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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Part 2: Putting our stamp on the farm

In part one,  I tried to explain how we got the buzz for wildlife and that we followed the lead from the rest of the family in respecting the responsibility we as landowners and farmers have, in looking after the wildlife on our patch of tranquil England.
In this second instalment, I will try and explain the process we took to implement our own approach and the hurdles and discussions we had along the way.
One of the biggest factors for our change was ceasing pig production, as explained in a previous post (http://lodgefarmwesthorpe.blogspot.com/2011/01/bye-bye-to-last-parts-of-pig-equipment.html) In effect, we were working 7 days a week for 4 days’ pay. It was a difficult and big decision but in the end it became a straight forward business decision.  Stopping the pigs made us focus solely on making our money from the arable production. We need to produce high yielding, high quality crops for the right markets. This is now the main stay of the business income; we have to be very aware of the cost of inputs and what return we will get from investing in the correct levels of pesticides and fertiliser. We have looked at all areas of the crop production and made it as efficient as possible. 
One step that we have taken to apply the science in crop production is nutrient soil mapping. This is using a soil scientist to look at the standard of our soil, assessing the levels of specific nutrients and pH so that we only apply fertiliser and lime to the areas that need it. We used to spread a dose of fertiliser across the whole farm to maintain the level; using the soil mapping, we saved £20,000 in fertiliser costs in the first year!
New chemistry and cultural controls are always investigated before using. We look in much more detail nowadays, at what chemicals are available to protect and cure disease and weed infestation. Cultural controls are always used first, like rotational ploughing against weed seed build up and a rolling seed bed to prevent slug movement and damage. These happen before any chemical is used.
Our Old Tractor Fleet, now we have 3!

One area I could not get my head round was our machinery collection. I say collection because is was, and I’m talking about our day to day machinery, not all the bygones in my Grandfather’s museum! We had 7 tractors; all had their own implements and that was that. They were normally small and old and because they did not have the power to pull large implements, fuel consumption and the cost of running  them was high.  We did have one large tractor that was the ‘ploughing tractor’. It did nothing else apart from ploughing, deep sub soiling and the odd bit of mole draining and for the rest of the year it sat unused in the workshop. The timing of all soil movements and applications, in my eyes, is paramount in maintaining high standards, especially on a heavy clay based soil like ours, as we only have a small window of opportunity to get on and cover the ground, otherwise we will start damaging the soil structure and that is a very costly process to rectify. I was keen to reduce our tractor fleet but replace them with much more fuel efficient vehicles and the right tractor for the jobs that we wanted it to do.  This was compounded one day when I was working in the autumn and was sent out to get a field ready for sowing; I puttered off with one of our small tractors and a three metre implement and set to.
Inefficient shaped fields for modern farming, 'Marginal Land'

This field is pictured and as you can see, it is long and thin with a footpath on all sides, a row of telegraph poles and it is meadow land which, however many inputs we throw at it, just never produced the yields of the rest of the farm. I got frustrated and bored as I was not going anywhere fast because I was always turning round and going over bits already done, as the shape just was not designed for efficient farming. As I sat in the seat, I had the words of my business lecturer ringing in my ears:
“Assess every element of your business: if it makes money push it harder; if it doesn’t, look at why not and understand why not; invest if you think you can get the investment back quickly; if not, then why waste your time and look for something that will make money.”   
So I did; I started recording the time and costs it took to grow the crops it produced. It just wasn’t breaking even;  we were farming it to make a loss! Crazy, in my eyes.  The machinery was just too big and we didn’t even have large machinery. If I got the new larger vehicles, it would be losing even more money. Our 24m sprayer would drive round once, then up and down; half of the time, sections of the sprayer were shut off and we could have sprayed a field  three times as large in the same time as it took to do this odd shaped field. So now, I needed to think what we could do with it to serve our farm better.
This all happened as the new Agri Environmental Schemes were being launched by Natural England. We had already identified these as opportunities for our business to secure a reasonable amount of income for 5 or 10 years from the government. We started to do some investigation into it and we liked how it was set up and how we could implement it in the time scale.  Patrick and I took on the responsibility to learn as much as we could about these new Agri Environmental schemes. We wanted do it our way, as we saw this as a way of putting our stamp on our farm to show our parents that we were serious about farming correctly, using the funding available from the government to benefit our business.  The schemes were open for business in 2005 and we set to. We applied for the lower tier scheme first. This is called Entry Level Stewardship (ELS). This scheme was designed for every farm in the country and Natural England had devised a number of options that could be used over all farms which would improve wildlife success around the country. It is a points-win-prizes-scheme. For each option used, the length of hedge, for example, or area of ground, is given a number of points as reward for using it correctly. You have to collect 30 points per hectare over your whole farm and would then claim the set amount of £30/ha. This is an easy to manage scheme, set for 5 years and you have to do exactly what it says in the hand book.
We compiled our application using mainly hedgerow and ditch management options with other areas of wild seed source options. While we sorted this application out, both Patrick and I got bitten by the bug. This is what we call the ‘What? & Why?’ bug. What are the aims? and Why do we need it? These questions came up more and more as the application process moved along. We wanted to know as much about these schemes and their aims as possible, so we knew exactly what the government wanted to achieve from them.
A selection of Scheme Handbooks and Information we had to read and know when doing the application.
The next step was Higher Level Stewardship (HLS): a significant step up. It is a much more competitive scheme where you got rewarded for what you did on the ground, using more specific options set out by Natural England. To get the extra level of funding you have to hit 5 or 6 of the requirements set by Natural England for your area of the country. It is a much more complex application process and at the start it was designed for Agricultural Consultants to carry out the applications on behalf of the farmer.   Patrick’s Dad, David, attended a meeting where an ex consultant said to him that no farmer will be able to do an HLS application by themselves. David returned and told us this and said, “I think we should do it ourselves.” (That ‘we’ was the ‘Royal we’, used often in our office) Patrick and I knew that the application would fall on our desks, but as it happened, we were already mulling over ideas.
The application did land on our desk soon after and we set to. Going through the process, we could see how much work was ahead. Every single, tiny, environmental feature on the farm had to be graded and recorded on a spread sheet, and every entry had to be mapped onto a Farm Environmental Plan. This was a full record of what we had and what state or condition it was in. We then had to start going through the options that we wanted to use in the HLS scheme to hit the targets set out by Natural England. The targets for our area in the ‘North Suffolk, South Norfolk Clay lands’ were
·         Protection of water resources,
·         Protection of any ancient Archaeology,
·         Improvement of habitats for the areas target species with the target species being mainly Grey Partridge and Great Crested Newts for us,
·         Plan to reverse the area’s decline in populations of locally important Biodiversity Action Plan Species (BAP Species) - mainly traditional farmland birds
·         To engage with local residents in provision of access on farm and educational oppitunities.      
Patrick and I wanted to know as much as we could and we were really starting to learn and get to grips with the schemes and what the underlying aims were that the government hoped to address. So we just followed the lead that our family had taken in the past and applied our level of detail and came up with the blueprint for the scheme we have on the ground today. The application process took 3 months of solid work with maps, spreadsheets, letters, history reports etc. When we were happy with what we had come up with, the application was sent in. We received the confirmation letter and were given the go-ahead to start implementing our new approach from February 2007.
I think this is an appropriate stopping point but Part 3 (of this two part story!) will be posted soon on what we have actually implemented and our ‘Big 3’ Golden Rules. BWB

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