AHDB needs new monitor farmers in England and Wales – could you be one?

What is a Monitor Farm?

With economic pressures mounting, including the end of the Basic Payment Scheme this year, finding new ways to improve performance and profitability is more important than ever for farmers. One way to do this is to pool knowledge with other, similar farming enterprises.

AHDB’s Monitor Farm programme brings together groups of like-minded farmers who wish to improve their businesses by sharing performance information and best practice around a nationwide network of host farms.

The concept originated in New Zealand, was adopted in Scotland in 2003 and rolled out to England, Northern Ireland, and Wales in 2014. The programme has two unique principles: it is a farmer-led, farmer-driven project with business efficiency and benchmarking at the heart of its activity. It takes place on commercial farms, providing a hands-on approach to personal and business development. This makes it attractive to other members of the farming community.

A monitor farmer partners with their local AHDB Knowledge Exchange (KE) manager to host four to six meetings each year. These farmer-led meetings provide the opportunity to find and share challenges and solutions, as well as time away from their own farms and the chance to socialise with their peers – something that is also valuable in terms of mental health, particularly during times of stress. Points towards BASIS and NRoSO professional development schemes can also be claimed by those who attend.

During the three years of being a Monitor Farm, every aspect of the business is scrutinised. Whether looking at soil management or machinery policy, cost implications to the farm business always take centre stage.

With a focus on making real developments in their business management, improving productivity, competitiveness and environmental management, Monitor Farms try out innovative ideas, all with the support of AHDB and guidance from industry experts.

What are the qualities that make a great monitor farmer?

A monitor farmer needs to be:

  • Willing to speak openly about their business, disclose information and share how they reach decisions 
  • Open-minded, interested in innovative ideas and happy to embrace change
  • Ambitious – keen to set and achieve personal goals
  • Sociable – enjoys meeting people and is happy to host events

What does being a monitor farmer involve?

What a monitor farmer does:

• Works closely with their AHDB KE manager

• Sets up a steering group for the monitor farm

• Undertakes baseline assessments

Submits figures to Farmbench

Monitors benchmarked figures with their Arable Business Group (ABG)

• Hosts up to six meetings each year

• Brings specialist advice onto the farm, such as expert speakers and consultants

• Supplies updates on farm progress between meetings

• Sets up actions and follows them up to see real progress

• Adopts an evidence-based approach to change, such as carrying out co-ordinated on-farm trials

• Incorporates all aspects of the farm business, including family aims, succession and diversification options

• Helps their steering group and ABG to continue meetings after the Monitor Farm has ended

• Enjoys the social aspect – the Monitor Farm should be professional but also entertaining

The latest Monitor Farm

The first West Midlands Monitor Farm to be appointed post-pandemic, DW Burton Farms, was launched in November, with a daytime event on the farm at Pattingham, near Wolverhampton.

The farm operates around 2,000 acres of owner-occupied land and farming agreements. Farming on mainly sandy/sandy clay loam, cereals are mainly grown between spring and winter break crops, putting cover crops in where possible.

Local farmers and farm managers were invited to meet farm manager Jack Houghton and Dr Alex Ansell, AHDB’s new Cereals & Oilseeds KE manager. AHDB’s in-house soil guru, Dr Joe Martlew, discussed the results of the soil health scorecard (see The scorecard that unearths a soil’s secrets article in this issue for more details on how this tool has been used at a Monitor Farm). As well as presentations and group activities, attendees took part in a farm walk.

Alex will be supporting Jack over the next three years as he undertakes practical trials guided by his steering committee and reports the results to fellow farmers in the area at the regular networking events.

According to Alex: “It takes a special mix of qualities to be a monitor farmer. Jack is keen to try out new arable farming methods in practical ways – and to share the results with others so that they can adopt successful techniques. Over the next three years he will be hosting regular events where local farmers can learn from his experiences, as well as from each other. I’m really looking forward to working with him and seeing what he achieves.”

In his early thirties, Jack wants to encourage more young people to join the industry.

“I’m often the youngest in the room. That needs to change, so that farming has a future.

“I’m not one for sitting around talking about new ideas – I want to get out and try them. If it goes wrong, it goes wrong – but you always learn something. And if I can share that learning, it’s even more useful. That’s why I’m excited about managing a Monitor Farm. Through Alex and AHDB, I’ve got access to far more knowledge and experience than I could get on my own, as well as the support to try it out and share the results.”

Jack’s ambitions for the next three years are to:

  • Stabilise business, securing long-term tenancies and contract farming agreements
  • Reduce inorganic inputs and pesticides
  • Build organic matter using muck/compost and green matter, putting money from stewardship to use
  • Ultimately, produce high-quality, profitable food while being kind to the environment

The first post-launch meeting, on 12 December, examined how to make the most of SFI options. On 6 February, labour and machinery will be reviewed, and in summer 2024 there will be a farm walk.

Alex says that Knowledge Exchange is the backbone of AHDB’s offer to levy payers. “The Engagement – or Knowledge Exchange – team is a key part of the service AHDB provides, facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning, carrying out on-farm research and connecting farmers with the best information and expertise. This is enabled by a network of Strategic Farms, Monitor Farms and Arable Business Groups, together with a wealth of other opportunities for levy payers and advisors. The Engagement team is also a key conduit between levy payers and the rest of AHDB, ensuring that there is a two-way exchange of information feeding into everything that we do.”

Could you be a monitor farmer? Find out more and apply on our website. You can also hear from Jack and Alex on our Monitor farm podcast.