Monday, April 23, 2018

Changing face of farming and contracting

April 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Agriculture needs a feel-good factor, says Herefordshire farmer, contractor and machinery dealer Russell Price. Simon Wragg reports.

There’s a long term future in farming worth shouting about, believes Herefordshire farmer Russell Price. But the sector also needs confidence and a feel-good factor due to uncertainty caused by Brexit, he adds.

As managing director of Russell Price Farm Services (RPFS) based at Castle Frome, near Ledbury, Mr Russell oversees 650ha (1600ac) of in-hand farming focused on feed wheat, oilseed rape, potatoes, break crops and land let to vegetable growers.

“We’re fortunate in Herefordshire as there’s not many crops you cannot grow,” he reflects. “And we have opportunities on our doorstep from processors across the Midlands to livestock farmers to the south and west wanting our straw, fodder crops and cereals.”

Mr Russell’s view on UK farming’s future has been shaped during recent overseas visits to France and New Zealand. Like others, he admits Britain’s departure from the EU leaves many questions unanswered currently over support and trading agreements for farming.

Opportunities

“I voted for Brexit, not that I thought it would reduce red tape, but more that I believe it will open up markets (globally) for our produce.

“We are among the most efficient producers in the world and have systems that ensure the safety of food we produce. We should be justifiably proud of that, but we just don’t shout about it enough.”

It’s a fundamental point, in his opinion. UK farming has been dumbed down for many years and is paying a price both at home and abroad. As an employer needing highly trained staff he believes the industry is not sold as a prosperous and exciting career path for school-leavers or graduates.

“I believe opportunities in food and farming to be fantastic; we’re just very poor at marketing ourselves. I recently attended a Farmers Weekly-led meeting for contractors many of whom believe labour, as well as finance, to be one of our biggest challenges.

“There is a definite skill shortage. Finding staff competent to operate modern machinery is a huge issue,” he says, with experience from employing eight full-time and up to 12 seasonal staff during busy periods.

“But farmers are not alone in needing to tackle this issue. I believe machinery manufacturers and dealers have an opportunity to put on more training days to help address the skills shortage and bring staff up to speed on what their products can do.”

Technology

Within machinery, technology  has moved apace over the past decade, he reflects. The introduction of satellite navigation and auto steering, variable rate application and auto shut-off, electronically controlled transmission, and techniques such as inter-row cultivation is testament to the technical competency demanded of today’s drivers and operators.

In the same respect, the business of contracting is also changing, he adds. “I think we’ve moved from being providers of machinery and labour to a more advisory and management role for many customers.”

The complexity in agronomy, chemiculture and regulation has seen RPFS employ a dedicated crop protection manager for several years. The company’s Richard Thacker works alongside independent agronomist Ian Oliver of Powell and Oliver to help manage customers’ crops using a fleet of Housman 24m self-propelled sprayers.

Undoubtedly, potatoes are a cornerstone of both in-hand and contracting operations. Potato manager Kevin Fuller oversees the production of Accord for retailing on-site in bags; Lady Rosetta for crisp manufacturer Tyrrell; Russet Burbank for McCain (supplying McDonald fast food outlets); and King Edward for packer IPL (a dedicated supplier to Asda).

“You can never afford to stand still,” adds Mr Price. “We moved into machinery sales in 2007 having bought one of Sumo’s one-pass cultivators and a deep leg ripper. We now act as agents for Sumo, Maschio, Scanstone, Guttler  and AMIA, led by salesman Richard Young.”

This balance between in-hand farming, contracting and machinery allows PRFS to offer a ‘one-stop shop’ for farming customers whether stubble-to-stubble or specific one-off operations, he suggests.

Future success

And what is his view of farming’s future? “Technology, technology, technology,” he says, emphatically. “It has the ability to reduce inputs and costs while also helping look after the environment. We as farmers, growers and contractors, have to drive greater productivity to enjoy future success.

“Retrospectively, I think we conventional farmers have a lot still to learn from the organic sector. Technology already exists for inter-row weeding, sustainable crop rotations and mixed enterprises combined with advances in technology like sprayers which recognise up to 20 species of weeds and spot sprays them out reducing reliance on chemicals. Not all answers come out of a can.”

Mr Price is keeping a very close eye on the “Hands Free Hectare” initiative from Harper Adams.  And would like to see the day when in-field operations can be organised, costed and recorded on a single App on a mobile phone or hand-held tablet.

There’s also a more tangible drive to seek opportunities in land management within the amenity market as well as offering farm maintenance services during winter months when land work eases.

“I genuinely believe there is a bright future for farming,” he says, adamantly. “One thing I’ve come to recognise as a Monitor Farmer for the AHDB Cereals sector, is that we fear competition is our next door neighbour. It isn’t anymore it is the rest of the world. Fortunately, as an industry we produce some of the best food available and that has international appeal.”

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