Farming feature: Farmers no longer just ploughing own furrow

Tom Bradshaw gives a tour of Fletcher's Farm at the HGCA Monitor Farm event in Fordham on Tuesday, 2

Tom Bradshaw gives a tour of Fletcher's Farm at the HGCA Monitor Farm event in Fordham on Tuesday, 26 June. - Credit: Su Anderson

Tom Bradshaw’s farm at Fordham, near Colchester, was one of the first wave of HGCA Monitor Farms launched across the country as part of a move towards a farmer-led approach to improving businesses from the ground up. SARAH CHAMBERS went along to the event in June.

HGCA's Jonathan Tipples and Richard Laverick at the HGCA Monitor Farm event in Fordham on Tuesday, 2

HGCA's Jonathan Tipples and Richard Laverick at the HGCA Monitor Farm event in Fordham on Tuesday, 26 June. - Credit: Su Anderson

In June, the region took its first steps towards a farmer-led, joined up approach to running farm businesses with the unveiling of its first ‘new wave’ HGCA Monitor Farm.

The launch, at Tom Bradshaw’s farm at Fordham, near Colchester, was part of a movement, which continued yesterday when the Barkers’ farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, rounded off Agri-Tech week by joining the second wave.

HGCA Monitor Farms bring together groups of like-minded farmers who want to develop or expand their enterprises, and creates a friendly environment which encourages them to share critical performance information. It follows on from similar, highly successful programmes run over a number of years in Scotland and in New Zealand.

An Arable Business Group made up of farmers meets, looks at what to do where, and discusses the performance on the Monitor Farm as part of a three year programme. The emphasis throughout is on adopting new technology and trying out new ideas. The Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA), a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, is the driving force behind this pioneering, collaborative approach where Monitor Farms are ‘owned and operated’ by the farmers themselves, putting them at the forefront of driving advances.

Tim Isaac, of the HGCA, at the HGCA Monitor Farm event in Fordham on Tuesday, 26 June.

Tim Isaac, of the HGCA, at the HGCA Monitor Farm event in Fordham on Tuesday, 26 June. - Credit: Su Anderson

Regional manager for the east, Tim Isaac, explained how that differed from previous attempts at supporting or collaborating with farmers.

“It’s about business. Yes, agronomy is important, but it’s very much the whole farm and everything that goes on in that business. If there is message I would really like to get through it’s that message. It might be something to do with crops or it might be to do with business management. It’s what makes this project different, but it’s only a very small part of this programme. The emphasis is on business improvement,” he explained. “With the agenda set and driven by farmers, it is a unique opportunity to test thinking on farm while facing real issues.”

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The end result of all of this should be a big difference in farm production, and therefore in farm profits by drawing on this ‘community’ experience.

Through the groups, that improvement should, if the scheme is successful, lead to similar improvements on those farm enterprises, through adopting the “practical and proven” measures adopted on the Monitor Farm.

Tom, who appeared in the BBC’s Harvest programme in 2013, is a partner in his family business, Fletchers Farm, and grows 1,485ha of combinable crops – malting barley, milling wheat, peas and beans - and has been involved in Recommended Lists trials. He also sits on the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) combinable crops board. Apart from a small area of owned land, the majority is farmed under contracting arrangements and includes a wide range of soil types.

Richard Laverick, head of regional development at HGCA, explained that they wanted to form 24 business monitor groups in England and Wales - the eight initial monitor farms formed in the summer, another eight farms in the autumn and a further eight in the autumn of next year.

“Our dilemma is we can only select farms from people who come forward and say they want to do it, but we want to cover as many of the geographical areas and farming types that we can.”

These, ideally, will have different soil types and different problems or issues to solve through a system of peer review.

“When Tom here gets together with his arable business group, he’ll explain what he’s doing on site, the problems he’s having and discuss and debate those and the best way forward. Ultimately, he’s still in charge of his farm and he’ll do what he thinks is right, but he has that extra dialogue around his decision-making,” explained Richard.

“There has been a programme running in Scotland with a similar philosophy for about 10 years now. When you talk to farmers in Scotland it’s that peer review that has been the most powerful element of the project. This is absolutely new for us. That’s why it’s so exciting for the organisation.

The farm at Fordham was the fourth Monitor Farm, following on from Wantage, Leamington Spa and Royston. With more than 100 farmers turning out for the launch, it was clear many were interested in the concept, and early signs were that people were becoming very engaged with the process, he said.

Tom, a past Nuffield scholar, pointed out that the dairy sector had been “fantastic” at sharing knowledge, and the arable sector could do the same.

“We can all learn a huge amount from each other,” he said. “I think there’s a lot to be gained from the programme.” He pointed to the ruts in the yard. “If at the end of three years that yard has been concreted, then I know this has been a success,” he joked.

Tim explained that one of the criticisms of the HGCA as a levy payers’ group in the past was “people not seeing us”. The programme of Monitor Farms had been “a leap of faith”, but had the potential to move the whole industry forward.

About a year ago, the HGCA established a regional structure. Its Monitor Farm initiative has the potential to become a large part of its activity, he said.

“We are not setting up a demonstration farm,” explained Tim. “We are using Tom as a case study or an example. Things that we learn in relation to Tom can then be taken home. We can then look at things in real time.”

Farmers learnt best from each other, said Richard.

“We think this is far more engaging and interactive way of helping them move forward together,” he added.

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