Setting the scene

November 2013

“What a difference a year makes”. You are probably fed up hearing that phrase, but how true it is.

I’m sitting here thinking about the issues we could be addressing on the two new Monitor Farm projects which are holding their opening meetings on 11 December with Danny and Alison Milne at Demperston Farm, Auchtermuchty and on 5 December with Brian and Caroline Matheson at Ballicherry Farm, Balblair.

This time last year I would have been wondering how we could get rotations back to normal; soil conditions back to normal; what’s the cut-off date for sowing wheat; how am I going to get all these fields ploughed for spring sowing; what am I going to put in them…?

Yet for all our reliance on science and technology, it’s taken the kindness of Mother Nature to address or eliminate the need for all those issues this year.

The south of the country has had the poorest harvest, in terms of output, in living memory with a massive area of spring sown crops going through the combine. The further north you go, the more normal the harvest has been, even producing some record spring crops. That said, everyone was pleased at the harvesting conditions, with our Aberdeenshire Monitor Farmer even starting and finishing his wheat harvest on the same day, with well over 100 acres cut.

The story now is the same for the whole country – everyone is up to date and crops are looking exceptionally well. Lothians and the Borders are even quoting ‘wall to wall wheat’, although I suspect areas are just back to what they were three years ago as we tend to forget we have had two very difficult autumns prior to this year.

So what sort of issues will we be addressing at Ballicherry and Demperston? Those of you who understand what the Monitor Farm concept is all about will appreciate that it’s not for me to decide, but the Community Group – that’s all the neighbouring farmers and farming businesses – to suggest what they think the issues are, not just on the Monitor Farm, but on their own as well. Collectively we will come up with ideas and solutions and get the Milnes and Mathesons to try them out before applying them to your own farm.

What I do know is that they will be very interesting! While the two farms are operating similar systems, the similarity ends there.

Brian and Caroline Matheson took on the business a number of years ago, and from a relatively small start, have built up a substantial and diverse business based on adding value to their resources and products. Some of the questions they want to ask are, “Do each of my enterprises contribute to my overall business? How much do they contribute, and does that contribution justify my effort?”

They also have family, one of whom is interested in becoming involved in the business. So they are also asking, how do they go about planning for succession and what are the implications?

This project is giving the Community Group, working alongside a range of technical specialists, the opportunity to dismantle this business bit by bit and build it back up again. Along the way they will hopefully provide some of the answers to the above questions, but crucially, they will be given the opportunity for a unique insight in to how a farm functions – and from that they can take the knowledge they have acquired and apply it to their own farm.

Danny and Alison Milne, on the other hand, are recently married and in the process of taking on more of the management function from Danny’s father. Danny and Alison want to make their mark on the business, so what are the opportunities for a young farming family in Fife?

Should they look to expand; should they diversify; is there room to improve the technical efficiency and output of the farm; and should they increase or decrease the size of the enterprises? These are all questions that are likely to be asked and one of the best methods of gaining knowledge for your own business is to help find the answers amongst a group of like-minded people.

There is already a ‘try-out’ in the ground at Demperston where Danny has sown ½ hectare strips of different wheat varieties, including a hybrid, to see how they perform under farm conditions rather than replicated trial plots.

So come along on 5 and 11 December and enjoy!

Gavin Dick - Scotland

Gavin Dick - Scotland

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