Disappointing harvest results can be a real downer but JVFG member Charles Matts from Brixworth Farming explains what has picked up his mood.
“I opened my local newspaper this morning and got a lovely glimpse of sunflowers. The ones in the picture are grown by my one of my colleagues. The flowers he and I are growing this year at Brixworth Farming have been a fantastic thing to do: providing food for pollinators and a feast for the eyes for plenty for people passing by to enjoy, marvel at and congratulate us farmers for.
Pulling in pollinators and public interest
The sunflowers have dominated in the plot of Syngenta Pollinator Mix but there’s mustard, brown mustard, phacelia, fodder radish, Gold of Pleasure, kale rape and buckwheat in amongst them.
We began our ‘flower farming’ as part of Operation Pollinator, to attract and feed pollinators. The mix of species can be humming with butterflies, bees and hoverflies. But it is the way that it has attracted the attention of people that has been the unexpected benefit.
Costing the environment
People have kept stopping me and asking questions about the pollinator plots and about the farm. We are Leaf Marque certified. One of the advantages of that is we get a premium on every tonne of oilseed rape we grow. Other elements of the standard include good environmental management and public engagement.
We were doing the right thing by planting these areas of food sources for pollinators but it has turned out to be a means of public engagement as well. I never saw it like that but it is. The pollinator mix is a way of getting people interested in what we do as a whole farm.
Joined up farming
A few years ago I don’t think that as farmers we saw the link between being a commercial business, farming for the environmental benefits, and engaging the public in what we do. But I’ve had a bit of a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. Yes, the various environmental schemes and rewards have given us a nudge as well.
We want to care for the environment. We want to be seen to care for the environment and we want it recognised that this care comes at a cost. The walkers enjoying the pollinator strips can see that we have taken land out of production to grow it, can see what it is providing for pollinators and understand why – audited and certified that we farm this way – there is a premium on the crop paid to us by the customer.
Knowing the numbers
The photo in this morning’s paper is of a plot close to a bridle track. And I’ve thought that it’s nice for those using the track to see something different alongside: a nice view for a few walkers. I underestimated the effect.
From the interest in last year’s planting for pollinators on the farm, I was invited to speak at a couple of Harvest Festivals to talk to the congregation. I asked for a show of hands from people who had seen the pollinator strips and was surprised to find that most of the people in church had seen and appreciated the flowers and why we had planted them. That was a measurement of success.
Measuring to manage
I’m a benchmarking sort of person. I’ve just had the task of presenting the disappointing figures from this year’s harvest to my team. But it is not enough to accept that this is a ‘bad year’. I need to know if we’ve had a bad year then how has it worked out for others? Is ours worse than others? How do our costs compare? I have to be able to report the measurements of our performance.
Through benchmarking as part of the JVFG, I have the collated evidence to know that this year is bad but it that it could have been even worse. We were getting our benchmarked figures of costs of establishment in just after harvest, in fact some of them came during harvest.
I have the evidence that we are still progressing and doing all that we can to keep the costs down and increase the chance of profitability. There are lots of farmers who may have to wait months, even as long as 18 months, before their accounts are done and they see the results of a bad year like this. By which time it’s far too late to have introduced improvements.
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We get our results now. As I did when I opened the paper this morning. To find that a passerby liked the beautiful view and the sound of a part of our farming so much that they took a picture and sent it to the local paper is a lovely bit of feedback on what we’re doing. Especially welcome when the figures from the harvest are, as in this year, so disappointing.”