More value, lower costs

There have been many changes on Duncan Farrington’s 300ha (750-acre) family farm at Hargrave in Northants since he returned home from Wye College in 1993 to join his father Robert.

Some have revolved around squeezing costs out of cultivations but others are more diverse, involving marketing cold-pressed rape oil and educating the public about farming.

“Farming is undergoing constant change as farmers adapt to new conditions, and I expect to see a lot more changes on this farm in the future,” he says.

He is the fourth generation of Farringtons to make a living from this land – and intends to stay there – so he knows he has to do everything he can to maintain a realistic income.

“Historically our fixed costs have been reasonably low, as the Farringtons have always made their own equipment.

But the switch from a plough-based cultivation system to non-inversion tillage has pushed labour, power and machinery costs down by a further 18%, despite taking on extra land.”

Inevitably, the switch involved a steep learning curve and they made lots of mistakes.

Wheat and rape yields fell at first, but since they learned how to manage stale seed-beds these have bounced back.

A valuable lesson gained from an Australian visit was that equipment can be made to work harder.

After harvest the grain trailer is converted to transport liquid fertiliser by installing a 14,000-litre stainless steel milk tanker body.

Conservation is an important element of the business strategy too.

During the 1960s 5000m of hedges were removed to boost field size, but 3000m have been put back in recent years, often in a more appropriate location.

More than 5000 trees have also been planted, plus 800m of beetle banks established and three old ponds restored.

Bottom Farm, which has been a LEAF Demonstration Farm since 2003, has 8km (5 miles) of maintained footpaths and Duncan, who for 10 years was the Parish Footpath Warden, has an open-door policy on access.

He welcomes ramblers and walkers to the countryside, as long as they keep to the paths to avoid trampling crops and disturbing wildlife habitats, and appreciate that the land is the family’s factory floor.

In fact he plans to erect information boards to show visitors what is happening on the farm.

Welcoming organised groups of visitors to the farm is another way of getting across the farming message.

In recent months he has hosted a group from the United Nations and the local WI, as well as from schools and colleges.

Diversification is another important element in the business, and redundant farm buildings have been converted into offices and small business units.

The first was done in 2002 when an old cart shed and barn were converted into three units, one is now occupied by a motorcycle restorer/driving instructor and the other two by a clothing designer.

Currently more old sheds are being transformed into modern offices plus a classroom for LEAF visitors and discussion groups.

“It is good to be able to mix with non-farming people on a day-to-day basis – it provides a different outlook on life than sitting on a tractor all day.

Having these businesses here has shown us there is potential to develop non-core business ventures.

We need to cash in on more of the consumer pound than we do at present.”

Showing that innovation begins at home, he recently launched a home-produced, cold-pressed rape oil onto the retail market.

This extra virgin oil – called Mellow Yellow – is produced on the farm for sale in local farm shops, butchers, specialist food shops and some supermarkets.

And the future?

Duncan plans to squeeze more efficiency out of crop production and keep adding to the farm’s environmental credentials, not to mention finding new ways to add value to farm produce.

“Farming is extremely challenging and we must be innovative, flexible and prepared to take on more of the marketing of our products that we have to date.

In 10 years time the farm will be at the heart of what we do, but it is likely to be the basis of a much more developed business.”

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