Friday, 20 January 2012

Caught in the head lights, wide eyed and ready to receive ....

October 29th.  Michael Blanche’s last stand.  12 minutes in front of a lot of people.  The crescendo of the Nuffield Experience. His only weapon ... the use of the “eeeemmmm” word.
No one was harmed during the filming of this video but a proportion of the audience did have to receive medical assistance with the aid of a defibrillator.  Doctors blamed the intensity of boredom the individuals had to endure, slowing pulses to a point the heart loses the will to live. Click on the link, go on, I dare you!  Nuffield Conference Farewell

Friday, 13 January 2012

What a Brain Vomiting all over a Microsoft Word Document Looks Like ....

To say I got “quite into” my Nuffield experience is suppressing the true concerning fact that I got far too obsessed with things.  But a side effect of this was I did try really, really hard.
This is perhaps reflected best in my Nuffield Report.  It was meant to be 20 pages long, I wrote 65.  It was interminable but was a bit like an exorcism for me.  My brain was so full of thoughts it needed to get them out.
I feel better now.  
Someone told me I’d regret incorporating Miley Cyrus lyrics into it. Maybe one day, but pathetically I revel in being the first Nuffield Scholar to do this and to have a discography in their report.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Obe Wan Kenobe of Sub-divisional Grazing ....

I wrote a post way back in July 2010 called The Yoda of the Ryegrass Plant.  It was about a man in the Waikato who opened a whole new room in agriculture for me .... grass (I now always feel obliged to follow this word with the sound “phooaaarrr” then an exclamation mark ... !).
Its struck me since in my delusional brain that life is a lot like Star Wars (though perhaps not the prequels).  Feeling “The Force” is symbolic of wisdom, knowledge, the grasping of internal strength.  The Dark Side could always do with more recruits - I should know, I’ve been headhunted a couple of times. Wise men, teachers, like Yoda and Obe Wan come and go from your day to day life. Sometimes you don’t realise unless they are green with pointy ears or have a cool cloak and a light sabre but they do come to all of us.
And so it was that the most disorganised man of Nuffield 2010 “organised” a trip to France in June to see a man who came highly recommended by a Kiwi grass nut.  The Fabulous Four were me and the three grazing gurus of my Nuffield group - Rhys Williams, Kevin Beaty and Malcolm Edward Fewster (known by either forename and indeed other names).
It was a 4 day road trip from Brittany to the Mediterranean via the Pyrenees in the company of John Bailey - an Irishman by birth, naturalised Frenchman, New Zealander by training and attitude.  We saw subdivisional grazing systems of all types - paddock, cell, techno, rational. Dairy, beef, sheep.  I learnt so much from those on that trip.  I’ve kept in contact with John/Obe Wan and he is coming over in 10 days to give me advice on setting up the ultimate grazing system (any more details and I’ll spoil another story).
The real John Bailey

I read a book recently - Knowledge Rich Ranching by Allan Nation.  Nation says that to progress from little to a lot you need what he calls an “Unreasonable Advantage” - an idea,     an innovation, a practice, something that separates you from normal practice. Something that adds significantly to your profit.  The Unreasonable Advantage should be the Holy Grail for all first generation farmers.  I think I’ve found my Holy Grail.  Subdivisional grazing, managed right, means twice the production and half the cost per hectare for a beef or sheep operation. I’m convinced of it. I just have to implement it.
Obviously - the Holy Grail, France and me being a bit clueless? That can only mean ...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

2012 To Do List: Item No 273 - finish this blog ....

I left you last still on my UK road trip.  The legend that is David Sullivan.  Though that post was written in September, the visit was in June.  Having seemed to have bionic blogging powers (strictly measured by quantitative outcomes not qualitative ones obviously), I hit the blog buffers in June and never blogging recovered.  For some reason the drive to write deserted me. Now 3 months after my last post and 6 months after the last recorded incident, I come back to tie the loose ends and move on.
A story has to have a beginning, middle and end. That’s bothered me - if no one else - so I’m going to do three more posts after this, then say a proper goodbye. OK it might be four posts but it will definitely be no more than twenty.
I entered a Farmers Weekly column “contest” in September.  Although I made it to the short list of six, I didn’t make it all the way.  Weirdly, though I was chuffed at this result, it made me lose confidence in writing so apologies for the posts that follow.  I’m just going to grit my teeth, hold my breath and get it over with - feel free to bale out at any time.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Good Shepherd ...

