Andrew Hoad proves by sticking to what you know best and having an astute awareness of the market place, you can achieve a safer long-term approach for steering a business through choppy waters, rather than chasing trends to make uncertain, short-term gains.
Ignoring fashion and staying loyal to mixed farming traditions has paid off in the long-term for Andrew Hoad at Parsonage Farm, Salehurst, near Robertsbridge, East Sussex.
Andrew is the sixth-generation Hoad to farm here, being born and bred on-farm. When he assumed control of operations from his father in the early 1980s, he admits it ‘exercised his mind greatly’ as to whether he should be following the trend towards greater arable specialisation.
He says: “I did not feel it was a serious option. A lot of the soil here is unsuited to cropping, being predominantly sand and clay, and fields tend to be small and banky.
“If you are left with lots of bits which are unsuitable for the plough, you are probably going to end up with stock on them. In any case, I have always liked the principles of mixed farming.
“To be me it just feels right. We have always grown hops here, which seem to like cattle dung. They, in turn, need the straw and grain from the arable, so the whole thing fits together. I have never been able to see a way out of it.”
He is satisfied to note his sons Tom and Will have now returned from Sparsholt College and Harper Adams University College, respectively, to take a greater interest in the business and have taken to the mixed farming ethos.
Andrew says: “Although some of the enterprises have changed, I am generally farming in the same way my great-great-grandfather did.”
This has not meant letting the grass grow under the business’s feet. Andrew takes pride in growing what the market wants and is baffled it is a principle many farmers continue to ignore.
He asks: “What is the point in producing something if nobody wants it?”
But he admits staying ahead of the game has required shifts in strategy at key moments.
“A lot of the business used to be based around buying-in calves from the local dairy herds to rear and finish, selling through Ashford livestock market. But about 12 years ago, as so many of the local dairy herds started to fold, it was becoming difficult to source calves.”
Andrew and his wife Lynn had been thinking about opening a farm shop and decided to have a complete change and go over to a suckler beef herd.
Coming just after the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises, the choice of Sussex, a native breed with a good local reputation for good eating quality beef, was a shrewd one.
The herd currently consists of 50 pedigree Sussex suckler cows with followers, but Andrew admits he is not a purist and is a firm believer in the Sussex cattle development scheme, which originated in the 1980s.
By breeding back from larger continental sires, it has conferred more commercial carcase size on the breed.
“We have been using Signet’s performance recording for the last three years now and I try to use it whenever looking to buy-in new stock, but it is not easy because not everyone uses it.”
Andrew recently stood down as chairman of the Sussex Cattle Society, which has been trying to encourage more performance recording by owners of Sussex cattle herds by offering reduced membership fees for participants.
Andrew believes the old breed is gradually shaking off the ‘one for the paddock’ hobbyist image it was tagged with for so long, partly because of the animal’s docility.
“The make-up of the society is gradually changing. I would not say the breed is booming, but there are lot more members with herds of 100 or more cows now, or those, like our own, in the 50-80 cow range. People are beginning to realise the breed has a commercial future.”
The Salers herd’s diet is forage-based, with hay, straw and silage making the bulk of the diet and minimal supplements given to calves around finishing.
Slaughtering is done locally, with about three per month killed for the farm shop. The latter has meant the business has, to an extent, been cushioned against the current crisis in beef prices, although they are still dealing with the slump in prices when selling through Ashford. Similarly, growing all forage on farm has protected them against price volatility in the grain markets.
The shop, Buster’s Farm Produce, which opened about 12 years ago, is named after Andrew’s father Albert who was better known locally as Buster and is featured on its logo, carrying a staff.
With dedicated butcher Richard Fellows, as well as an apprentice butcher and a sales assistant, its customers are mainly local, but it draws others from as far afield as Sevenoaks and Eastbourne.
Sussex beef is a big selling point, but eggs, chicken, and dairy produce, including cheeses, are supplied by local producers, and two cooks are employed to make cakes and pasties.
The establishment of the shop prompted Andrew to revive the farm’s Romney flock, another local breed enjoying a revival of interest. But a Lleyn ram has been put on the ewes to increase profligacy.
Lambing percentages are steadily increasing as a result, up to about 160 per cent across the flock, which consists of 130 ewes from a previous average of 130 per cent, although this is still short of the ideal figure of 190 per cent.
Texel and Charollais rams are also put in with the Romney ewes to boost the meaty quality of the lambs. About 12 lambs per month are selected for the shop, with others going to Ashford.
Andrew’s sons are building up the arable side of the farm, with extra land being taken on through a range of shared ownership and renting agreements.
A grain store built in 1996 enables them to take on extra business in the form of grain drying, cleaning and storage for smaller farms in the area lacking in these facilities. Contact work means full use is made of machinery, which is generally bought second-hand and upgraded by the brothers in the farm workshop.
With the land unsuitable for growing malting barley and milling wheat, a market-focused approach tends to be on grade 3 wheat, maize, oilseed rape, barley and beans.
Andrew is a member of Wealden Hops Co-operative. This group, which includes more than 30 growers in the Kent and East Sussex area, is estimated to account for 40 per cent of hop production in the UK.
A three-kiln oast house dating back to the 1830s shows how long Parsonage Farm has been part of this once major local industry, which is now enjoying a renaissance thanks to the growing number of micro-brewers.
Andrew says: “Around the turn of the 21st century, we almost stopped growing them. We were down to just two hectares. But just by chance, somebody bought some which kept us in the market, and steadily our acreage has increased.”
Whereas for years the market has been persuaded English hops – which are different from seedless varieties grown abroad in retaining the male hop – were inferior, the smaller brewers are now looking for something different.
“Studies have shown the fact English varieties have the male seed has no impact on taste at all, but we are the only country in the world apart from New Zealand which grows hops in a maritime climate, as opposed to a continental one. It is this point of difference which is attracting the micro-brewers.
“We are now up to 12ha, whereas we used to be at about 24ha, but we could well soon be back up to 16ha.”
In a measure of his confidence about the future of demand, Andrew is currently in the process of investing in a new two-tier, fuel-efficient oast house.
He says: “It will help us save on labour costs, as well as the heavy fuel costs involved in the process of drying hops. I estimate we will recoup the costs, which together with extra storage facilities, amount to about £250,000 within 10 years.”