The Courier & Advertiser (Fife Edition)
Meet the family whose business diversified into quarrying and more
Running one business is enough for most farmers, but almost by accident, Brian and Alison Binnie have found themselves running several for the last few years.
Brian’s grandfather moved to Denfind Farm, Monikie, near Dundee in 1947 and Brian and Alison’s big chance came in 2000 when they had the opportunity to buy the 370-acre farm from Panmure Estates.
They were obviously aware of the disused quarry in the middle of the farm but when a company approached them to buy it, Brian decided to borrow money from the bank to buy it himself. It turns out to be the best decision he ever made as he re-opened the quarry in 2004 and Denfind Stone has become a successful business, turning over more every fortnight than the original offer.
A sideline which arose from cutting down trees on the quarry site is a firewood business, which keeps the staff busy when things are quieter on the farm. On top of that, Brian and Alison recently bought a holiday house near Fearnon on Loch Tay which has a lodge they let out.
With three young sons, Fraser (15), Greg (13) and Alistair (8) to caree for, Alison, who was influential in starting up the stone company, has now taken more of a back seat.
Brian believes he has learned a great deal from running a commercial business but he is still a farmer at heart and responsible for management and marketing both at Denfind and the land he rents seven miles away at Fothringham Estates.
He explained, “In 1989 we entered into a partnership agreement with the estate to farm the Home Farm, Seggieden and Hatton, with Little Lour coming into the agreement in 1993. However in the mid-2000s we managed to negotiate an LDT on the farms which provides security to both partners.
“The LDT means both ourselves and the estate are prepared to put money into improving the farm; for example this year we have drained over 200 acres.”
The addition of these farms means Brian is farming around 1,740 acres, yet until the LDT he did not have the facilities to dry and store all his grain which put him in a weak selling position, forced to accept spot price at harvest. Now a grain dryer and storage for 1,000 tonnes has been built at Little Lour which puts him in a stronger position.
He has made some hard decisions over the years but one of the hardest was dispersing his suckler cow herd. The 60Angus cross and Saler cows with calves at foot and two Charolais bulls were sold on July 10 at United Auctions, Stirling, where the cows sold to £2,050 and averaged just over £1,500 per head. The two Newhouse bulls made £4,100 and £2,900, so Brian was pleased.
He said, “I looked at selling the herd four years ago when it became too much, splitting my time between the stone business, the arable side and the cattle. However I am glad I did not go with that kneejerk reaction because the herd was not in a great state then and I would have regretted going out on a low. Since then we have worked on
improving the herd and I was proud of my cattle going through the ring, although it was still a wrench to sell them.
“When I looked at the returns from cattle and took into account the time myself, and the three men on the farm spent with them, while having to bring in extra staff at busy times, I know it was the right thing to do. Now we can concentrate on things which are doing well.”
Denfind stone takes up the majority of Brian’s time now, and the growth potential for the business is to double its turnover again, so the decision was made to keep the farming side simple. Brian said: “I have learned a lot from running the stone business and I feel it is crucial to keep costs down on the farming side. I am
able to look at the farm with fresh eyes as a result of dealing with a different enterprise and I don’t
think it is enough to say: ‘This is what we have always done!’ We have to be pro-active in our farming and marketing.
“I find it frustrating that farmers are often forced into a position to undersell and lose money on crops. If that was the case with the stone company we would shut down production until things improved. However they are very different types of business and it is incredibly interesting comparing the two.”
There are 16 people employed full-time at Denfind Stone, as well as sub-contractors and parttime staff. There are three full-time staff employed on the farm, led by Peter Donnachie, who handles the day-to-day practical side, and Brian said: “There is such a good work ethos among farm workers and this has been vital in allowing me the time to set up the stone business.”
With the cattle sold, the plan for the 200 acres of permanent grass at Little Lour and the 23 acres of seasonal grass will be to let it out along with the cattle courts. Cropping this year consists of 65 acres of carrots, 163
acres of potatoes and 67 acres of vining peas which are all let out while Brian and his team are responsible for all the cereal crops — 124 acres of winter wheat, 208 winter barley, 133 oilseed rape, 395 spring barley for malting and 237 seed spring barley.
The malting barley acreage is higher than usual this year because 200 acres of wheat had to be re-sown following the wet winter. The land is mostly medium loam but Denfind, being nearer to the coast and a couple of hundred feet lower down, is a much earlier farm than the others. Of course stone is a problem and Brian joked that the potato growers just love separating at Denfind. In fact a few years ago, they were separating in a field next to the quarry and there was so much stone that Brian put it through the factory and processed it.
Yields used to average four tonnes per acre for wheat, 2.75 for spring barley and 3.5 to 4 for winter barley, but have been well below that these last three years. He would like to get back into a simple rotation of winter barley, allowing early entry for oilseed rape followed by wheat, two years of spring barley then potatoes but the weather has played havoc with rotations recently.
Brian was one of the founder members of Angus cereals but became disillusioned as he felt it was controlled by merchants and not farmers. This was one of the reasons he cut back on malting barley and has been growing Concerto seed barley forAgrii and also some Garner for East of Scotland Farmers. Seed costs a bit more to grow but trades at a £20 to £25 per tonne premium over malting and spreads risk.
This year Brian has joined East of Scotland Farmers and has committed 400 tonnes of malting barley to their new facility at Coupar Angus. He said: “East of Scotland Farmers is run and controlled by farmers and I believe the best way to protect my returns from malting barley is to sell through a co-operative.”
With no cattle to feed or bed, the plan is to chop all the straw this year. Brian reckons the soil desperately needs the straw for potash and also for structure after so many wet years and said that some of his ground has seriously slumped. He said: “I think we have to take the long-term view on soil structure and the value of incorporating straw, compared to selling it for a quick buck.”
He is a big believer of ploughing, even as an entry for oilseed rape and the only fields he employs minimal cultivation techniques is after potatoes, though he subsoils first.
GPS Telesteer is installed on all the main tractors and the sprayer and soils are mapped for P, K and pH. Auto shut-off is already used on the GPS system but the next step is variable rate applications.
Although Brian is first and foremost a farmer, he has learned from running the stone business which he can use to improve the profitability on the farm. If the stone runs out, he is well-placed to earn a living from the farm but recent core digs show that is not likely in the near future, and Denfind Stone is expected to go from strength to strength.