It’s been a while but I better finish what I started.  
Before I left for Norfolk I had actually given Tim a rest from my dull chat in order to go and see David Sullivan.  David has been - for a few years now - this mythological figure in my brain.  John Vipond, SAC’s sheep specialist, credited him for a lot for ideas and even in my mock Nuffield interview it was suggested that I should go and see the guy.
David lives in Hampshire surrounded by pretty thatched cottages.  He owns his house but has never owned any other piece of land.  His view is that no one really “owns” land they just own a piece of paper that says they own it. He has never wanted to own land ... just farm it.
He 70 years old and has a tangible gentleness to him.  It is the first visit in 15 months of my Nuffield Scholarship where we say grace before we eat. He and his wife were childhood sweet hearts and there was never going to be anyone else for either of them.
David and Eileen Sullivan
With the exception of “Hello”, the first words David said to me were “There are no problems, only solutions”.  This appears to be the definition of how he has lived his farming life. 
Brought up in the town, his father arranged for a local farmer to give him horrible jobs as a child with the instructions “knock it out of him”.  This was in reference to David’s obsession with farming.  It didn’t work.
He was a shepherd and manger until he was 38 and had a further 6 years managing the farm of a philanthropic gentleman.  In these six years, working in unison, they moved toward a share farming system.  The agreement was he could build up 25% of the flock in his ownership. The owner would have allowed him more but this level was what David deemed fair. Integrity is everything for David Sullivan.
The next step was to expand.  He asked his local landlord if he could rent some land.  The landlord said no.  Importantly David asked him “why not?”.  The issue was security of tenure.  David went away to find a solution to his limiting factor.  If the landlord owned half the stock then security of tenure was not an issue.  Over the next few years, David developed the share farming concept on his own, without realizing there were similar agreements elsewhere in the world. He created a local sub culture, with his original landlord’s neighbours joining in. He had land and stock coming out his ears.  He had approaches from the City, as he was achieving 25% return on capital for his investors.  
Without doubt he created his own opportunities.  In doing so he placed significant importance on his natural way with people.  He is a character, he does things differently and has a great sense of humour.  He saw it as vital, whilst marketing yourself to gain opportunity, to “have a bit of style”, to do things differently with humour and to tell a story.
David was the first to develop share farming in the UK, the first to May lamb and the first to drift lamb.  He was an innovator as well as a character.  He had really testing times but saved himself by his history of integrity and his determination to find solutions. 

Monday, 20 June 2011

Messing About on Salisbury Plain ...

Its tricky writing about Tim White.  He is a follower of this blog, a great supporter and leaves rude comments whenever he feels aggrieved enough.  He is the closest thing to me I know on the farming ladder ... obsessed by sheep, has a love-hate relationship with Wiltshire Horns, seasonal lets only, started with little.  Just he’s a bit more professional and focused.  One of the driving forces behind Sheep Improved Genetics Ltd, he’s breeding wool shedding sheep in cooperation with other large sheep producers, recording everything, developing genetics, selling well.
I arrive just in time for music night in Maiden Bradley’s only pub.  People come from miles around to sing songs I’ve never heard.  Tim is on banjo and I’m on Guiness Extra Cold. Everyone is really good.  I once played the guitar and made people sing along on the understanding they had to pause for a while as I performed the tricky feet of changing chords. I don’t think I’d have fitted in playing the first verse of Leaving on a Jet Plane over a 15 minute period.
Over the next couple of days I see Tim’s sheep.  A lot of them are on Salisbury Plain.  Its poor stuff with no fences and a few tanks.  “Fields” all have to be electric fenced.  It strikes me the few first generation sheep farmers in this country might have good ideas and breed decent sheep but the system is such that we have to take the stuff no one else wants.  Tim has some good grass too but still has to be off it at short notice if the landlord needs use of it.  Enthusiasm and passion are his greatest tools.
Wool shedding hoggs with their lambs - I was jealous
There is an open day on wool shedding sheep that Tim is hosting.  EBLEX are involved and I am reminded that I wish they did Scotland too.  I talk to Liz Genever about grass.  She is behind the Grass Watch initiative and is developing really good information for sheep and beef producers, centering on rotational grazing.  I get so excited about it I start rubbing my thighs like Vic Reeves ... Liz retreats quite quickly at this point, but never turns her back.  I do manage to tell her about Cambodia ... everyone has to know - its compulsory.

"My lambs are this big at 8 weeks" Tim White converts more unbelievers

I leave Tim and his lovely family.  I wonder what the answer is.  A progressive shepherd with so much passion for his trade.  Where is the next rung for him?  I have seen a lot, observed a lot, written a lot ... but what advice can I offer Tim?  It comes as a shock to me that - after this long journey of discovery that with the report deadline just over a month away - I don’t have anything juicy to give him ... I don’t have the answer.  People like Tim deserve a break, an opportunity.  I squeeze into the camp hire car more sheepish than wolfish.  I still haven’t found what I’m looking for as I let go of the handbrake and head for Norfolk.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy ....

June 6th, 7.30pm.  Foothills of Snowdon. Rona has told Arwyn Owen we are coming to stay.  Arwyn has little choice but to comply.  He shows off his batchelor cooking skills using not one but two microwaves simultaneously to produce a high quality sausage and baked potato delight.
Arwyn, too, is a Nuffield Scholar and a more gentle gentleman you will never meet.  He comes across as profoundly content.  It is a good lesson in the reality of my “let’s farm without subsidy” theory.  His hill farm has 2000 ewes that produce a gross margin per ewe in single digits.  Profit relies fully on environmental schemes and direct subsidy.  Going forward there is the tantalising promise of renewable energy income.  Yet if Prime Minister Blanche withdrew payments, Arwyn’s farm wouldn’t exist and my conscience would find that hard to deal with.  In the hills of North Wales subsidy is truly support.
Rona has also told Marnie Dobson from Cheshire - yet another Nuffield Scholar - that we were coming for lunch on Tuesday.  I take full advantage and devour a sandwich of goat sausage ... yum.  We see some goats ... they are like a charismatic version of sheep.  Niche products scare me as they require a whole new skill set ... like talking to people.
I provide two big hugs, make my apologies and leave Rona and Marnie to talk direct marketing.  I am a lone wolf again, pounding the tarmac in my camp car clothing.  I head for Wiltshire, home of the Horn and a beatnik shepherd who did a deal with the devil and now has amazing banjo playing powers. Its a long way but as the brightness of the sun comes and goes I sing along to the best road trip song ever (best served loud) ...

"We may lose or we may win/ but we will never be here again /so open up I'm climbing in"  ... genius