More than 100 forward-thinking arable farmers from across AHDB’s Monitor Farm network gathered for 24 hours last month to address the topic of resilience.
From lunchtime on 19 November, 120 farmers looked at four themes – personal, business, technical and environmental resilience and shared ideas to help the industry flourish, despite the many significant changes afoot.
Tim Isaac, AHDB Head of Arable Knowledge Exchange said: “When we met last year we were talking about preparing for change in the future. But now that change is upon us.”
Resilience, said AHDB’s Susannah Bolton, Knowledge Exchange Director, is a word used in biology to describe an organism’s strategy for survival in an environment that is rapidly changing.
“Thinking about the future,” she said, “we need to employ a strategy of resilience. That means being flexible, being open-minded and tuning into the environment, whether that’s physical, political, social or technical.”
The starting point for any resilient business, according to Herefordshire farmers Russell Price and Martin Williams and Scottish farmer Hugh Black, is to really understand your own core beliefs and have personal goals in life. They emphasised how important it was to know and understand why you farm.
Business resilience should be governed by facts and figures, as Chelmsford Monitor Farm’s Christy and Hew Willet demonstrated in their presentation on farming on the urban fringe. Although they are dedicated to ‘sharing the farm’, any decisions on public access or wildlife areas are made based on sound financial knowledge.
Mark Wood, previous Hereford Monitor Farm host said: “Accurate costs of production allow you to make decisions, manage risk, target variable and fixed costs and inputs. But costs are not the only answer. Benchmarking tends to lead to further investigation.”
Benchmarking showed Mark Wood and his team that power and labour were their Achilles’ heel. However, digging still deeper into the costs of staffing on this estate farm allowed Mark to properly allocate labour time.
Mark added: “It’s vital to know our costs. The Brexit reports [from AHDB]show that we need to be in the top 25 per cent of the industry to survive. We need to make decisions based on facts.”
For Sittingbourne Monitor Farm host Mark Bowsher-Gibbs, business resilience meant capital investment, primarily storage facilities for his fruit enterprises. He also changed crop establishment from conventional tillage to rake and strip till, with a saving of £41/ha.
Brexit and the future of subsidies was just one of the major changes looming on the horizon.
Nick Pyke, who was until recently CEO of the Foundation for Arable Research (FAR), shared his own country’s experiences of subsidy removal. “Don’t waste a good crisis,” he warned.
Again, on the theme of technical resilience, Warrington Monitor Farm host Robert Cross talked both about the importance of continuing to read and learn, to be adaptive but also for farmers to understand their own business goals.
“I might have slight over-capacity on my sprayer,” he said, “but that enables me to spend more time with my family and that’s important to me.”
Adapting to constant change is something both Robert Cross and Andrew Robinson, Heathcote Farms Ltd, emphasised.
Robert said: “I’ve never had to be as adaptive as I have been in the last year.”
The final strand of the conference was environmental resilience, and here the key message was that many practices which are now seen as optional are likely to become compulsory in the future.
Jon Knight, AHDB Head of Crop Health and Protection, said: “Integrated Pest Management [IPM] will not just be an option: it will be the licence to operate.
“What’s more, things are changing fast and farming will become more knowledge intensive.”
Biofumigation was one of the techniques highlighted at the conference with potential to replace some of the chemicals under threat.
The final farmer to present at the conference was John Miller, Newark Monitor Farm host. As a monitor farmer, he said, he scrutinises his business in detail. Changing his drilling method reduced his establishment costs from £95.6/ha to £83.74/ha, a saving of about £6,000 a year on 500 ha. He now works 22 per cent fewer hours.
“But I still think we are moving too much soil and I’d like to reduce my costs per hectare further.”
A final word from Herefordshire farmer Russell Price: “You’re never too old to change.”
To find out more about the Monitor Farm programme, visit cereals.ahdb.org.uk/monitorfarms