Bold expansion policy keeps a family in profit
Family farms are inefficient
and unlikely to survive the
rigours of world markets, say
the pundits. Rubbish retorts
a Notts farming family which
is fighting fit for the new
millennium. Charles Abel
visited them to find out more
GENERATING four incomes from one family farm sounds a tall order. When you start with just 48ha (120 acres) it sounds nigh on impossible. But that is just what the Clarke family has achieved over the past 13 years at Lowdham, near Nottingham.
In 1986, father Norman, the youngest of three sons, left the 283ha (700 acre) family farming partnership on tenanted Trinity College land at Hoveringham and bought Grove Farm at Lowdham. The ex-dairy farm went straight into arable cropping and three barns were sold for conversion to cover the cost of the move.
But with sons Gary, Neil and Richard all keen to farm there was a clear need to expand the business. Contracting helped initially, but it soon became clear something extra was needed.
Now the business has thriving arable, livestock and machinery maintenance enterprises which keep all four wage earners in business. "At current prices we are viable," says Norman.
Local land was acquired progressively under a range of rental agreements and now amounts to 131ha (323 acres). A contract farming deal added a further 31ha (76 acres).
But the real clincher was buying the adjoining 124ha (307 acre) Hunters Hill Farm last year. "Im not usually bold, but we certainly felt bold buying land in 1986 as tenants. But buying land is the best thing I have ever done," says Norman.
"Contracting played a vital role in the early days, we couldnt have managed without it," says Gary. But margins have plummeted since. "In 1982 we were round baling for £1.50 a bale using a £5500 baler. Today you still get £1.50 a bale, but the baler costs £30,000."
The new farm is all good stone-free medium loam, previously run as a prison farm for the local borstal. But that was replaced by a new private category B secure prison, which had no need for the derelict farm.
"It was too good an opportunity to miss. It had been talked about since 1992 and when it went on the market in 1996 we put in a bid," says Norman. Together with wife Margaret and agent Alistair Benton, he had costed the extra land very carefully. To their surprise, their bid of less than £5000/ha (£2000/acre) was accepted.
The main detractions for other bidders were the adoption of a road to a small residential development plus the wheat price slumping from £100/t to £60/t. "I think the road put a lot of people off. But we dont think it will be too onerous."
The goal now is to repay the loan as soon as possible. Pony paddock sales and possible planning permission could help. Either way, Norman is grateful for the support of an understanding NatWest bank manager.
Only half the new land is IACS registered, the remainder growing grass for forage. Non-IACS wheat may be grown in future, depending on price.
The IACS area was initially put into linseed for seed or turf production, before starting a wheat-based rotation. The area is farmed as a block to keep management simple, this years Riband, Charger and Equinox wheat turning in up to 10.1t/ha (4.1t/acre).
"Its the first wheat the land has seen in 10 years and it has been exceptional," says Gary. "Last year we averaged 3t/acre and this year were doing 3.75t/acre, but the ex-prison land is the best by far."
Good management during prison use means P, K and lime indices are all high and residual fertility allowed an N rate cut to 175-187kg/ha (140-150 units/acre).
Good management remains a cornerstone. David Bletcher from Cropwise walks fields with arable expert Gary and all agrochemical inputs are bought through him. "Getting the right advice is more important to us than outright price. We want to do the job right," says Norman.
Most wheat is sold to Daylays Bilsthorpe poultry unit. Hauled direct it fetched a welcome £74/t off the combine. Although ACCS membership is not yet required, it will be adopted, he acknowledges. "It will cost us a bit, but we will do it when we have to."
All equipment bar the tractors is serviced by Richard. "Compared with getting a fitter in at £30/hour it saves us a lot," says Norman. Maintenance work for neighbouring farms, including over-hauls for potato planting and harvesting equipment, brings in a further £25-30,000.
The ex-prison farm also helped Neil expand the livestock side of the business. He was already running a small beef fattening operation – the extra land means he can now over-winter 90 animals on full extensification, claiming the full £120/head aid.
Redundant farm buildings have also been converted to pig fattening pens. Batches of 1000 pigs are taken through to 110kg for Mercer Farming, with all feed provided. The fixed payment of £5.75/pig for water, straw, buildings and labour is a useful supplement to the livestock operation, Neil says. Total livestock margin is now over £46,000.
Acquiring adjacent land at the right price is not an option for everybody, the Clarke family agrees. But making the most of available labour and minimising costs where possible can go a long way to keeping family farms viable, they say. *
• Total area farmed: 334ha. 48ha originally owned; 124ha prison farm; 131ha various rents; 31ha contract farmed.
• Labour: Gary (arable), Neil (livestock), Richard (machinery), Norman (general).
• Soil: Mainly medium loam.
• Key equipment: 1985 New Holland 8080 combine; 20m Moteska trailed sprayer; Lely Centreliner spreader.
• Cropping: Wheat; barley; rape; linseed some sugar beet.