Where does inspiration come from?

4 December 2014

I always found December the most difficult time of year, and the only time when I just wanted to hide under the duvet when the alarm went off. It’s dark; the weather is often dreich; crops are drilled; stock are housed; benchmarking is done; budgets and strategies are in place for next year. What is there to do but worry about which meeting or event I feel obliged to go to, and whether the festive staff rota will work on the stock units without me having to feed pigs?  A thoroughly depressing few weeks!

But not this year – and not just because I no longer have stockperson’s rotas to worry about.

Inspiration came last week in the form of the Monitor Farm Workshop at Dunkeld. Around 80 farmers, facilitators and others involved in the Monitor Farm programme gathered to share their ideas and experiences around the programme – and boy did they share! What a buzz there was the first day, culminating in local farmer Jim Smith doing an after dinner stand-up routine which included great impressions of Scottish farming characters – some of them present in the room. The second day was a bit subdued, with sleep limited to less than three hours for some, but still memorable with film-maker Rob Bryce demonstrating the power and art of the moving picture to get the message across.

So where did the inspiration come from? Not Jim Smith – that was just excellent entertainment.

At the moment farmers, and particularly the farming media, are full of doom and gloom over low commodity prices, reducing CAP payments and domineering supermarkets. Yet at Dunkeld there were 80 agriculturists, full of enthusiasm, coming up with ideas and initiatives to “Get the Message Out” about all the positive work they were doing in their Monitor Farm projects. Their enthusiasm for driving forward not just their businesses, but the businesses of their neighbours and those further afield, inspired me greatly. There is a huge resilience in our industry – let’s make it work for us. Get along to your nearest AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Monitor Farm  or QMS Monitor Farm and get involved.

It wasn’t just the workshop that inspired me last week. The day before the workshop I took six of the English monitor farmers on two farm visits, to see Adrian Ivory at Strathisla Farms which is a mixed arable and beef unit, and Alex Brewster at Rotmel Farm which is a hill unit with sheep and cattle – a far cry from the type of farms the visitors are used to.

The objective of the two visits was to challenge convention from a farm business management perspective. What can we do to up our game by the way we manage our businesses?

Adrian gently weaned them off convention by explaining his approach to marketing and business relationships – how he values trust and loyalty before contracts and prices, whether it is a customer, a supplier or even his own staff. He also measures success by his return on capital rather than tonnes/hectare or margin/hectare.

Then off to the Hill unit and pure Scottish Blackfaces. This was the real eye-opener for the group. Alex has taken a relatively poor hill farm, and through first class management and innovative grazing techniques, turned it into a productive and profitable farm business. His margin/ha (before rent and finance) is at a level comparable with most wheat crops, and when you start to compare the level of capital required, Alex will have a much more resilient business than a lot of arable units.

So what is the message behind this rambling?

We are all going to have to up our game in the near future, but it doesn’t have to come only from more land, higher yields, bigger machines etc. It can come from taking a step back from the daily routine and looking at how other people do things, as well as how we do things ourselves. Step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself: can I do it differently? Have I got the right balance between managing my business and hands-on practical? Do I have targets and measures in place to actually know if my business is performing to its optimum?

Come to one of the Monitor Farm meetings to find out more.

Gavin Dick - Scotland

Gavin Dick - Scotland

AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Manager (Scotland). Previously a business specialist with SAC, working to broaden farmers’ business management skills.