Agriculture: There’s no business like Show business for Bill
- Credit: Archant
Bill Baker has begun his three-year stint as Suffolk Show director this year, following two challenging years in which bad weather has hit the bottom line. SARAH CHAMBERS visited him at his farm in Drinkstone, near Bury St Edmunds, as he prepared for this year’s event on Wednesday and Thursday of next week.
Farmer Bill Baker may love being out on the tractor, but a large part of his working life these days is spent in the office.
Luckily for Bill, who is also the incoming Suffolk Show director, he loves the mental challenges of running a business too.
It’s a good combination of skills – both for his farming business at Drinkstone and Elmswell, near Bury St Edmunds, and for his new role in charge of the county’s biggest event of the year.
After a disastrous year in 2012 when the Suffolk Show was cancelled on its second day due to high winds, and another difficult year financially last year due to bad weather, it’ll need a cool business head to steer the showcase event.
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Farmers know only too well that they can’t dictate the weather – so that element always lies outside of their control.
But Bill’s own family farm is a very modern one, concentrating on efficiency and clever use of technology to get the best results out in the field.
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Six years ago, he invested in a Real Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation station on the farm, allowing him to achieve greater accuracy out in the field.
As much of the business is dependent on the highly competitive world of contract farming, Bill, aged 50, sees this as essential to the business.
He farms just over 2,000 acres across Elmswell, Norton and Tostock, growing cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet with the help of his three-strong team. The family owns 600 acres and contract farms the rest.
“We’re highly mechanised, there’s no doubt. That not only makes you efficient, but motivates the staff and we are in a business where we were not just trying to please ourselves. Quality of service is paramount,” he says.
Bill is descended from a family of millers, and their collection of mills included a brick-built one in the centre of Elmswell. His real name is Robert, a moniker he shares with his miller great grandfather. Bill’s grandfather, Henry, developed a traditional agricultural merchants’ business at the Elmswell site, R Baker & Son (Elmswell) Ltd, trading in everything from animal feed to seed, fertiliser and sprays. Later, Bill’s parents, Jim and Janet, who much preferred the farming side, built up the farm from its very small beginnings.
“In the early days when he started farming it was a good old fashioned mixed farm battery hens and outdoor hens and sheep and pigs cropping and sugar beet, you name it, but literally that just went down to the pigs and eventually no pigs, just arable,” says Bill.
The pig operation, which had supplied the Elmswell bacon factory, disappeared in the 1970s. Bill went off to college at Writtle in Chelmsford, travelled, and returned aged 23 in 1986, ready to become a farmer.
“It was always my destiny. I was driving tractors as long as I could remember, and always lived for being on the farm. I think it was only probably late 80s early 90s when I began to question why are we doing this. The business element always interested me as well as the nuts and bolts of farming,” he says.
“My father was still young and fit enough, so I set up a sheep flock. The grazing rights for Haughley Park came up which I took on and built up an early lambing flock of about 750 ewes lambing in January. Then additionally I used to buy store lambs in and fatten on stubble turnip. At our peak we were probably selling 3-4,000 lambs a year.”
Bill was involved in setting up a lamb marketing group, Eastern Quality Lamb, selling lambs into Waitrose.
“In those days we were selling lamb through Bury market because that was open. Then the whole economic landscape changed,” he recalls.
It was the era of set-aside and food mountains, and the family took the difficult decision in 1991 to come out of the agricultural supply business.
“I never know whether I’m a second generation farmer or a third,” says Bill
“I have taken it (the farm) from 600 acres to 2,000 acres. I suppose the period in the 1990s, when I was, and still am, keen and eager, it was a depressing time for agricultural commodity prices. They were tumbling. We were taking on opportunities that would not have arisen because things were so grim. The 3/400 acres or so farm was becoming unsustainable. The nice thing is they were neighbours or near neighbours so the farm is still relatively compact.”
Following the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, Bill decided to get out of sheep farming. The juggle of livestock and a mixed farm was becoming increasingly difficult to manage and the bureaucracy surrounding foot-and-mouth was making the paperwork for a business that was already marginal too onerous.
Today, Bill remains keen to grow his contract operation as much as he can, but it’s a competitive environment.
“All my neighbours are trying to do the same. There are some very large scale and efficient operators (around us),” he says.
The land is mainly clay which dictates the level of cropping and means that sugar beet is the only root crop, he explains.
It was in the early 1990s that Bill really started to take control of the farm and become the decision-maker, although his father never fully retired.
“He was a very fit and active man and was incredibly talented with his hands. He was a great farmer and he built the farm up - and mum. Mum is a hard working farmer’s daughter herself. They built their own house and built their own farm up and I’m hugely grateful to them for building up the farm to what it is today really,” says Bill.
