Farmacy, the advisory arm hived off from Brown Butlin last July, could be a new breed of consultancy. Julia Knights investigates in our advice series.
SPLITTING an existing and highly successful distributor company into two separate companies, one focused on sales and the other advice, was a brave move, not least because it questions the value of its old dealings – throwing advice into a "bundled package" for agrochemicals sold.
"We realised that although our clients trusted us, they wanted to see what the advice was really costing them, separate from the chemicals," explains Mike Young, Farmacys managing director.
Initially a pilot project encompassing 10,000ha of the existing Brown Butlin Group clients was set up.
Philip Mayhew, farming 1,500 acres (607ha) in Woolverston near Ipswich as part of A W Mayhew Farms, was happy to be involved in the pilot project, having used the agronomy services of Jonathan French of the Brown Butlin Group for over 20 years.
"Margins were getting tighter and I wasnt able to compare the prices I was paying for chemicals from my co-op, with the whole package I was getting from Brown Butlin. So I discussed it with Jonathan and he said that I could pay for my advice separately," explains Mr Mayhew.
Trust was at the heart of the change. "Its not that I didnt trust Jonathan – its just that I wanted to see how much my crop walking was costing. Since then, Ive not looked back," says Mr Mayhew.
"My two brothers managing the other half of our farm, have a different independent agronomist so it allows me to compare. Im very pleased so far," says Mr Mayhew.
At the beginning of the year, Mr French and Mr Mayhew agree on a price for field walking for each individual crop or field and a contract is then signed by both.
Flexibility is an integral part of the Farmacy concept. "Our service allows the level of advice to be tailor-made to each crop or field, depending on what the client wants. It may not be rocket science, but many of our competitors are not able to offer that level of flexibility," says Mr French.
"The beauty is that once the contract has been signed it isnt a rigid thing; Philip can call me any time if he wants to vary the service level or schedule. Then at the end of the year, we review the performance of the crop and plan the service for the following year. Once the contract has been signed it remains flexible," explains Mr French.
Mr Mayhew is now at liberty to source his chemicals from wherever he wants, although he sources most of his products from Key & Pell, part of the Brown Butlin Group. "Most of my products come from them as I find the price to be very competitive and the delivery service is good – but I still compare prices with my co-op as a back-up," says Mr Mayhew.
Mr Mayhew uses two of Farmacys services. The first being the agronomy service. Keeping the agronomy simple is an ethos which both farmer and agronomist agree upon strongly.
The fertile light sandy soils of Mr Mayhews farm, supports a wide range of crops; 271ha of winter combinables, 52ha of spring combinables, 49ha of sugar beet and 134ha of potatoes. "We are using a balance of combinable and root crops as this is the most efficient way of using Philips equipment," says Mr French.
The potatoes are a particularly important part of Mr Mayhews enterprise, having just invested in a new store to house 2,500t of potatoes, destined for Asda supermarket. And Mr French has just recently taken on the additional responsibility for the agronomy of this crop. Potatoes and sugar beet require the highest level of service. "The blight programme always needs fine tuning and the threat of beet yellows on sugar beet means that I like Jonathan to visit them once a week," says Mr Mayhew.
In contrast, the winter barley is visited less frequently by Mr French as part of the standard service because less intensive agronomy advice is needed.
Information on new technology and products is another integral part of the Farmacy approach. "I cant possibly keep up with this on my own – so I rely on Jonathan to take me through the latest trials results," says Mr Mayhew.
"Root Planner", the other Farmacy service used by Mr Mayhew is a soil nutrient management package which analyses a quarter of the farm each year for nitrogen, phosphorus, potash and magnesium. A computer package then works out nutrient recommendations and application timings. "Its the first step towards precision farming without going over the top and spending excessive amounts," says Mr French.
The results have been impressive. "We used to dress everything automatically with phosphate, but now we only apply it where needed so we have made great savings. The analysis also showed up a potash deficiency which we have now rectified," says Mr Mayhew.
"We have also upped the N and split the doses on our malting barley, where traditionally we had applied lower rates. The later split application has really reduced lodging and we believe it may have increased yields," adds Mr Mayhew.
All clients who are computer literate are encouraged to use Farmade and the multicrop system. "Jonathan gives me all my recommendations on disk. I simply update it as I make applications and give it back to him – it works well as we both have up-to-date records at all times," says Mr Mayhew.
New thinking is another important part of Mr Frenchs ethos. "We are always talking about things we can do on the farm – growing different crops for example," says Mr French. "Weve talked about soya. Im just waiting to see how some of Jonathans other clients are getting on with it before I make a decision," admits Mr Mayhew.
"Our vision for the future is to provide our clients with more services – including environmental advice," says Mr French.
On that front, Mr Mayhew is way ahead of the game, having installed 12km of 6m field margins and a programme set up, to install 2km of hedges each year under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.