CAN BE GOOD
The average farm size of the
three winners of this years
Cambridgeshire County Farms
competition was 103ha
(254 acres). Marie Skinner,
who was the judge, was
intrigued to discover how
small tenant farmers could
make a living in the present
THE annual competition for the Coronation Bowl is run by the landlord, Cambridgeshire County Council. There are 351 tenants on the estate, farming 15,000ha (37,000 acres) and bringing in an annual rent of £2.5m.
"Our let farms are a major business on 5% of the agricultural land in the county," says County Farms estate manager David Nuttycombe. "We are committed to helping our tenants develop and diversify their businesses to ensure they have a healthy future."
The characteristic shared by all three winners was sound economic analysis of their business. They knew exactly their financial position and could accurately identify costs and the profitability of all they were doing. This meant they were more realistic about the future than the average farmer. They were well aware of the difficulties they faced and, instead of just hoping that things would improve, were actually planning to ensure they did.
The winner of the Coronation Bowl – awarded to the person who combines a high standard of farm management with an enterprising approach to his business – was John Britain of Greeves Farm, Wisbech.
Mr Britain, 32, first applied for County Farm land in 1987, he obtained 14.5ha (36 acres) in 1989, then a further 15.5 ha (38 acres) in 1992. From this background he obtained the tenancy to 56ha (138 acre) Greeves Farm and in 1996 increased the farm to 112ha (277 acres) based on a 35-year Farm Business Agreement.
The farm, which grows potatoes, sugar beet, wheat, barley and linseed, is immaculate and the attention to detail shown by Mr Britain is an essential part of his plan to maximise returns in the face of falling commodity prices.
However, despite good crop husbandry and efficient business management, he realised several years ago that he needed to generate another source of income for the farm. He investigated various forms of diversification, from growing novel crops, such as chinese leaves and camomile, to providing contracting services and running a horse livery yard.
Employed on farm
None of these options seemed right, so in 1998 he approached the county proficiency test committee about becoming a sprayer assessor. Mr Britain is now qualified to assess under several different sprayer categories and is regularly employed off-farm to carry out assessments. It gives a guaranteed income, averaging two or three days a week and, unlike contracting, does not incur machinery costs. In addition, the work does not conflict with efficient running of the farm because few assessments are required at busy times of the year.
The second prize and the Jubilee Cup went to Paul Harrold of Sunclose Farm, Cambridge. Although only farming 80ha (200 acres), he is producing a profit that many much larger purely arable farms would envy.
This has been achieved by investing considerable capital in the future, being innovative in his production methods, aware of future trends and having a forward-looking and progressive approach to marketing.
The farm grows sugar beet, wheat and linseed, but the main income comes from the 16ha (39 acres) devoted to strawberries and raspberries. Over the years, soft fruit production has moved into ever larger hands and, as supermarkets have increased the standards they require, many small players have given up rather than adapt.
Mr Harrolds approach to the large multiple he supplies is positive. He values their custom and accepts that it is his job to continually change and develop to meet their needs and standards. He has recently invested in a cold store and packhouse so his fruit leaves the farm pre-packed and fully labelled, ready to go straight on to the supermarket shelf.
Situated near Cambridge, he has overcome the problem of finding casual labour to pick the fruit by employing foreign workers. He is investing in large polytunnels, at a substantial cost, to cover the crop and enable picking to continue in all weathers. This should ensure regular work for his employees and enable picking to continue whatever the weather.
Mr Harrold believes this will help him meet his commitment to supply the supermarket, even when it rains continuously for days on end.
Runner-up Michael Dale of Copalder Farm, March, farms 118ha (291 acres), of which 72ha (178 acres) belongs to the county council. This traditional fen farm with its large rectangular fields is cropped with potatoes, sugar beet, wheat and peas.
Although there is no farm diversification, he farms profitably by keeping a tight control on his costs, good husbandry, growing excellent crops and having a firm grip on the finances. Sharing large machinery with other farmers reduces the fixed costs. He is aware of the return the different enterprises produce and is developing a marketing strategy to reduce risk in the future.
The positive message from visiting these three farms, considered small by todays standards, is that efficient management, realism about the future and adaptability can compensate for a lack of land.
The other obvious message is that having a supportive wife or partner is an enormous asset when running a farm. All the winners had wives who were either actively involved in the farm or providing additional, off-farm source of income.
Their contribution towards the overall success and profitability of the businesses is important and they were awarded a special cash prize as a formal acknowledgement of their role.