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Family contractors going strong in Essex

November 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Profiles


Essex farmers and contractors Ralph and Robert Metson offer a range of services – from whole farm contracts to one-off jobs.

An Essex farmer who started out with nothing almost 50 years ago built up a successful family business today farming more than 600ha in and around Roxwell, near Chelmsford.

Ralph Metson started farming in 1968 in partnership with a friend. “We had a £1500 overdraft each guaranteed by our respective fathers and that was it,” he says. “We bought a couple of tractors and a plough and a few bits and pieces and away we went.”

After a couple of years Mr Metson’s business partner left to take up a farm manager’s job. “At the time, I wondered how I would keep everything going. But looking back it was the best thing to happen because although he was a lovely chap we had different points of view.”

Mr Metson was an early advocate of direct drilling. “In those days, ICI promoted direct drilling as a way of selling Gramoxone. You could lease a drill for £1 an acre – and you could cover the land much faster than ploughing and for the same price. I knew it was the way to go.”

Soon afterwards, Mr Metson was joined in the business by two nephews – one of whom, Robert Metson, is still with him as a partner in the business and adds huge enthusiasm and skill. “We did whole farm contracting from the start, taking on a 125-acre farm, and it remains the mainstay of the business today.”

Sharp end

Farming as D R Metson & Partners, the business owns no land. “We are at the sharp end – our two farms are both rented and we have four whole farm contracts,” says Mr Metson. Enterprises are wheat, rape, peas, beans and Ahi Flower – a niche crop grown for omega-3 oil.

“It is a completely new crop in as much as it was always seen as a weed until someone in America discovered it was the highest naturally occurring Omega-3 producing plant in the world. They spent a lot of money researching it and then commercialised it.”

This is the farm’s fourth year growing Ahi Flower. It has been a rollercoaster ride, says Mr Metson. “The first year we didn’t plant it until November, but it yielded well considering. The second year we grew some more and it was our highest gross margin crop by some way.”

Last year, though, wasn’t so good. “We didn’t have much luck. One field was sown thick and grew like the proverbial cress. It was a wonderful looking crop and was ok but didn’t produce especially well. Another field failed completely and no-one can tell us why.”

Undaunted, the Metsons are having another go this year. “It is a small, fine seed and it is a grey-brown dirt colour – a bit like a vegetable seed in a way. Its colour means that when you lose anything over the back of the combine, it is very difficult to see it.”

Few inputs

Although a rather low yielding break crop, one advantage is that Ahi Flower is not particularly attractive to slugs, pigeons, or rabbits, so it requires relatively few inputs. “It doesn’t take much room to store it either – although you do need a seed licence to grow it.”

Like all good contractors, the Metsons farm each acre as their own. “We don’t differentiate between our own crops and contracted crops. It is fiercely competitive around here – it can be quite difficult to take on more land. You have to be good at it. So far, we have had no complaints.”

This autumn, the business took on another 160ha. “We have enough to run one sensible combine harvester and we do some extra contract work on top of it. We can do almost anything – we  have a good range of machinery which we have built up over the years.”

The combine is a 2015 John Deere s670 with self-levelling, GPS and yield-mapping. Tractors are mainly Massey Ferguson, ranging from 200 to 370hp and mostly on GPS. There is also a Unimog with water bowser or fifth wheel grain trailer.

Other machinery includes a 6m Vaderstad drill, a 6m Claydon strip tillage drill, a 30m Bateman sprayer with GPS boom section auto shutoff and camera, Polaris Ranger UTV with GPS
and GPS rate controlled Avacast 15m broadcaster.

There is also a Lemkin 6 furrow plough, Vaderstad CR650 Carrier cultivator with cross-board and steel packer, a Gregoir Besson 4.2m Discordon  and Simba Cultipress.

“We do have a lot of kit – and some experts might question the need for so much machinery – but having it means that we can cope with a range of conditions, so we can provide a better service and keep busy rather than having to wait for conditions to be perfect.”

Dry year

“It has been amazingly dry this year. We did have 10mm of rain in early October but before that, we have had hardly any rain since early July. The ground has been rock hard and a lot of people haven’t been able to get on with autumn cultivations.”

Stubble has hardly started to rot down since harvest. “Deleted In all the years I have been farming, for it to be this dry until half way through October is unheard of.” says Mr Metson

Wheat is mainly Group 1 and hard Group 4, including Crusoe, Skyfall, Evolution and KWS Bassett. Peas are Sakura, which looked good but yielded less well this year. Oilseed rape variety Vistive has struggled to establish due to lack of rain and most osr crops around here have had to be redrilled.

All the wheat is stored on farm and most is marketed through Fengrain. “We’ve recently built two new grainstores that include a Lishman Barn Owl system which draws air up through the grain to cool or dry it, all controlled from the office computer. It is simple and cost effective.”

Good team

A key member of the team is James Huxter who is the technology guru, with valuable contributions from Brian Hogg, secretary Helen McTurk and Robert’s son Mathew. “People are very important to us – you need a good team and we are fortunate to have one.”

Plans for the future include preparing the business for the next generation. Ralph Metson’s daughter Joanna has shown an interest in taking on part of the business when her young family has grown a bit.

Until this year, the farm was in entry-level stewardship. “We looked at going into the replacement Countryside Stewardship scheme – but it is just too onerous, although we have continued to put four plots on the farm into wild bird mixes and cover without signing up to it.”

“We are always busy – I think that is what helps us. Whether it is one-off contracting jobs or a longer term contract, we enjoy what we do and we have the equipment to do as much or as little as people want us to.”