Farmer Focus – Tom Sewell

Staying sane in a crazy world!

Every time I sit down to write my contribution to Direct Driller the world seems to be in a more crazy place. Who would have thought a year ago that we would be selling new crop wheat at over £300/ton and paying virtually double for fertiliser and fuel? It’s certainly not a dull existence now being a farmer!

Up until a week ago our land and crops were very dry. With only 100mm falling in the first 4 months of the year travelling on land to apply fertiliser and sprays as well as spring drilling has not been an issue. In the last 2 weeks though we have received another 47mm which has certainly helped. Crops look healthy and clean and I feel our move to an agronomist who values plant and soil health has reaped rewards even before harvest. We have used considerably less fertiliser, fungicides and growth regulators preferring instead to apply nutrition and trace elements which have kept the plant healthy and growing at a steady pace.

That’s not to say we are without our problems! There’s plenty of blackgrass about in wheat which we will have to try and manage out-of-crop over the autumn and winter and then by delayed drilling and spring cropping going forward. I’m convinced that very few of the answers to our problems lie in a can of product applied to a crop. Just take a look at the problems associated with a new fungicide which is keeping o-ring manufacturers in business! I can’t begin to think of the effect that’s having on the plant, soil biology and the wider environment.

This time of year can quite often be a time for a breather after a busy spring getting crops planted, fertiliser applied and crop protection and nutrition sprayed. I was very fortunate to have some time off the farm recently and travelled to Brussels and Wageningen in Holland with my Institute of Agricultural Management Leadership Programme for a week. We heard from leaders, officials and lecturers and visited farms to see just how intensively farmed some parts of Europe have become. Last week my 2008 Worshipful Company of Farmers ACABM cohort met up for our annual reunion in Suffolk. Superbly organised we visited diverse farming businesses as well as one of the leading racehorse studs in the world! We saw a robot planting parsnips into some very dry Breckland sand which perhaps gives us a glimpse of the future?! It was good to be able to meet up again after a 2 year gap and compare who had paid the most for their fertiliser and who had sold the wheat for the lowest price!!

Now the focus is back on the farm, in the run-up to harvest. We have had a good clear-out of surplus machinery, grain equipment and have just got permission to add another grain store extension at home. Cash flow in the next few months will undoubtedly become tight for many of us even with the 50% BPS advance due in July. Knowing when to buy key inputs like fertiliser and fuel will have a big impact on farm businesses going forward. Fortunately in a reduced tillage or no-till scenario the fuel impact is fairly minimal for many of us! Our fertiliser use has been drastically slashed this year too and I expect that to be the case going forward with Nitrogen coming now from a number of different sources, not just from a bag!

It’s also the time of the year when we all make the annual pilgrimage to Groundswell! I really enjoyed last year and felt that one day wasn’t enough. The line up of speakers looks fantastic and it will be good to catch up with friends that I’ve not seen for a while. I wanted to finish by paying a special tribute to Caroline Drummond who sadly passed recently. She was an inspiration to those of us who had the pleasure of knowing her. As the head of LEAF she was at the forefront of sustainable farming practices across all sectors of the industry for many years and her passing will be felt by many for years to come. She will be irreplaceable. I was blessed to meet Caroline when on my Nuffield Scholarship in 2013. She was part of our year group and I had the privilege of sitting next to her on an 8 hour flight to Canada. She was genuinely interested in what I had to say and would question why. She was fun, bright and enthusiastic about our industry and I can’t quite believe she has gone! My thoughts are with all those at LEAF, her family and all of you who like me called her your friend.