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Crop Advice & Expertise

Life as a Farmer: Q&A with Tom Martin - Crop Focus TV: Episode 8

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Mike: So today Alice, we are going to see Tom Martin. 

Alice: Yes, also known as farmer Tom. Really looking forward to catching up with him and his latest thoughts on public money for public goods and also his FaceTime a Farmer initiative.

Mike: And I’ve heard he’s got a no-till drill as well so I think that’ll be really interesting to see.

Alice: Yeah definitely.

Mike: Should we go and see him?

Alice: Yeah, why not!

Farmer Focus

Alice: So thank you very much for welcoming us here today Tom. It’s wonderful to be here.

Tom: It’s great to have you, you’re welcome.

Alice: Oh great, well I just thought we’d start off by actually just asking about your farm and what you’ve currently got set up here.

Tom: Fantastic, well I farm here in northwest Cambridgeshire, we’re a medium sized family farm and we farm predominantly arable so wheat which is largely feed wheat and some milling, barley, linseed and rapeseed, and then we also have a little bit of grass where we fatten lambs through the winter.

Alice: Fabulous. So obviously you’re quite an active farmer, you’re quite communicative, you have your little Twitter session, of course Facetime a Farmer, which we’ll chat about later. Just really interested to hear more about that, what is your story and how come you’re so interested in these two things combined?

Tom: Well I grew up on a farm so I have the kind of farmer background. I love the countryside around me, I really enjoy being out here but I left university and became a consultant and analyst for a little while, working in business strategy. Then I worked in news and magazines, distribution, and then I latterly worked for 10 years for Universal pictures in film distribution.

Alice:  Wow, okay.

Tom: So not your typical journey into agriculture at all, but I think there’s some things you learn from all kinds of different careers. Certainly some of the soft skills you can bring from business to business and that’s what I was trying to do in farming. I spent a lot of times in marketing meetings talking about branding and how we communicate to the customer and that’s something that I really want to do in farming as well. Particularly helping people to see what happens on the other side of the farm gate.

Alice: Well that sounds awesome Tom, thanks for sharing your story. Can we go take a look around now?

Tom: Yeah let’s go for it.

Alice: Awesome, let’s go!

Machinery Focus

Mike: So Tom, you’ve just changed your drill. So tell us a little bit about why this drill and what it does for you.

Tom: For 15 years we’ve operated a min-till system and I’ve just been particularly interested in moving towards no-till. I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a zealot for any particular way of working but this just gives us so much more capability of working in different ways. It’s a direct drill so it can go straight into stubbles, it can go, we can work with min-till and ploughed land as well, but also we’ve got three tanks which means for example on our rapeseed, we’re able to drill rapeseed, with DAP underneath it, and put in the berseem clover all at the same time. So when you look at the tillage as well, the operations it’s replacing, it’s really doing five operations in one pass.

Technical focus

Mike: So Tom we’ve just come from seeing your drill, there’s two fields here that you’ve used to drill with it. What have you done differently between the two?

Tom: That’s right, so these are two spring barley fields. This one over here, we call it ‘horse close’. This was drilled into a sprayed off longer term pasture, about 6 weeks ago so it went into a grass, a lot of rich organic matter, and a reasonable seed bed. The field over here, over my left shoulder, is elm tree, sadly no more elm trees there after Dutch elm disease but that’s been a long term arable and we put in a cover crop which was a spring pea to build the nitrogen, a spring linseed for lots of lovely shallow routing and a winter oat for some deeper rooting.

Mike: And have you used cover crops before spring barley before?

Tom: We have for one year, but the difference is, this year we’ve used them a bit more extensively across the farm and we’ve grazed them off as well so that is something we’re really starting to engage with. We have a local shepherdess who brings her sheep so we’ll see how that goes.

Mike: And do you think it’s bringing benefits using it, a cover crop to your system?

Tom: It’s certainly a great way to get lots of green vegetation above ground, into a useable format, relatively quickly and the sheep did seem to do a good job without trampling the ground down too much. So the answer is we’ll wait till harvest to wait and see but at the moment it looks okay.

Technical focus (continued)

Mike: So Tom, we’re standing here in a field of Zyatt I think, isn’t it?

Tom: Yep

Mike: Tell us a little bit about how you established this field.

Tom: So this field last year was our worst field in terms of black-grass. It had been 15 years of min-till and for the last few years we’ve been ploughing our very, very worst field each year so we turned this over, knocked it down and drilled it probably about the middle of October, about the 20th of October with the idea of really doing everything we can to defeat the black-grass. Of course it’s the month of May now, you start off with fields looking wonderful and then you pick out, you suddenly realise that the black-grass is coming through but there seems to be, looking at it, less than a seed head per square metre which is a big difference versus last year.

