Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Foot on the farm, ear to the phone

February 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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Farmer and broker Luke Paterson doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet, as Judith Tooth reports.

Buying and selling gives independent grain, seed and fertiliser broker Luke Paterson a real buzz. Many an hour is spent on the phone chasing the best deals and matching buyers with sellers, but going out to see farmers is the best part of the job, he says.

“I really enjoy meeting them, learning how they are thinking, what the feeling is on the ground… and the more I know them, the more detail I have of their needs. It’s a personalised one-to-one service. The only downside is that brokerage is not tangible – but that’s where the farming dovetails in beautifully.”

Luke – who graduated from Harper Adams in 2005 and worked in several jobs before discovering his talent for brokerage and setting up PatersonAg – has also been getting his boots dirty.

His great grandfather started farming in Norfolk in 1927. Fast forward three generations and Luke’s father, Alistair, who had generally employed a farm manager so that he could pursue other business interests – including Gumleaf wellingtons – handed the 400ha farm at Dilham, near North Walsham, to his two sons in 2013.

Luke wanted to be more hands-on: he hired a tractor, bought a drill and took the farm in hand. Then last year he and his brother, Joe – who runs Anglian Plant – decided to split the farming business. While Joe took some property, Luke took on the land.

Farming footsteps

“Now I’m farming, too, I’m walking in the footsteps of farmers, and that helps me,” says Luke. “And, as a farmer, I can look out for good deals with PatersonAg and cash in on them – and you can’t beat saying, this is a good deal, I’ve done it myself.”

The advantage of PatersonAg, says Luke, is that farmers have one point of contact, one relationship, with access to the majority of the marketplace, rather than having to build lots of different relationships.

His customers tend to be those with their own grain storage, wanting to make their own decisions; his competition buying groups and merchants with farm buyers and sellers. But his brokerage is a different animal, with a different emphasis, he says: it’s all done on a competitive basis, with farmers under no obligation to commit their grain, or to buy all their fertiliser from him. Each deal is a commercial deal, and only as good as the last one.

Grain samples are taken at all customers’ farms just after harvest, either by Luke himself or by Jo Cauvain of Tendring Lab Services, where all the grain analysis is done. “By having the analysis I can really start to dig out different grades of wheat for different markets and match a particular grain to a particular buyer, adding value for the farmer.Merchants prefer to buy direct from a farm than through the trade.

“It’s quite simple: it’s putting round pegs in round holes. You’ve just got to find the two, that’s the trick. And that comes with time: I think in my first couple of years of trading – I started in 2008 – there was probably a level of detail that passed me by. But that’s how you find the premiums.”

Luke is continually researching the market for fertiliser and seed: “You approach those you think will give good service and quality. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith – and that’s where Bindwell can be useful as a guinea pig.”

On the farm Luke works closely with his neighbour. They run a machinery ring, sharing costs on a pro rata basis according to the area each farms, and their staff work together on arable operations, coming back to their individual farms over the winter. With less than 300ha of arable land, he would be struggling to keep machinery costs in place.

“I put in the pig unit in 2014 so that, along with the existing suckler herd of 35 Red Polls, and overwintering of 1000 sheep on stubble turnips, I could take on a second member of staff rather than having just one working on his own.

“Alan Tordoff is the stockman, David Fisher looks after the arable, and Karen Blakemore is full-time secretary looking after all the paperwork for the farm and PatersonAg. They’re all very good at working autonomously and responsibly while I’m busy with the brokerage or the joint machinery side or with the NFU – I sit on the Combinable Crops Board – and, putting the land aside, they are the biggest asset to the business. It’s great to have them.”

Muck and straw

The pigs, finished in strawed yards on contract to a farm butcher in Essex, provide valuable muck for the medium sandy soils. Luke grows sugar beet, spring barley, winter wheat and potatoes, and rents land out for raspberries. Sometimes the muck is ploughed down, but he’s not convinced constantly turning the soil upside down is the best way to manage it.

He also likes the idea that the soil is always growing something. To this end, pig muck is spread after harvest and a cover crop of stubble turnips grown for sheep to graze over winter, treading in the muck as they go. In the same way, sugar beet is lifted late and followed by spring barley.

“I’m gearing up to life without the basic payment scheme,” he says. “I’d like to expand the pig enterprise, I have 40 grass liveries along with the cattle on the permanent pasture, and I’m setting up a campsite in the spring. Canal Camping will be next to Tyler’s Cut, which was built to transport bricks from the village brickmaker to the nearby North Walsham and Dilham Canal. And then I’ll be exploring further opportunities that might attract Leader funding.

“On the brokerage side, I see a lot of volatility in the coming years and will be looking to get five-year agreements with grain buyers. I want to get away from the lows. When I meet people in the wider agricultural industry I ask them how they’re going to cope post-2020 if the Basic Payment Scheme goes, as it will be a tough argument to say farming needs £3 billion more than the NHS.

“Let’s say the BPS is not there: is everyone going to charge the same? The focus is on farmers, but the same question needs to be asked in the wider industry.”

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