Farming flexibility: not just touching your toes!

I am a millennial and one of the first generation of farmers to have the internet and Google at our disposal for our entire working life. It has become the mainstay of where our information is gathered from. Banking, weather, buying consumables, asking questions, social media and self-diagnosing problems are all accessed through the Internet.  Some of our generation now suffer from a strange relationship with imaginary ladies called Siri or Cortana. Our fascination with tech is somewhat scary. It can make our life more convenient or streamlined but in many ways more impersonal. It never turns off and is there for all to see day and night.

I am coming to the end of my AHDB Monitor Farm tenure: three years of questioning, showing and changing my business through open discussion with knowledge exchange from farmer to farmer, aided by great support from agronomists and industry experts. I have really enjoyed my Monitor Farm time. It has been challenging, asking more questions than it has given answers but my business I believe is better off for being involved in the Monitor farm program. I wanted to round off my time with a blog entry to explain how my mind-set, and how I believe our industry, has changed but couldn’t work out a way to explain it. So I typed one word into Google to give me an answer…….Google Book replied in 0.97 Seconds.

flexibilityˌnoun

  1. the quality of bending easily without breaking.

“players gained improved flexibility in their ankles” pliability, suppleness, pliancy, malleability, mouldability, stretchability, workability, limberness, ductility, plasticity;

  • the ability to be easily modified.

“I enjoyed the flexibility of the schedule”

  • willingness to change or compromise.

“the government has shown flexibility in applying its policy”

 

So, why ‘Flexibility’ you may be asking? This word kept on cropping up in all my Monitor Farm meetings and it hadn’t really dawned on me but this word is critical to my new farming ethos coming out of three years of open discussion and going forward into the uncertainty of Brexit. It is also a word that we all should consider in the wider farming industry, as currently it is not very flexible and many are snowballing along. It is gathering pace that will end in potential disaster.

September 4th 1957 was the day my grandfather Eric bought Lodge Farm, Westhorpe. It was described as a young man’s farm; over grown, undrained and buildings in disrepair. My grandfather bought the farm and trusting in his eye and his farming ethos, set to, making the right call as he saw fit. He adapted to the situations, the seasons, the weather and cropping, cultivations. He invested in the right machinery, used available grant funds, but the key was in his attention to detail and his belief that he needed to look long term.

He had a flexible and sympathetic ethos to farming. Soil was his greatest asset and he knew every bit of the farm like the back of his hand or more like the bottom of his boots.  Over the years, growing up, he walked it behind horse drawn implements or sat watching it pass under his seat from a couple of feet on his little John Deere Model B (26hp). When he sort-of-retired from day to day farming, he was sitting in a 180hp John Deere 4450 surrounded by glass and radio at about ten foot in the air. This lifetime of technological advances of horse to 180hp tractors had created a distancing of the farmer away from his soil. This was not by necessity but by evolution of the farming industry and every year that distance from our main asset, the soil, by technological advances, widens. Now more and more decisions can be made without leaving the office. Drones, NDVI, Radar, connectivity scanning are classed as the norm. Seed rate maps, variable rate depth cultivator bars working to invisible GPS lines are created in the office. My grandfather would have seen the changing conditions from the seat or heard the engine work harder and would have altered the machine by walking around the implement, getting his boots dirty, whereas we tap the touch screen display in our tractor cab while we cruise at 12km/hr on a bag of air listening to crystal clear DAB radio. But I ask you this, are we better off? Is our soil better off?

Adding the cost of this technology to the fine margins of profit and loss, has it really helped our industry? We may be more accurate but are we better farmers? Change for the sake of change is never good and normally expensive, but the evolution of farming systems has been influenced by commodity volatility, Government policy, Subsidy support, the tax system and the desire to own new paint.

Take for instance some of the changes our family farm has seen since 1957 to 2007.

