A tillage farmer in Co. Carlow is using many innovative solutions such as share farming and social media to drive his business.
20 years ago, in 1997 – Kevin Nolan (below) joined the family farm in Grangeford, County Carlow. His is an interesting story. He has successfully adopted precision technology, social media and innovative ways to use land to help sustain and grow his business into the future.
When did you start farming?
I began farming with my Dad in 1997, which was the year I finished school. It was an interesting time, and we worked away together and set up a farm partnership, which was important as it helped put a structure on the business.
What area do you farm and what do you grow?
We now farm directly across 1,500 acres of land – but in total, we harvest around 1,800 acres.
In autumn, we plant cereals and oilseed rape, and in spring we plant barley, beans and rape. Over the years we’ve scaled up our farming operation through various means of renting, leasing, share-farming and contract farming.
Share-farming is where the landowner supplies the land, and we provide the machinery and pay for half the inputs so for us – it’s a low-risk growth strategy.
Contract farming is for farmers who farm in their own right but don’t wish to carry the overhead of machinery.
“Just like a trawler, I use Facebook as a huge fishing net.”
What was your first step on the farming ladder?
In early 2001 there was a new scheme announced called the Early Retirement Scheme which gave me the opportunity to expand. We took on 76 acres from a local farmer who was about to retire. On the one hand, it afforded him the opportunity to retire with a quality of life and gave me a chance to get a foot on the farming ladder, and at the same time made financial sense for both of us.
“Generally, when we put up a post, we would have upwards of 2,000 views within two hours.”
What was the outcome?
I knew I had this farm for seven years and this allowed me to invest in it. That meant putting time and resources into hedge cutting, spreading lime and putting in wider gateways to make the place and the fieldwork more efficient. In fact, we did so much work on this particular farm; some people thought that I had bought it.
After that, we followed on with another early retirement farm, and then with a share-farm option.
How important is attention to detail?
In my business, we work tidy, and we work smart. When you drive past one of my farms – it acts as my shop window. So it’s nice to be able to present the land and my work there, as well as possible. The landowners that I deal with take great pride and appreciate this level of care, as do I.
This attention to detail also proves valuable, in particular for those landowners, who may be in a position to rent out their own farm, in time to come.
“I travelled across the United States, Brazil and Canada and met some of the most progressive farmers in the world.”
What’s the next step on the ladder?
At the moment, we’re focused on continuing to build a robust and sustainable business model by securing a base acreage of 1,100 acres of land, on long term leases over 15 years.
We also continue to promote and are actively growing our share-farming option.
Did you win some farming awards?
In 2009 we were awarded the Syngenta Sprayer Operator of the Year. This was followed in 2010 when I was selected as a Nuffield Scholar. In 2012 and 2014 respectively, we received the FBD Tillage Farm of the Year award and the Zurich Tillage Farmer of the year award.
“I find Twitter more of a business tool. It’s a great way to network with like-minded people.”
Where did you travel on your scholarship?
I travelled across the United States, Brazil and Canada and met some of the most progressive farmers in the world. The advice focused on making you a better business person and helping avoid making costly business mistakes.
It became a once in a lifetime opportunity, a massive step forward and a great chapter in my life. It gave me hunger to grow more aggressively; to become more efficient adopting precision farming technology, and to start using social media to help gain more efficient access to land to help build the operation.
What are the benefits of precision technology?
We started off with an entry level John Deere GPS guidance system which means that our machines can drive themselves with greater accuracy and with a lot less overlap.
We use it to save time; for quality of work; reduction in wear and tear; less human fatigue and massive productivity. Traditionally a good operator would have a 4% overlap – that’s 4 acres extra worked compared to negligible overlap with precision technology which is a significant benefit.
How did you start using social media?
We started off using Facebook. The original plan was two-fold. Firstly we were able to show our current landowners, what we were doing on the farm on a weekly basis. For a lot of farmers who had retired, it was nice for them to keep in touch with us and see what’s going on. We would be over there on their farm, but not every day, because it’s not like having stock.
Secondly, we were able to connect to landowners, who may like to work with us in the future, because a lot of farmers that are heading into retirement openly tell us, that they’re watching and following our Facebook page.
Does Facebook deliver?
Just like a trawler, I use Facebook as a huge fishing net. We’ll catch many small things, along with one or two big catches, which is what we are after. It brings in a lot of traffic, and we’ve found that over the years, that it does deliver. Generally, when we put up a post, we would have upwards of 2,000 views within two hours.
“Share-farming is where the landowner supplies the land, and we provide the machinery and pay for half the inputs so for us – it’s a low-risk growth strategy.”
How does Twitter help?
I find Twitter more of a business tool. It’s a great way to network with like-minded people that have strong social and business-driven ideas.
Twitter allows us to connect with the likes of young professionals, who may be commute to Dublin on the train. They might have land to set or rent out and may lack the time or experience to actively farm it themselves.
How has your online profile profited your business?
Because of our public profile, we find that we are inundated with public speaking engagements and farm visits from school and foreign travel groups. It starts at Ag Science level in secondary school and from there, right up to a group of farmers from Finland. Just three months ago we launched our brand new website Nolan Farming and recently started a blog there to further optimise our public profile.
At the end of the day, it’s nice to be able to talk to people about what we are doing, as well as having another income stream – and as I’ve discovered a lot of that is down to having a good social media presence.
Article by Brendan Byrne.