Mike: And so in terms of black-grass, are you ploughing, delayed drilling?

Tom: Yep.

Mike: Anything else? What other tactics are you using to try and keep on top of it?

Tom: We brought a lot more spring cropping back into the systems, so we’re probably 20-25% spring barley. We already grow a little bit of linseed and we use that where we need to as well. We’ve been using cover cropping to try and stimulate the growth during the winter and spring time, we graze that off and direct drill that, and we’ve been really fastidious about blowing down balers, combine harvesters, and machinery like that just to make sure we’re not transferring any seed.

Mike: Do you think you’re getting on top of black-grass by doing all of those things or is it still a running battle?

Tom: I would never be so bold to say that we’re winning but we’re certainly holding our own and we haven’t had the problems in the last three or four years that we had in the harvest of years gone by.

Mike: And on some of your easier fields, are you establishing the same where you plough everything before or?

Tom: No, we’re moving towards a no-till system. We’re really trying not to disturb the surface of the ground. In fact, after harvest, we’re now instead of when we used to min-till, we used to disc the ground relatively quickly, we now leave it to a minimum of a week to 10 days after the first rainfall event after harvest just to try and get those seeds to chit and grow or be propagated so that we just take them out of the rotation, out of the production cycle.

Mike: And so have you got a field that you can show us which is direct drilled?

Tom: Yeah I’ve got a field just next store which is direct drilled. It had the same operation last year so it’s a really good example to look at.

Tom: So this field is exactly at the same point in the rotation, very similar preceding crops but established using a direct drill, we let the wheat volunteers from our first wheat last year grow up and we sprayed it with glyphosate in early October before we drilled in the middle of October at the same time.

Mike: So is this a cheaper way of establishing your wheat crop?

Tom: Absolutely so it’s cheaper financially, so it’s about £175/ha to establish versus £265+ in the preceding field, but also I think it’s cheaper, it has less impact in terms of the number of passes. This needed one pass with a sprayer, one pass with a direct drill, and then one pass with the rolls. We did about five or six different jobs just in those three passes so a lot kinder to the soil and a lot better in my perspective, in terms of trying to establish a decent crop.

Mike: But if you look at the crop, maybe it isn’t quite as even as the plough?

Tom: Definitely, it’s definitely not quite such a good looking crop. It’s a little bit more patchy, there are some gaps where there’s been some bridging with the seed in the ground, but again, it’s all about when it comes to harvest. If we can make more profit, even if we’re making a slightly lower yield, then we’re doing better as a business, so that’s what we’re looking for.

Mike: So what sort of yield would you expect from this sort of field compared to the plough one?

Tom: Well on our farm, we would call 9 to 9-and-a-bit tonnes to the hectare a good yield so on the plough I would probably expect it to be around that region. This looks like it might be half a tonne poorer. There’s three months between now and harvest for all kinds of things to rob us of yield so it’s a little bit wait and see.

Environment Focus

Alice: So Tom, let’s talk about public money for public goods. What do you think about this and this current policy landscape?

Tom: Well I think as a farmer I’m a food producer but I also am a steward of the countryside and that’s something that I take great pride in and I can definitely see the way that public policy is going, is that we’ll be rewarded for producing public goods and I think there are a number of those, we’re really proud of the environmental measures we have on this farm but I think education is a really, really important public good.

Alice: Yeah, definitely.

Tom: And I know Michael Gove has been recently talking about the value of working in between departments so that’s education, food and farming and also health as well.

Alice: So interesting and obviously we’ve seen a lot of your activity on Twitter and other ways, could you just tell us a little bit more about your Facetime a Farmer initiative?

Tom: I’d love to talk about that. Facetime a Farmer is a fortnightly, 10 minute, Facetime or Skype call between one farmer and one classroom. Currently we have 220 farmers signed up, and they each have their own class. That’s about 6,500 school children who are skyping into farms once a week.

Alice: Wow.

Tom: The teacher will email the farmer, typically a couple of days before the call and say ‘This is what we’re studying’ – genetics, climate change, water, pollinators, worms, soil, whatever it might be and the farmer positions themselves somewhere on the farm that’s appropriate to that and they have a short conversation.

Alice: I mean that’s just brilliant to see how it’s all lined up to the curriculum and inspiring a new generation of people to either get into farming themselves or actually just support rural communities.

Tom: That’s right, it’s incredibly important and I would recommend it to anybody. Facetimeafarmer.com is the website and all the details are on there and people can sign up from there.

Alice: Very handy call to action, thanks Tom.

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