  • Livestock enterprises reduced and finished, including cattle, dairy, chickens and more recently pigs.
  • My grandfather and father using the Government grants available to drain the farm with the old Fordson Major and Howard trencher to stabilise winter crop yields.
  • Lots of smaller lighter tractors replaced with fewer but bigger and heavier tractors with more horsepower.
  • Cropping rotations shortened as markets and margins changed.
  • The farming landscape and biodiversity suffered as livestock was reduced and pesticides multiplied.
  • Fertiliser usage increased as farmyard manure diminished.
  • Cultivators became bigger as labour on farm reduced, so again machinery got bigger and heavier and therefore soil damage went deeper.
  • Wheat price dropped to £60/t then jumped a few years later to hit £200/t plus.
  • Farming disasters of BSE, foot and mouth, swine flu and bird flu.
  • In good profit years investments were made into new technologies and buildings.

Through this time, our role as farmers had not changed: to produce as much high quality food as possible without impacting on our local environment. The system we had created, however, was bending and nearly breaking.

2007 was the year I really started to take on more responsibility for our family farm. I had inherited a rotation growing to the open market trying to get best price and to grow as much as possible but using high inputs. Cultivations were done by one big tracked tractor and three smaller tractors and implements. There were two full time staff and family labour and we were forced to move the full soil profile regardless as we only had one option to plant in the Vaderstad drill: plough and Vaderstad or Min-till and Vaderstad. There were also two small combines, due to specialist grass seed cropping; no farm diversification and no environmental income. This I would say looking back was when my farming ethos began to be questioned in my mind and a new one modified.

It was very inflexible, reliant on getting a break in the weather, reliant on high prices and this was mirrored all over the same period in the wider industry. I watched through this time as others struggled with an inflexible rotation of wheat, oilseed rape and sugar beet which sped up the black-grass factor as they chased income to offset high costs. Big machinery with drivers in the clouds damaging soil, horsepower to waste, so soil forced due to the need to cover ground quickly as farms became huge areas of open countryside. Market prices were volatile, unpredictable as ever and there was a reliance on chemistry and inputs out of a bag. This is the snowball effect of a high cost, high input farming. A farming mentality that delivered high but stagnant yield output over the UK. Were we improving as an industry?

This is when the Monitor Farm programme gave me the opportunity to challenge my farming system: was it right? Was there a better way? Was I missing the fundamentals?

Looking back at that Google definition, I had already become more flexible; I was willing to change and compromise! Three years on and my business ethos has been redefined. I have taken off the blinkers and looked outside the box. A long term flexible approach to low risk crop production with the eye to diversify is now critical going forward, with more attention to in-field detail using technology and some very basic skills.

So what are the fundamental changes?

  • Cost management. The understanding of the true cost of production. Yield is still king but you can make money on lower inputs.
  • Do what is best for every field. Don’t only have one or two cultivation systems, don’t have a set rotation, don’t rely on chemistry out of a can or bag.
  • Add diversity: business diversity, livestock & cropping diversity and natural biodiversity.
  • Farm to potential not hopeful possibilities. Push the best crops, manage the rest but don’t try and buy back lost potential or the hopeful yield of that mythical magic number we all strive for but know we won’t reach. Be pragmatic not dogmatic.
  • Fixed costs, the elephant in the room of many farm accounts. Reduce, recycle and reuse!
  • Benchmark: know how you compare to your peers and scrutinise your figures with a fine toothed comb.
  • Income from outside farm production: don’t pin your security on farm grown commodities alone.
  • Quantify and manage: if you don’t measure long term, you can’t change it long term!

Sadly I was too young to ask my grandfather about his farming life before he passed away twenty years ago. Many people remind me with stories of what he did and how he did it and they tell me what he was like. I look around the farm today and see how his long term, forward thinking, flexible approach has stood the test of time. My father and uncle have carried that ethos on through some very difficult industry times and some very prosperous years and their energy, attitude and encouragement have allowed me to learn and adapt before taking the reins to steer our business.

So going forward I want to build on this new flexible approach so that in the good and the difficult years it will bend but won’t break. We can modify and change according to the seasons as my grandfather did all those years ago.

BrianBarker

BrianBarker

Brian and his cousin Patrick run E.J. Barker & Sons, a family farm partnership and contracting business in Suffolk dating back to 1957. The 667ha arable farm business is farmed on 12 - and nine-year rotations, incorporating winter wheat for feed, spring barley, herbage grass seed, oilseed rape and a break crop of beans, linseed or peas. Environmental consideration is crucial to the running of the business, and remains a key factor in all decision-making on farm.

Comments are closed here.