Who has the Farming ‘X’ Factor? Our Farm Being Judged and the Boot on the Other Foot as Judges!
Farming is an industry of pride; landowners like things done to their standard and are always looking over their shoulder or neighbours’ fields to see how they compare with theirs. As much as we avoid admitting it, we are a competitive bunch of people, trying to better ourselves from year to year and also our neighbours; with the normal first questions being, “How much rain have you had lately?” Or “What’s your wheat looking like? Yields looking good? Much Black grass this year?” All are questions asked between farmers as they try and size up the local competition but at the end of the day we are doing it for the same reason and that is feeding as many mouths as possible by doing the best job we can. This competitiveness has been tapped into by local farm businesses and best crop competitions run by Agricultural Associations throughout the UK and by other National organisations and companies like FWAG and Farmers Weekly.
I never really knew too much about these sorts of competitions before I came back to the farm full time, although there are photos of Rosie and Patrick as babies sitting in a very large trophy when the farm won the Suffolk Agricultural Associations Large Farm award in 1980. As Patrick and I started out on our fledgling farming careers, we looked at these competitions as a way of bench-marking ourselves against other farms and farmers that we knew and recognised as forward thinkers in the industry in our area. So for the past 4 years we have entered a number of these competitions with a range of success.
I think these competitions are very useful, they make you analyse your business from the outside in. First step is that you put yourself in the judges’ shoes as you walk or drive round the farm with a very self critical eye. How can we improve this? Is this the best way to do that? Am I giving this area enough credit? Can I justify all my previous actions? All questions however big and small, pop into my head and things are highlighted before the judges arrive which either get fixed quick or left for a more long term solution. On the week of the judging we have a tidy up, we like a tidy yard throughout the year but we do have a real good spring clean and de-clutter of scrap and rubbish, this normally coincides with our music event and farm walk season as well. On the day of the judging we have a quick sweep round of visible rubbish and pull together a farm information booklet specifically aimed at what the judges may be looking for. Depending on the competition, the judges arrive and a quick coffee is offered in our new meeting room in the office (with the walls covered in pictures of the farm and wildlife of which we are so proud) and the process begins. We would give a brief history of the farm, how the farm has progressed in the past years and where it is today. We usually then walk through the workshop, building and chemical store before heading off round the farm in our trucks looking at the crops and conservation work on the ground.
The judges are invited to do this job by whoever is organising the competition and are much respected in their fields. We like to know a bit of history about them, as this will give us a bit of a heads up on what the questions might be! We have had some really interesting people judge our farm and we learn something every time we go through this process. They are normally accompanied by a sponsor and steward who are there to make the day run as smoothly as possible. I was once a steward when I was still at college and it gave me an insight into the details that the judges were looking for and I would love to be a fly on the roof of the car when the judges leave our farm.
Our first real success in a competition was the Suffolk FWAG Kerr Cup in 2009, a local competition looking at integrating framing and conservation. Patrick and I approached it as we would an exam question in the application and the visit. A tight time schedule with military detail was required to make sure we got round everything we wanted to show the judges. Our case was helped when two Grey Partridges jumped out of our restoration grass meadow and a Kingfisher flew across a pond as we pulled up. We impressed the judges so much that they pushed us to enter the National Silver Lapwing Competition run by FWAG. We had never heard much about this award and we approached it with the same exam question technique in the application. We then went through a 30min phone interview (which turned into 50mins as we just talked and talked about all areas they asked) We were then announced as being in the top 6 with a two and an half hour visit to follow. Again, with a similar slight innocence, we took the judges on a full tour, points after points, questions after questions. I say innocence as we did not really think we were doing anything out of the ordinary, we had just applied our ideas that we thought were correct and helpful towards the direction farming was heading. We were the first of the six to be judged and we thought by the end we would be forgotten about as we had read the profiles of the other five impressive entries. A bit of a waiting game followed. The award ceremony was in the House of Commons and we organised a bus for the family and headed down there. I had gone full circle in my head from yes we have a great chance to no, not a chance. I remember the evening well, photos of the family by the river, meeting and greeting all the high brass on the guest list beforehand, thinking, ”How on earth have I ended up here after leaving college five years earlier?” As finalists we had seats reserved at the front but being us we were caught at the back ‘networking’ and so missed the sit down so we stood sweaty palmed behind everyone gathered as the judges started to give the presentation of the six finalists. Again we were first up then a long list of impressive farms followed, my heart was saying this would be great but my head was saying no! It came to the announcement in third…..No, not us, oh well! In Second….No, Oh well! Look gracious in defeat, Patrick turned to me and said we’ve done it! I wasn’t so sure…. Winners…..Brian and Patrick Barker! At that moment, I slapped Patrick on the back shouting, “Get in there!” Our family jumped up and then as Patrick marched up to receive the award I followed was ambushed with a massive hug from a tearful Derek Moore (a great friend of the family, bird and wildlife enthusiast, who has helped us no end and fellow blogger http://www.derekbirdbrain.blogspot.com/) I got to the stage in the end, with a massive smile and a feeling of pride in my chest. The rest of the evening and bus ride back was all a bit of a blur! But a great experience for the whole family.
The Farmers Weekly Awards were the next unknown. Patrick and I had said we thought we should have quiet year and move the farm on before doing anything else in the limelight but we were kindly nominated by two people, so we thought we would go for it and see what happened. Again the same approach with a few added details from our last judging experience, form application filled in and then a successful short listing in the top three. This time a three hour judging visit! The judges arrived but four of them not three as expected, this meant that we could not go round in one truck so we split with two in mine and two in Patricks. This was ok until the judges decided to swap over after each stop and so we got a double grilling. I think the same questions were asked of both of us. This one we felt went Ok but we had failed to mention a few things that we had wanted to. Again, the awards were a whole family affair: two tables bought for dinner down at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. I had again gone full circle from yes to no, so I decided to utilise the free champagne reception to make my self feel better….. The Grosvenor Grand Hall is a stunning room, 1500 people filling the floor. We had a welcome video message from Prince Charles and Lisa Tarbuck as the presenter. They describe it as the Oscars of the farming world and it definitely had the feel of it. When we were announced as winner my legs nearly gave way (not due to the Champagne I may add!) but it was a long walk to the stage and few snaps with Lisa and then off, wow we had won another one! Let the celebrations begin…..my lovely kind Aunt set the tone for the rest of the evening in great style with more bubbles! The next morning was not so much fun, especially the stuffy underground trip! One member of our group actually never made it out of the hotel and checked in for another night but I won’t mention names!
All these experiences have opened so many doors for us and we have met some very influential people on the back of it. We have pushed our business and profile wherever possible, as we want to be the next ambassadors for the farming industry in our life time. We have made a good start but have to maintain it now.
Last week the judging boot was on the other foot as Patrick and I were invited by the East of England Agricultural Association to judge their Farm Business Competition Supreme Countryside Conservation Champion Class. It was a bit of pay back time asking the same thought provoking questions that we have been asked. It was a great honour and a very enjoyable couple of days and we saw some tremendous farms. It was a difficult decision as the four farms had such different approaches all with proven success. We did come to a winner in the end and much deserved. We thank the East Of England Agricultural Association for inviting us to be judges, their hospitality was second to none and we had a great experience.