In the words of everyone’s favourite West Midlands Glam Rock frontman, “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAS!”
For the final #FollowAFarmer interview before the big day, I decided to do you an interview with my pal Jamie Stokes. Consider it the #FollowAFarmer Christmas Special.
I had a great laugh chatting with Jamie, and I hope my clear lack of knowledge about Arable farming doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment of this interview.
James: I’ll give you a nice easy one to start off with. What’s your farming background?
Jamie Stokes: I’m a farmers son, so farming is all I have ever known. I’ve been working on the farm for as long as I can remember. I went off to study Agriculture at Reading University specialising in genetics and plant breeding. I’ve also worked for the Royal Agricultural Society of England as their arable specialist and Innovation for Agriculture as a soil specialist, but I stopped working there when Father decided he wanted to play more golf. I have been running the farm fully on my own for the last 18 months.
J: You say farming is all you’ve ever known but did you always want to be a farmer?
JS: I can’t remember wanting to be anything else. I’ve had a couple of different jobs on the side, but I’ve always been a farmer first and a journalist/ salesman/ race car driver second.
J: You’re the first arable farmer featured on the blog. Give us a little insight in to your business. What are you growing?
JS: We’re a 1000 hectare Arable farm on a heavy clay loam. Basic rotation of Winter Wheat, Winter Barley, Winter Oil Seed Rape. In to that are interspersed spring wheat, fallows, three to five-year grass lays, cover crops depending on weed pressure, compaction problems etc. The idea is to have a simple basic structure for the farm to allow flexibility and complexity on the fields that need it. We also have a large portfolio of diversification. There is a running joke that farming takes up 90% of my time for 10% of my profit. We have several business let’s, DIY liveries, land rental, domestic property, Christmas Tree retail, several game shoots and vehicle storage.
J: So despite all the stick we give you, you’re actually very busy! What does your average year look like?
JS: I play up to the stick. Our work is very seasonal. Our year starts with drilling OSR in early September. Followed by Barley and wheat towards the middle of October. There is always something to spray from the moment the crop is in the ground so that keeps us busy until the ground gets to wet to travel. From November through December we do all the Christmas trees. January through to July is our quiet time with just the spraying to do, although there always seems to be some to do! If we are drilling spring wheat that will be in the ground by the end of March. In July harvest starts and we go round again.
J: What happens to your cereals once harvested? Does it go for animal feed?
JS: We grow for yield, don’t chase a milling premium. We worry about where it’s going once it’s in the shed. All our budgets are based on basic feed value so if anything does make a premium we consider it a bonus. It’s end destination is the decision of the grain traders.
J: What are your biggest challenges?
JS: Talking to sheep farmers!
JS: I don’t really know where to begin. I took over a very successful business so there is a lot of pressure not to let that slip. I’ve built up a reputation in the area of being ahead of the game, and a lot of people come to me with problems and ideas. Biggest problem we have had in the last few years has been the weather. But I can’t control that… Yet
J: You’ll be a very popular man if you can solve the weather! What about the positives? What’s been some of your farming highlights so far?
JS: Positives? More than living the dream as a farmer? I was a finalist for the young farmer of the year award, that was pretty cool. I also stood in the soil pits at the ADAS open days. I went from being somebody shit scared of talking in public to a gobby soil expert very quickly. Closer to home I’ve implemented a new farming system, changing mindset cultivation method etc which has been very successful. I’ve also managed to keep the farm performing well above its bench mark levels through my time as manager and now owner
J: You’ve never struck me as someone who’d be nervous of speaking in public. Is this something you’ve worked on consciously to improve or has it just developed naturally the more you’ve had to do it?
JS: Not so much the talking, but the putting your self out there to be challenged. I found it takes a lot to stand there and basically say ‘I know more than you therefore you should pay attention to me’. I still get nervous now, stood in front of a room of people I will still be physically shaking, but it’s good to be nervous.]
J: Obviously, we met through the Tesco Future Farmer Foundation. How did you find out about it the programme?
JS: Ad in the Farmers Weekly. I knew nothing about it and it was 12 hours before the deadline for applications, so I re hashed an application for something else and sent it in. Highly organised
J: How did you find the process?
JS: Far better than I could ever had imagined. Its been a year of opportunities to see things and go places I wouldn’t have been able too. Not to mention all the great speakers, Susie Emmett probably had the biggest impact on me, she was just so passionate about farming. But I would have done the whole course again without any of that just to meet the other people on the course. I went into it feeling pretty sure I was about the best agriculture had to offer, and left having met 50 people as good if not better than me in most aspects of farming. Or life in some respects. To be able to call some of them friends is the icing on the cake!
J: With you being the last interview before Xmas, it would be rude not to talk about possibly the coolest farm diversification ever: your Christmas trees. How did you end up getting in to Christmas tree retail?
JS: I’d love to say it was my idea, but all the branding for the company says ‘established 1977’ which is 10 year before I was born. It’s another business I have inherited from my father, and it helps to fill a time when arable farming can be very quiet.
J: What work is involved in the Christmas trees?
JS: I just run the retail side. All direct to the public sales. It really tests my Christmas spirit because it’s seems most of the public are morons.
J: Full of Christmas spirit there! Nice easy one to finish up. What does 2017 have in store?
JS: As little as possible! I’ve got nothing exciting planned following on from the Future Farmer Foundation this year. I’ve been thinking about doing a Nuffield (Scolarship), but I’m not ready for that quite yet. There are some interesting projects on the farm that unfortunately I can’t tell you about here. Maybe I’ll come across the border and help with your lambing. That should give you something to write about… an arable boy doing some actual work!
J: you’ll always be welcome here pal. We’re close enough to England for you not to feel too homesick!
JS: I’ll hold you to that!
I hope you enjoyed and perhaps even got a little laugh out of two farming friends having a chat. If you like a little helping of arable farming with a good dollop of fast cars and a side serving of nerdiness, you should definitely give Jamie a follow of Twitter. You’ll find him at @JR_Stokes