Innovation and fresh thinking are the key features exhibited by the finalists in the Scottish Arable Farm of the Year, which was presented at AgriScot last November.

In this series of special articles, Erika Hay looks at what made the three finalists stand out from the crowd:

The winner of Scottish Arable Farm of the Year as presented at AgriScot, last November, was Lacesston Farm, at Gateside, Fife, farmed by John Weir.

Organised by AgriScot, the AHDB and sponsored by Soil Essentials, he said he had been delighted to be nominated and then to become a finalist in this prestigious competition. But that didn’t stop John from being surprised when he was announced as winner.

However the assessors – last year’s winner Donald Ross, from Rhynie, Tain, Easter Ross, and Andrew Moir, AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds board member, who farms at Laurencekirk – were impressed with his attention to detail, firm grip on costs and his use of technology.

John farms 300 ha, about 68 ha of which this year is potatoes, grown both at home and on rented ground within a six-mile radius. Potatoes, then, are the main focus of the business, with an annual objective of achieving 100% pre-pack for Greenvale.

John said: “Everything we do at home is about getting the soil right to produce good potato crops, but we are lucky that our rented ground also has wide rotations to optimise growing conditions.”

Looking for specialist potato advice with local knowledge, he joined Scottish Agronomy in 2011. Since then he has also signed up for the information-only cereals membership and has hosted trial plots for both potatoes and cereals on his farm.

“Costs of any inputs are so high that any way of cutting those costs is essential to the success of our business. Working with Scottish Agronomy, we have reduced rates and cut out sprays which is key to our bottom line and it’s good to know that you are only using what you need.

“For me the independent advice from Scottish Agronomy is really important, but it’s the combination of this with group discussion which makes this such powerful resource to our enterprise.

“There’s a great group of farmers involved – they are all in the top 25% of growers – so you learn a lot from being around them. We discuss the latest techniques and systems, we compare and share ideas and learn practical – perhaps most importantly – ways to solve a problem.”

For the past year John has also signed up for the information service for cereals and has attended the trials open days to hear the full analysis of the outcomes of the year’s trials.

“The technical bulletins give me a good comparison for costs and being more efficient. The information is put simply in farming terms and gives me the armoury to challenge and make my decisions.

“Scottish Agronomy has years of experience and they have got the trials data in this area to evidence their recommendations. As opposed to being complacent and doing the ‘same old’ year-on-year, it gives me the confidence to adjust my inputs to the season,” he said.

John has become increasingly aware of the need to focus on soil management for better yields in tandem with good agronomy.

“We have light land so we need to feed it and if we build the structure and organic matter it will be more resilient to extreme weather, whether drought or flood. We used to sell straw but now we swap it for dung, and we put more thought into potato work, thinking about when we are going on the land and also improving drainage.”

However, he is always open to trying out new technology and has recently been trialling a Greenvale app, which by using algorithms and historical data alongside information from the current growing season, will suggest a burn-down date to optimise pre-pack size at harvest.

Other arable enterprises on the farm include winter wheat, oilseed rape, oats and spring and winter barley, with all crops sold locally, or at least in Scotland. John said: “I think that, for future-proofing our business, it is important to have markets in place locally for everything we grow and not to rely on exports.

“It is also key to know our cost of production so that when we are offered a contract or a fixed price, we can make a decision to accept based on margin.”

John has been benchmarking as part of a group supported by AHDB for about six years. He said: “When Demperston Farm just along the road became an AHDB Monitor Farm, in January, 2014, I was growing potatoes there and became involved in the arable business group. I enjoyed the process and a few of us decided to keep benchmarking with the continued and much welcome support of AHDB.”

He found the figures this produces useful, especially in comparing how individual crops are performing, but he reckoned the real value comes in the discussions and said that as a result of benchmarking, he has had the confidence to reduce his chemical use.

Yield mapping and soil sampling has taken place at Lacesston for more than 20 years, allowing variable rate lime, P and K to be applied and also nitrogen on winter crops, while GPS is used for drilling and potato ridging as well as spraying and fertiliser spreading.

All the arable land is ploughed and sown conventionally as it has been proven to work over the years, however he is turning to cover crops ahead of potatoes to hold nutrients and keep the soil open.

Some areas of the farm are not suitable for growing crops and are grazed with cattle and other areas sown in grass for a break crop. A cattle finishing enterprise sees 60 store cattle bought and finished every year, utilising the rough grass, cover crops, and silage while there are also a few suckler cows.

John viewed the dung as a vital ingredient in maintaining soil structure and does ‘straw for dung’ deals locally to return as much organic matter and nutrients to the soil as possible.

His strategy obviously works, as in 2018 a sample of soil from Lacesston won ‘best soil’ at the Royal Highland Show. John said it showed a good organic matter content and had high indices for all major nutrients.

In 2011, John invested in an 80kW wind turbine and a few years later in 50kW of solar panels on a shed roof. This has resulted in reduced electricity costs on the farm and the software is set up so that when it is windy or sunny the potato store is cooled and when very little power is being generated, the temperature is allowed to rise slightly.

John explained: “The variations in temperature are no more than half a degree from the optimum three degrees but it is an efficient way of utilising energy and saving money.”

Excited about receiving his prize of a bespoke package from Soil Essentials, John reckoned he would like to investigate potato technology where he believed there is potential to maximise production further, especially in increasing his baker pre-pack yield.