at a cost – time spent in the office.
Kevin Littleboy considers moves into buying groups and partnership with companies he supplies have taken him furthest. "But it has meant more recording in every way and more paperwork, including surveys!"
"Lower profits certainly make you look at the business, and crop assurance means more recording and analysis," says Guy Tindale.
"Analysis of the whole business and enterprises is more important as margins continue to crash," says Simon Oates. "As profitability drops, everything is scrutinised harder," add Andrew and Tony Symonds.
"We are now more aware of our fixed costs per tonne," says Charlie Edgley. "I find it very useful to compare them with industry benchmarks." John Best also believes he has a more accurate idea of costs a tonne.
For Meurig Raymond marketing has been the biggest change. "We now grow 460 acres of spring malting barley as well as potatoes on contract."
Diversification has focused Tony Listers mind on staff management. Using contractors for cereal sowing now allows Brian Hammond to lift potatoes at the same time.
Group purchasing figures several times. "I belong to West Essex Farmers and am delighted with the deals they negotiate on chemicals, fuel, fertilisers and seed," says Andrew Kerr. Joining a farmer-owned buying group has also cut John Bradshaws costs.
"I am not as gullible as I used to be," says Graham Furey. "Reduced profit concentrates the mind on prudent spending."
For John Fenton farming more acres means planning is uppermost. With timeliness crucial to good yields, optimising the use of men and machinery is a must, he says.
ONLY a minority of barometer growers would be prepared to grow GM crops if they were commercially available today.
Many refer to the need for a change in public opinion.
"There is no point in growing what the public do nt want," says Michael Manners.
"I think the whole GM debate has been poorly managed," adds Peter Maylam who remains unsure of his response.
Tony Lister is concerned at the amount of control multinational companies would have. Alex Stephens fears that GM crops on his land would result in a neighbouring farm losing its organic status.
Philip Chamberlain says his latest Farm Business Tenancy specifically prohibits growing GM crops.
"Do we really need them?" asks Guy Tindale. "We have enough problems."
"We cant sell what we produce now," says Eric Haggart. "Whats the point of creating an even bigger surplus and maybe added problems?"
Bill Harbour says he is concerned that he might lose his contract for producing human consumption peas should he take up GM crops. "I would normally jump at technical genetic advances," says John Chalcraft. "But the public are uneasy, and so should we be."
Charlie Edgley says he would not wish to be seen as the "local villain" by adopting the technology.
Chris and Ian Cockayne point out that they have grown GM rape trials for two years, and last years were destroyed.
As a new organic convert Simon Oates is clearly not prepared to grow them. Likewise, Stewart Hayllor cannot consider them for fear of compromising his part-organic status.
"The fact we are considering part of the farm for organic production would rule it out," adds Ian Brown.
Roger Lovejoy believes he needs more constructive information before making up his mind. Richard Payne considers GM crops have a future but only for non-food production.
Caley Sackur gives GMs the thumbs up, but only if they have been thoroughly tested as safe to eat and can be grown without harming the environment.
Anthony Hornshaw would be tempted, but would prefer to see the nation resist and perhaps gain better prices for GM-free crops.
"A year ago I would have said yes, but now I am not so sure," says Graham Furey.
"If, or when, the furore over GM crops dies down, I believe there are significant advances possible with this technology," says Brian Mitcham.
David Brightman thinks GMs might be the solution to his herbicide-resistant blackgrass problem.
John Fenton would embrace GM crops enthusiastically. "The ability to irrigate crops with sea water appeals to us tremendously."
GMs will offer ecological and financial gain to both country and business, says Steven Mackintosh.
"The public have been hood-winked by media misinformation," adds Andrew Kerr, who is also positive about growing GMs.
"Agriculture has advanced greatly due to scientific developments," says Scot Adam. "GM crops are just the next step." *
Barometer Farms key (for map)
1. Peter Maylam (Kent)
2. Tony Lister (Cornwall)
3. Michael Barratt (Cambs)
4. Brian Mitcham (Suffolk)
5. Frank Dakin (Staffs)
6. John Fenton (N Humberside)
7. Ian McLaren (Perthshire)
8. David Mercer (Wilts)
9. Alex Stephens (Cornwall)
10. John Bradshaw (Lincs)
11. Andrew Kerr (Essex)
12. Julian Granger (Worcs)
13. Richard Beachell (Humberside)
14. John Seed (Berwickshire)
15. Philip Chamberlain (Oxon)
16. Simon Oates (Cornwall)
17. Robert Claydon (Suffolk)
18. Jim Bullock (Hereford & Worcs)
19. Kevin Littleboy (N Yorks)
20. John Drysdale (Fife)
21. Tim Piper (Kent)
22. Nick Harding (Dorset)
23. Robert Law (Herts)
24. Ray Coates (Leics)
25. Guy Tindale (S Humberside)
26. Doug Fowlie (Aberdeenshire)
27. Roger Lovejoy (Berks)
28. Jeremy Walker (Somerset)
29. Robin Baines (Norfolk)
30. David Brightman (Warks)
31. Ian Brown (Northumberland)
32. Willie Porter (Angus)
33. Meurig Raymond (Dyfed)
34. Brian Hammond (Co Down)
35. Charlie Edgley (Bucks)
36. Andrew Hebditch (Somerset)
37. Roger Middleditch (Norfolk)
38. Chris & Ian Cockayne (Notts)
39. David Price (Powys)
40. Michael Manners (Durham)
41. Mike Cumming (Angus)
42. John Best (Co Armagh)
43. Bill Harbour (Kent)
44. Richard Payne (Somerset)
45. Philip & Michael Godfrey (Cambs)
46. Justin Blackwood (Northants)
47. Andrew & Tony Symonds (Worcs)
48. Caley Sackur (N Humberside)
49. Scott Adam (Stirlingshire)
50. Charles Davidson (Co Down)
51. Patrick Godwin (W Sussex)
52. Stewart Hayllor (S Devon)
53. Steven Mackintosh (Herefordshire)
54. David Pettitt (Norfolk)
55. Steven McKendrick (Staffs)
56. Keith Snowball (Yorks)
57. Eric Haggart (Perthshire)
58. Michael & Boyd Kane (Co Londonderry)
59. John Chalcraft (Hants)
60. Matthew & Paul Dale (Cornwall)
61. Andrew Cooke (Shropshire)
62. Robert Salmon (Norfolk)
63. Tony Wright (Lincs)
64. Anthony Hornshaw (Durham)
65. James Grant Suttie (East Lothian)
66. Graham Furey (Co Down)
What do you think?
How was the past decade for you – good, bad or blooming awful? And what do you think of the sectors prospects as the new millennium dawns? Will you still be farming in ten years and if so what will arable farming be like? Drop us a line to get your message across (0208-652 4923, fax 0208-652 4005 or e-mail: email@example.com).