Monday, April 19, 2021

Farm buildings bring in new business

May 27, 2016 by  
Filed under Profiles

Holts Court

An Essex family is making the most of farming along the M11 corridor, reports Judith Tooth.

When the dairy farming Collins and Pryor families moved to Essex from the south west in the late 19th century to be nearer the London markets, they couldn’t have known how important their choice of location would be to future generations.

Farming along the M11 corridor might have its drawbacks, but it has also paved the way for major diversification for farming partnership MJ & SC Collins of Kingstons Farm, Matching.

Simon says his father Michael was instrumental in creating the opportunity for new business: “Because my father was very go-ahead in the ‘60s and ‘70s he put up buildings and expanded the farm’s livestock and potato enterprises,” he says.

“In the ‘80s there were 600 beef cattle, 200 sows and 28,000 laying hens, but by the 90s they had all gone. Then potato production grew to 200ha, with box cold storage, but a decade later profitability had become marginal. The many buildings provided a new opportunity for a commercial lettings business.

“During that time, too, a lot of bank managers were advising farmers to sell off the cottages on their farms, but my father didn’t. Then assured shorthold tenancies came in the late 80s, and it made sense to do them up, let them out and get them back if needed.

“He’s been an accumulator of assets and provided a foundation for the business. We couldn’t have done what we have since without his positive view of expanding the business.”

There are more than 50 commercial warehouse or factory units let to a wide range of businesses such as car repairs and cabinet making. One made chandeliers for the White House, and another steel heating and cooling pipes for the Shard.

Elsewhere on the farm Victorian farm buildings, not suitable for large scale industrial use, have proved ideal for conversion to high grade office space. Feltimores Park and Holts Court provide a total of 21 offices.

“We were unlucky enough to launch Feltimores Park just ahead of the 2008 crash, so we had to be pragmatic about rental levels,” says Simon. “But with the economy stronger by the time Holts Court was complete in 2014, we filled up in two months, and we’re full everywhere now.”

Conversion costs were kept down by using skills passed down through the family and among the farm staff: “My father taught me how to lay concrete, and over the years we’ve saved tens of thousands of pounds laying farmyards, tracks and, most recently, car parks around the offices,” says Simon. “And my wife, Jane, manages our 10 residential properties; her father was a property developer and so she’s been involved in renovating, upgrading and managing them.”

Three roof-mounted solar installations totalling 438kw generate electricity for farm and tenants’ use, and office air conditioning and heating is via heat pump technology, so no fossil fuels are used in the offices, giving an edge in attracting environmentally concerned clients.

“We’re lucky enough to be near enough London to tap into small business demand for urban fringe development,” says Simon’s son, Pete. “With rents in London so high, people are moving their businesses out of London, or having a second office out here.”

Today commercial lettings make up nearly half of the business. Simon is “genetically a farmer” and sees his afternoons out on the farm as reward for his mornings in the office managing the commercial side of the business with Pete. For 20 years he was at the front end of farming, but, since 2011, farm management has been in the hands of John Haynes who, like Simon and Pete, trained at Writtle College. John is BASIS, FACTS and Advanced Cereals-qualified, and is a member of FramFarmers’ Next Generation Council.

Arable cropping is spread between Kingstons Farm, and Lysander Park Farm, Sawbridgeworth, which was bought in 2006, taking the total area farmed, along with some tenanted and contracted land, to 1200ha. Historically the farm grew a four-year rotation of wheat, oilseed rape, wheat, and spring beans sown into overwintered stubbles as part of the farm’s ELS agreement. But lack of consistent yields and lack, or high cost, of chemistry, for spring beans, led them to drop the crop and not renew ELS.

“Then along came the basic payment scheme and the three crop rule, so we had to go back to beans,” says John. “So we’ve opted for winter sowing, which eases the workload in the spring when we’re already busy with spring applications and land drainage.”

Half the Sawbridgeworth farm had not been drained. Now, having invested in their own equipment, and designing their own schemes using Trimble software, work on 85 out of 350ha is complete.

“The fields we’ve done have been transformed, and it gives us the confidence to carry on,” says John. “Once we’ve finished that farm, we’ll go round all the other fields correcting poorer performing schemes, and maybe even looking for business.”

Crops are grown on a system approaching what he prefers to call reduced traffic farming: a pragmatic take on controlled traffic farming, with a 12m system the aim.

“Arable yields are on a plateau, and so we’re making a conscious effort to improve soil structure, organic matter and so on, to burst out of that yield plateau. This will be my fifth harvest, and I’m learning more and more about the farm.

“The technology is telling me a lot – the farm moved to RTK GPS a year before I started – but I’m also getting a better feel for the fields, and we’re starting to push yields up. We’re chopping straw, applying sewage sludge, investing in drainage and ditching … it’s a virtuous circle. And we have a young, enthusiastic labour profile, which helps massively in grasping technology.”

Simon is keen to point out that although agricultural prices are at rock bottom, the farm is run on a robust business model and stands on its own two feet, not propped up by the Fcommercial lettings business.

“The lettings are a stabilising factor, they provide a reliable monthly income that takes some of the variability out of the arable side, but we could survive without the basic payment scheme,” he says. “I think the country as a whole would be better off out of the EU. Before the EU agriculture was seen as a critical industry here and farming was encouraged with deficiency payments and grants. I see no reason why it can’t continue to be supported outside the EU, for reasons of food security and the environment. At the moment the market is skewed, and restricted, by having to grow, for example, beans. I think we can survive, and thrive, on our own.”