Having been an integral part of the Island farming community for more than 30 years, you would imagine there is very little that would surprise Bun Symes about the industry any more.
But Bun openly admits that sometimes even he finds it difficult to comprehend the incredible advances in farming machinery and equipment he has seen, particularly over the last decade.
He set up Symes Brothers in 1976 from his farm off Stag Lane, Newport, with his brother Nick. At the time his total stock comprised little more than a couple of two-wheel drive tractors and a small combine harvester.
So no wonder he marvels at the machinery now in his possession or available to him – the likes of a Claas combine that steers itself, and a GPS-controlled crop sprayer. But it is not only the quality of equipment that has risen. Inevitably, the costs have escalated to the same degree.
Hence, many Island farmers find it unviable to splash out many thousands of pounds on a piece of machinery that might stand idle for up to 10 months of the year. That is where Bun and his dedicated team come in, providing a variety of services from harvesting to spraying and muck spreading to hedge cutting.
Bun is able to offer all agricultural contracting needs, and reckons: “No job is too small.” He backs up that statement by pointing out: “I used to have a very slow old Czechoslovakian tractor called a Zetor, and I remember taking it all the way to Freshwater on the back of a low loader to do about one and a half acres. It took me longer to load and unload than it did to do the field.
“I don’t think a job has ever beaten us although we have had a few mishaps. We have turned over tractors and combines on really steep ground. That was down to the fact that back in the late 1970s and early 1980s people were growing corn where really they shouldn’t have been growing it.
“We were being asked to combine fields which were basically too steep, so mishaps were aplenty in those days, but not so much these days – thank goodness!”
After a steady start to the agriculture adventure, Bun and Nick began picking up a few share farm contracts, and moved up from smaller machines to four-wheel drive tractors.
Bun recalls: “By 1982 we were running four combines. There was a big need for them because there were quite a few medium sized arable farms that couldn’t really justify the cost of what would have been between £30,000 and £40,000 for a new combine. So we were picking contracts for 200 to 300 acres at a time, and by 1986 we were 2,250 acres with four combines. Ironically we are doing more acreage now with just one combine. We can manage about 12 acres an hour. And with the self-propelled forager we did 220 acres of grass in a day.”
In 2000 brother Nick decided he had had enough of ‘working all hours’, so he moved to a job with the IW Council. But Bun’s enthusiasm did not waver. His farm was initially a 260 acre unit, but it has now been expanded towards Cowes and Newport to take in close to 500 acres.
He and his staff also do full farm contracts on other parts of the Island, including Great Park Farm between Newport and Yarmouth, which is close to 1,000 acres.
“We deal with a lot of businessmen who want someone to farm the land, so we do it on a share farm basis, where we do all the work, and if there is any surplus from grain sales etc, we have a share of that. We did it on a much smaller basis in the past, but obviously farms are getting bigger now, and thankfully we are doing it on bigger units,” he explained.
Bun reflects on the changing face of Island farming, and accepts “There are nowhere near as many ‘dairies’ as there used to be. At one time we were doing 14 different dairies with a small trailed forage harvester. Now we have a self-propelled forage harvester, and now we are probably doing more acreage, but on fewer farms with bigger herds. What you are seeing is fewer dairy herds, but the ones that are remaining are a lot bigger.
“When it comes to arable, probably the average size when we started was 250 to 300 acres. The units are much bigger now, with a viable arable unit more like 600 to 1,000 acres. With our crop spraying we use a self-propelled 24-metre sprayer, but years ago we would have a tractor mounted sprayer and doing 12-metre width.
“We are looking to upgrade the sprayer so it can put much higher volumes of water on to vegetable crops. Everything is getting bigger, quicker and has more technology.”
He continued: “The sprayer we have looked at has GPS, so you can just set in the width and off you go. Obviously you have so many jets on a 24-metre boom, but with the new technology, even in a field with triangles in corners, instead of overlapping, the jets only come on when needed, so there is never any overlap.
“You have a screen with a picture of the field in front of you, and as you go along, it is just like a kid colouring it in. It really is unbelievable, and I couldn’t possibly have thought such things would eventually be used when I first started doing this job.”
Meanwhile, his 30ft header combine steers itself with ‘magic eyes’ like miniature television screens on stalks either side of the header. He smiled: “That means you can let go of the steering wheel to roll yourself a cigarette, or whatever, and off it goes.
“There doesn’t seem to be any end to the advances in technology. We were looking at machines 10 or 15 years ago that were available in the United States and Australia, which are now readily reaching these shores. It is not a question of downsizing for the European market, in some cases it is actually going the other way.
“So we are getting these huge American crop sprayers and combines coming over here, and even the tractors have got much bigger. We would never have dreamed of running a 360 horse-power tractor even 10 years ago. But as you can imagine the amount of work you can cover a day with a machine like that is phenomenal.”
So it is understandable that in an ever-changing market with costs soaring that many farmers turn to the likes of Bun for assistance rather than fork out what could be hundreds of thousands of pounds for essential machinery.
And as Bun points out: “It is not just the purchase price, it is the depreciation that kills it for a lot of farmers. It is a bit like buying a new car. You either buy it, and change it each year to try to keep it up to date, which costs an awful lot of money. Or you keep it for many years and eventually run it into the ground, and it is still going to cost you an awful lot of money.
“I was talking to a farmer friend of mine recently and he admitted that the reason we are probably being used more than ever is because of the huge depreciation of equipment. It is something we can bear the brunt of because we are using them to their absolute maximum.
“With your average dairy or arable farmer, machinery will rarely be used to its full capacity. But we have invested in a large piece of kit like the combine harvester, we can cover a massive acreage each year with it. We could not have envisaged 10 years ago that one combine could do 2,400 acres with one combine in four weeks.
“We can now do 10 to 12 acres an hour, whereas in the past we would probably have done well to do that acreage in a day. We used to think if we did 15 acres we had had a very good day, now we do that amount in an hour and 10 minutes.”
He added: “The most we have done was 123 acres of harvesting – and that wasn’t even in a full day. We have been told that the combine we are using at the moment can harvest enough grain in a day to produce one million loaves of bread!”