Farmer Focus – Tom Sewell

For the last 5 years, in the spring when the Oilseed rape is in flower, I’ve had the privilege of travelling to a very different part of Kent to offer our contract drilling services (planting spring beans into grass) for another farmer. Nothing particularly interesting about that you might think? But there is something quite profound and intriguing about this farming business, a father and son set-up operating in a diverse way and at quite a large scale for our area. For the purposes of this article they will remain nameless but I do have permission to reference them and highlight just what can be achieved without lots of shiny new machinery, fancy buzz words and 15 species cover crops!!

In 2012 I was successful in applying for a Nuffield Scholarship. My original study topic was “Long term benefits of no-till” and at my interview in London I was grilled about why this would be of interest to anyone in the UK (amongst other things!). I was sponsored by the HGCA, which has now become AHDB, and part way through my travels and studies my report title was changed to “Moving from sustainable to regenerative farming using no-till systems”

At the time no-one really knew what regenerative farming was let alone why anyone in their right mind might want to “move to it!” I lost count of the number of conversations I had with farmers at meetings where I gave my presentation asking what was wrong with being sustainable! It’s the danger of alienation, that some farmers feel, which prompted me to tackle the subject in this article. With buzz words flying about in the press, on social media and on most of the latest farming webinars we as farmers need to be careful not to come across as superior or somewhat arrogant because we have “seen the light”, “got off the hamster wheel” or “transitioned to a regenerative farming system integrating cover crops, agroforestry, mob grazing and 6-way blends of whatever”!! Whilst all the previously mentioned elements are to be applauded, encouraged, researched and developed we also need to realise that no two farms, farmers or farming businesses are the same. We all have different soils, weather, rotations, inherent fertility, cash flows, land tenure, priorities both with time and money, tractor brands and drill shapes, colours and sizes! The danger with social media and the glorification of our newfound systems is that we can show all the successes and very few of the failures. My current favourite saying is “comparison is the thief of joy” and nowhere is this more important than in our use and abuse of social media.

My father-and-son drilling client use two direct-drills to plant most of their crops. They have 1000 ewes grazing grass and cover crops, between 225-250 suckler cows, 2000 acres of arable land growing wheat, beans, peas and grass seed, 50 acres of grapes and a diverse countryside stewardship scheme. Straw is returned to the fields via the cattle and sheep as manure. The machinery, whilst not all new and shiny, is well maintained and well operated yet they don’t profess top be anything other than mixed farmers. Their diverse soils (which I’ve probably drilled most of in the past 5 years) are well structured, level and fertile yet they quietly go about their business without too much fuss and media attention. Their black grass control is outstanding and at “hand roguable” levels and a crop of second wheat, in a field I drilled 2 years ago with beans, looked as good as anything I’ve seen in years, if at all! 

My point is this! You don’t need to have the latest machinery, all the latest buzz words and scream and shout at those who perhaps take a different approach to farming and managing their soils as you do! Gentle encouragement and realising that everyone is in a different position should help us become leaders by example and not just because we shout loudest! As I drove home from their farm in my 15 year old 40kph tractor with my 7 year old drill on the back I reflected at just how fortunate and blessed we are to be able to do the job we do. Many outside of our industry dream of being farmers and whilst the hours can be long and difficult we must remember the benefits we get in so many ways which cant be quantified.

As for our own home farm, this past year has seen us expand our acreage to a point where we now farm 1500 acres for 15 landowners across 10 parishes! Since last September all the practical farm work has been carried out by my father and I (my wife and I also run the office) and so far this year (writing this on 24th May) I haven’t worked a weekend! We have 55 fields of wheat this year, spread out and with very poor road networks serving them. It makes for fun and challenging times!! The Bateman sprayer is the only machine that goes on the field between planting and harvest so back up and reliability are key to us achieving the outputs required. We also support the sprayer with a bowser which this year has been invaluable in reducing roadwork and keeping the output up when the weather allows. Crops look well and the recent rains have ensured we go into June with good potential.

Finally I must tell you about the latest addition to the fleet of one of our most important pieces of machinery. The latest upgrade is a work of art featuring stainless steel, sleek lines and enhanced ergonomic features. The previous model had served me well. Through my adoption of a new system of farming its reliability and performance had been faultless but just recently its hard life of soil engaging abuse had begin to show. Whilst we are in the fortunate position to be able to retain the old model as a backup or to increase output at busy times it will be retired to the shed where it can continue life in the dry and warm ready for those emergency situations when its brought back into action. For those of you still reading and wondering what I’m talking about? I upgraded the spade in my truck to a top of the range pure stainless-steel model (given to me by the local metal detecting club!)

Sometimes the best things in life are free!

On a personal note this year is a milestone for our family. My wife turns 40, we celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and our eldest turns 16. For our business we farm to live and not live to farm. We love the job that we do but realise that time is so precious. As someone once said “the biggest difference between money and time… You always know how much money you have, but you never know how much time you have”. Hopefully bump into one or two of you at Groundswell, and if not, have a safe and productive harvest.