Redefining the meaning of family farm

AN EXAMPLE of how “family farm, ” a phrase that used to conjure up the modest and homely, has been re-defined within a generation was given by William Grimsdale this week.

In the past 30 years, even the family farm has seen livestock numbers increase dramatically, machinery sizes treble and quadruple as the labour force declines, family members find outside jobs, and technology and cost-cutting become paramount.

Grimsdale, who sold a small family dairy farm in Hampshire to take Mountfair, Berwickshire, at the age of 28 in 1988, gave Kelso Discussion Society members this week a no-frills account of how he, two sons and a trainee, with seasonal harvest staff, now contract-farm 4,000 acres in the Borders.

That is not the biggest arable contract-farming operation in the area. But his description of his system was a vivid reminder that 400 acres used to be a sizeable family farm, usually with a full-time work force as well as family members.

From his Mountfair base he started “stubble to stubble” share-farming with a 150hp tractor and matching machinery. By last year he had profit-share agreements on 5,000 acres – losing 1,000 acres of that to a farm sale is his latest challenge – with keep it simple, cost-cutting and attention to detail as his guidelines.

His main tractor is now 450hp, on tracks. Cultivation equipment is six metres wide, seed drill eight metres, sprayer and fertiliser spreader cover 36 metres at a pass. More than 400 acres has been drilled in a day, more than 800 acres spread with fertiliser.

Descriptions of satellite-guided “no-steer” combining of 200 acres and more per day, soil mapping to allow variable spray and fertiliser applications, flotation tyres on 16-tonne trailers, all painted a picture of modern farming that romantics prefer not to think about.

But he pointed out that, within a high-powered system that must offer clients on whose land crops are grown “the best service to maximise returns and their share of the profit”, he has reduced machinery use, which has improved soils and worm counts.

“We started with a plough-based system, two hours per hectare to establish crops, with, I believe, damage to soil and worm counts. In 1999 we started non-invasive cultivation with discs instead of ploughing and reduced establishment to one hour per hectare. We now have that down to half an hour.”

That cuts costs and, more importantly for the crucial autumn sowing he said, gives vital extra time. And: “Soils have definitely improved. On fields not ploughed now for 14 years worm counts are up dramatically, soils are alive – and we’re nowhere near their potential.”

He also insisted that, in spite of its scale: “This is a family-focused business. There is now no Sunday working. We introduced that 18 months ago. It means that wives and partners can plan ahead even in the busiest times, and that is fantastic. We decided that if we can not do what needs to be done in six days a week, we should give up.”

And the future, he said, will mean continued challenges.