Kicking off a new feature series looking at progressive young farmers across the industry, arable farmer James Price talks to Danusia Osiowy about the importance of precision within his decisions.
James Price has been – and continues to be – one to watch in farming. Unassuming and relaxed, his razor sharp arable knowledge is soon very apparent within minutes of talking – as are his two key interests.
Outside of farming, these would be fast cars and skiing, but within the business it is all about achieving optimum crop nutrition and precise input.
“I hate not knowing my figures,” says James, who runs 648 hectares (1,600 acres) in partnership with his father Malcolm across three different units in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
“There is no point thinking it could be this or that. I want to know exactly what is going where whenever I can. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
The family’s arable enterprise has gone through something of a transition throughout the years, growing from a 25ha (60-acre) milking unit in 1972 to a 105ha (260-acre) arable unit before Malcolm sold up in a bid to retire in 1992.
Then the family were unexpectedly dealt a hand of fate when their neighbours decided to sell up and offered them first refusal on 202ha (500 acres).
“My father never actually ended up retiring,” laughs James, who returned to the farm in 2005 after graduating from the Royal Agricultural College with a degree in agriculture and farm management.
“The acreage came up on our doorstep and it was just too good of an opportunity not to go for it.”
This was how the farm stayed until 2003, when the Bleinheim Estate – located near the family farm – put out 182ha (450 acres) to tender, which James and Malcolm took on as rented land, doubling the size of the business.
It was during this time James spent time off-farm, learning from others and developing his understanding of precision work.
“I spent most of my time off-farm working for a company in York called Precision Decisions. While there, I worked mainly alongside Yara with its N-Sensor, and my role encompassed sales, service, training and technical support across Southern England.
“Partly by nature of the product I was working with, I got to work with some of the most forward-thinking and productive farmers in the UK, many of who were happy to chat through their businesses in some detail. I have also worked on another farm down in Sussex in my gap year.”
But two years later, after price fluctuations, market volatility and a crossroads in his career, James, now 36, admits he had a crisis of confidence and almost bowed out of farming.
He says: “It felt as if I had reached some kind of crisis point in my life. It was around the time the wheat price was down £60/tonne and I was just getting frustrated in the job.”
It was through a farm adviser suggestion James became aware of the Worshipful Company of Farmers advanced business management course, which he went to complete.
“It really gave me an insight into managing a business. I had become disillusioned and I met other like-minded people who I could talk to.”
Key to James’ development has been his father, who has actively welcomed James’ involvement in managing the farm business which trades under D.V.H. Price and Son.
James says: “After I finished the course, I was very lucky as my dad told me to just get on with things. His father had never let him do anything and he did not want to do the same to me. It gave me a real opportunity and my dad the chance to take it easier.”
James has continued to grow the business, contract farming a further 200ha (500 acres) after they were approached by the neighbours who they bought the initial 200ha (500 acres) from.
Farming through a mixture of owned, rented and contracted land offers James a more balanced business structure after previously losing out on other tender opportunities.
“In the past, we were contracting 400 acres when it came up for tender. The land agent told us we were 50 per cent out on the tender, but we knew we were spot-on for what it should have been at the time. This is the problem with tenancies nowadays – most go to the people who will pay the most money.
“We recently renewed our tenancy with the Bleinheim Estate for 10 years, which is great and gives us security, but we were also told 150 acres of it was being retained while they awaited planning permission to build 1,500 houses.
“I could lose a tenth of my land and gain 2,000 neighbours. If we just rented, we would always be at the whim of a landlord, so by splitting our land up I am able to see continuity going forward.”
Field beans are part of the rotation and are market through Agrii.
Around 220 hectares (544 acres) of oilseed rape is grown on farm
This vision is complemented by James’ desire to improve the farm’s business and efficiency through investment of new machinery, a weighbridge, a grain store and precision farming technology.
James now runs the farm on a conventional five-year arable rotation, adopting organic principles and focusing on achieving optimum nutrition.
He does this by applying 8,000 tonnes of organic manure every year, testing soils regularly and using the N-Sensor along with tissue tests in season.
“We use the N-Sensor to vary nitrogen. We do not alter rates because of yield data, but what we do is use maps as a way of assessing if the N-Sensor is performing. For example, we will leave a strip in a field without any manure on it and see what effect it has on yield.”
Predominant crops grown include wheat for Warburtons on a contract through Openfield, along with oilseed rape, spring barley and winter beans through Agrii.
Attention to cultivation has resulted in a more savvy approach, with James adopting various methods to help his quest for optimal yield.
He says: “We still plough for spring barley, min-till all wheat and direct drill beans and rape. I feel having all those in rotation gives us the best possible yield. We have a nice balance in what we do, as we do not force anything or concentrate on any one drilling method.
“We are on moisture-intolerant soil. The next six weeks makes or breaks our harvest, and if we do not get rain, we will not see the yield we want. We have eight inches of topsoil and that is it. No straw goes off-farm unless it is swapped for muck as we are trying to keep soil alive with organic matter.”
James spent time away from the farm and developed an interest in precision farming.
Keen on developing technologies, precision farming methods are indicative of James’ innovative and defined approach to the farm business.
In 2005, he began precision soil mapping before moving on to yield mapping, from which they have now extracted 10 years of data.
James has steadily increased his wheat yield from 5.2 tonnes/ha (2.2t/acre) in 2005/06, to 10t/ha (4.04t/acre) in 2013/14, and his oilseed rape yield from 2.69t/ha (1.09t/acre) to 4.08t/ha (1.65t/acre).
This has been achieved through increasing organic matter by improving cultivation strategy, increasing organic matter using manure and precision farming.
“We have accurate records of everything we do and it makes any kind of analysis easy and accurate. By introducing autosteer tractors, we have seen huge efficiencies in output as we save time, diesel and wearing metal.”
Balancing costs without compromising yield remains a continual challenge for James, who is helped by two full-time members of staff, Sam Cherry and Alan Gaskins, and two seasonal workers during harvest.
“We try to look at fixed costs where possible, as the cliche is always your fixed costs are variable and your variable costs fixed. We have invested in machinery, but often it is bought second-hand and anything which does not have an engine is serviced in-house.
“Tractors are serviced by us where possible, although with their increasing complexity we have to resort to a dealer sometimes. By building the basics of our farm, such as the nutrition and health of our soils, I have increased yield without increasing fixed costs too much.”
With a defined business focus, James’ immediate challenge is to continue battling black-grass and keep the business profitable with commodity prices where they are.
Future plans at the moment are to keep battling black-grass and keep the business profitable with commodity prices where they are.
Yes we would like to expand, but I will not take on land I cannot manage well and make money from.
“I will not travel a long way, as my farming is all about attention to detail and I simply cannot do it from afar.
With expansion, I would like to expand my team and be able to spend more time pro-actively managing the business.”
Working with James is full time member Sam Cherry
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