UK Study Tour – 9 & 10 June 2014

ASA Members U.K. Study Tour

ASA Members Experience the Best of UK Farming and Food

A group of 30 ASA members have just returned from an intensive and very informative tour of south west England. The packed two-day itinerary took in farm services and retail, farms and food producing enterprises in Devon and Somerset. There was also some interesting debate and discussion over dinner involving leading British entrepreneurs and opinion formers.

The much sought-after tour took place on Monday 9th and Tuesday 10th June and it gave the ASA members, drawn from a wide range of occupations within the agri-food sector, a real appreciation of farming and food in one of the best farmland areas in Britain as well as deep insights into the similarities and contrasts between Irish farmers and their British counterparts.

The tour started with a visit to Mole Valley Farmers which was started by a small group of farmers in 1960 and has now grown to an over £400m/annum retail and farm services business. It has 8,000 farmer members and 22,000 country members. Its mission is to leverage more competitive prices for farmers.
Net margin is just over 1% of total sales. Mole Valley has still managed to rapidly expand the business through organic growth and acquisitions as well as establishing an expanding farm veterinary service, with its own in-house veterinary practitioners. The model stimulated strong discussion among the ASA group, especially those involved in selling farm inputs.
On then to the 200-cow spring calving dairy herd run by Richard Tucker and his parents Brenda and Nigel at Tiverton, Devon. The Tuckers are tenant farmers, owning neither the land nor the family home. Richard is a member of a discussion group but has little access to an ‘independent’ advisory service, unlike his Irish counterparts where there is a well-structured advisory system.

There was much discussion on the Tucker’s costs of production – high by Irish standards – and the consequent ability of the business to withstand milk price shocks.
The group then visited Wyke Farms in Somerset, the family-run operation that has been making cheese since 1861. It is now the largest family farm cheese producer in the UK with milk being supplied from the family’s herd of over 1,000 cows as well as over 100 farmer suppliers, with an average annual output of 1.1m litres/farm
Wyke Farms cheese is sold by a number of the major retailers and is also exported to France and other European markets. The company is an active user of social media as a means of enhancing the image and market reach of its product. It also runs a farm shop.

Wyke farms has also invested £5m in a state-of the art anaerobic digester, which is producing heat and power for the business and is also selling surplus power into the national grid.
We also had the opportunity to visit Ed Green, who runs a large tillage, beef and sheep farm in Somerset. Ed does not own one beef animal but still feeds 1,100 beef cattle on contract for a retailer/processor combination. All animals are male progeny from dairy herds and arrive on Ed’s farm from specialist calf rearers when they are a minimum of 200kg liveweight. A Nuffield scholar, Ed was a dairy farmer. He painted a rather dismal picture of suckler beef production, believing it to be innately unprofitable.
Our tour ended with a visit to Lye Cross Farm, run by the Alvis family near Bristol Airport. Established over 60 years ago, Lye Cross now produces 4,500 tonnes of cheese for the home and export markets. The milk is supplied from their own 1,200 cow dairy herd and by a network of local milk producers.
One of the striking features was the impact that bovine TB is having on the incomes and livelihoods of farmers in the UK. TB has cost Lye Cross £0.5m during the past five years.

Joseph Keating, a Galway born agricultural science graduate, who works with EBLEX, told us that a TB outbreak is costing £30,000/farm. Joseph, who is a graduate of UCD, worked with the National Farmers Union before joining EBLEX – the organisation for beef and lamb levy payers in the UK. Its mission is to add value to the beef and sheep meat industry through enhancing profitability and sustainability.
This was the first ever ASA overseas tour. The overall consensus among participants was that it was informative and, above all, enjoyable. ASA Council member Neill Keane, ably supported by President Sean Farrell, deserves our thanks for putting together an interesting and stimulating itinerary as does our Manager Rhoda Bermingham for her smooth management of the logistics.

We are deeply grateful to our many hosts in Devon and Somerset for their welcome and for sharing their business information in such an open and generous way.

Photos from this event