“That work ethic never left him really. It still has not left my mum. I’m not shy of hard graft and I guess I have my parents’ genes.”
Janet is “still going strong” says Bill.
“She has a big influence on what we all do in the family. She’s oil for the engine really. She does an awful lot and she does it without being asked,” he says.
While in the 1990s the business was growing, the family was not really reaping the financial rewards, says Bill. Nevertheless, they expanded “instinctively rather than on solid financial grounds”.
Bill is a family man, with two daughters, Lucy, 15 and Sophie, 20, a stepson Jack, 10, and two stepdaughters, Elizabeth , 12, and Milly, 13. His wife of three years is farmer’s daughter Kate, who is “like-minded” and “absolutely fantastic”. Kate, a member of the Kemball family, runs a wedding venue business.
Bill’s social life as a young man centred around Thurston Rugby Club and Suffolk Agricultural Association (SAA) and it was through the SAA and other Kemball family members that he met his future wife.
“She’s very busy. We both lead very very busy lives but we both come from very, very similar upbringings really with similar values and ambitions. She’s my rock,” he says.
Bill has enjoyed the camaraderie within the industry, and being involved in causes associated with farming, and was a trustee of the Felix Cobbold Trust for a number of years, as well as being on the National Farmers’ Union sugar board for about six or seven years. He has also held office previously within the SAA, including as deputy director of the show in 2005 before deputising again for his show director predecessor David Nunn.
Bill moved to Drinkstone about 10 years ago, and set up the farm office close to the house.
In his latest role, he is conscious of how quickly the time will pass.
“It really is a four year stint. The time goes really quickly. I’m just about to do my first show but I’m in my second year in a four year stint so I’m already halfway through. It’s thoroughly enjoyable,” he says.
He is aware, though, that it’s a high profile role and not without its challenges.
“I was six years on the sugar board and things didn’t always go smoothly on the sugar board so I’m no stranger to people picking the phone up.
“I’m by nature a non-confrontational person so I try to calm people as best I can.”
The upside is the people – both the public and members of the farming community.
“I do truly meet the finest people the loveliest and most impressive businessmen and businesswomen. The sort of people who are always there to help and assist wherever they can,” he says.
This year, there will be a few differences, including the lifting of a ban on pet dogs and a decision to let in children for free.
“It’s not my show - it ever was and always will be a team effort,” he says.
“You can’t be maverick with an agricultural association because there are too many wise heads.”
Other county shows have fallen by the wayside against a backdrop of an ever-evolving audience and industry, but the Suffolk Show has remained vibrant, Bill believes, because of the decisions the Suffolk Agricultural Association. The show costs about £1.5m to stage, and one of his first tasks was to take a long, hard look at those costs, identifying immediate savings on marquees. The long-term objective is to bring the show, which is heavily subsidised by the SAA, to break-even point. However, many of the areas within the show will always make a loss, he acknowledges, but are essential to the character of the show and its charitable objectives.
“There’s no doubt we have had a difficult trading period - that’s public knowledge. We were very unfortunate, especially in 2012 with the cancellation of the show. I think the cold weather did affect things. We as farmers never, ever react in the extreme to one bad year. We are used to one bad year. We are used to two or three in succession. I think the county show is probably very similar to farming,” he says.
“You have to make sure you are doing the best possible job you can and taking the medium to long view.”
One of his challenges this year is that there is no time to implement a lot of the changes recommended by various brainstorming working groups which he set up on taking up his role.
“There are things that will be immediately implemented and others that will require a huge amount of research. It has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. We have looked at everything we do and will continue to and I think will bear fruit,” he says.
Despite a mild winter and no frost to break down the soils, the farm looks as though it is set fair for this year. The same goes for the Suffolk Show, which is enjoying good early ticket sales.
Bill is “massively excited” in his new role as show director.
“I feel I take a responsibility for everything and everybody in the build up. It’s everybody travelling safe, being safe, leaving safe,” he says.
He has complete confidence in the team, and says his fear is the unknown.
“I would like to leave the Suffolk Show in at least as good a heart or even better then it is currently but if we can turn around the financial situation which I don’t believe was broken when I came in,” he says.
“There will be tweaking and changes. You always fight with that traditional element and the new. I quite proudly say there will be a huge amount of the same. I don’t shy away from that. There will be plenty of new and exciting elements to it.”
n Organisers of the show are anticipating “good show-going weather” this year, with temperatures expected to be around 20 degrees with light winds.
Bill says: “There has been a positive reaction to the new children aged 14 and under come in for free policy and I would like to remind people that the deadline to buy discounted tickets is midnight on Sunday, May 25, so book them online asap at www.suffolkshow.co.uk.”