Farm Ireland

Thursday 18 January 2018

'I don't think my feet have hit the ground just yet'

The beaming Farmer of the Year winner gives an insight into his growing operation

CHAMPION: Kevin Nolan, in his civvies, with his new 141-reg 275hp Fendt, that has pulled a new 8 furrow Lemken plough this spring.
CHAMPION: Kevin Nolan, in his civvies, with his new 141-reg 275hp Fendt, that has pulled a new 8 furrow Lemken plough this spring.
Kevin takes enormous pride in his machinery, right down to customised reg-plates for all his road vehicles
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

It's a little more than a week since Kevin Nolan learned that he was the judges' unanimous choice for the first Zurich Farming Independent Farmer of the Year title, but he's still on cloud nine.

"It has just given everybody here such a huge boost, and I don't think my feet have hit the ground since," the young Carlow cereal grower claims.

The enthusiasm that Nolan has for the awards permeates every aspect of how he runs his thriving tillage business that often averages 5t/ac for crops such as winter wheat and barley.

"Spraying is a real passion of mine. You really see the crops progressing when you're spraying. I've often been out at 5am in the morning to ensure that pre-emergence herbicides go out in exactly the right conditions.

"And I hate to see lads leaving any evidence of spraying, like cans or spills behind them. And sucking out of rivers – that's just irresponsible. Maybe I'm being a bit Germanic," he grins.

Since he took on his first lease at the ripe-old age of 22, Kevin has strived to build a business that he can be proud of.

"Ben and Margaret George were the first landowners to place their trust in me when they leased 74ac to me in 2001. I was lucky that I got off to such a good start with such good landowners – we've a great relationship at this stage," he says.

Trust is key

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This theme of building relationships is one that Nolan keeps coming back to during the few hours I got to spend with him around his spotless farmyard and fields.

"Trust is key. One of the biggest inspirations for me was an Iowa grain farmer I got to meet last year during my Nuffield scholarship – Tim Richter.

"He's in his 60s and has built up a 7,000ac operation purely on the back of leased land. But he really emphasised the importance of trust.

"He also encouraged me to go out and approach people for land rather than just waiting for them to come to me. I learned that the worst somebody can say is no, which hurts for about two minutes at most," says Nolan.

However, Kevin has found that a technological development has also opened doors for him in terms of accessing new land.

"When I set up a Facebook page in 2011, it was mostly for a bit of banter with the lads. But three months later I got a call from a landowner that was interested in leasing 70ac to me – simply on the strength of a clip from my Facebook page that somebody had shown him down in the pub.

"I realised that Facebook was really providing a window into my business. I don't buy into the idea that the older generation aren't able to access this stuff – if they're able to know what the prices are on Donedeal, then they'll be able to find me on Facebook. The photos that I have up there plant a seed and they know what's on offer before we ever talk."

Of course, it's a little bit easier to sell your farm set-up when you've got the standard of kit that Nolan has assembled. When I visited he was just after completing a deal for a new eight-furrow Lemken plough to put behind his equally new 275hp Fendt.

Everything gleamed, even though some of the gear had just come back from the field. But Kevin insists that he puts enormous effort into his machinery replacement policy. And again, that issue of relationship building is at the fore.


"I really value the relationship that I have with every dealer. I'll go down to them in the off-season to tease out what are the possibilities and stock up on spare parts. Obviously, it's good practice for me to have plenty of spares on hand here when we're busy, but it also helps out the dealer to have one less customer to service when their workload peaks too," he explains.

Getting access to the most efficient machinery requires deep pockets, but Nolan has a number of ways of diluting the cost of buying into the latest gear.

"Often I'll go after a demo machine that might be a year old. That'll get you anywhere from 10-15pc discount straight away."

He has also diluted purchasing costs by buying kit in partnership with other farmers that he has a good working relationship with. An example is the recently acquired high-output Claas baler that cost close to €100,000. It won't be long paying its way with the partnership churning out 8,000 big square bales during a five-week baling period last year.

The other key relationship for Nolan in assembling this arsenal of machinery is with his bank.

"About four years ago I started giving the bank an itemised budget that outlined everything, along with three scenarios - a good, middling and bad year for both price and yield.

"By being able to live up to these budgets, we proved that we were reliable bets and, even if the bank guys didn't fully know the business, they could feel comfortable giving me money."

The Nolan File

Name: Kevin Nolan

Age: 35

Farm: 1,000ac of cereals within 60km of Bennekerry, Carlow. 75pc of land is leased

Fleet: 141-reg 828 Fendt, 09-reg 6630 and 7430, 131-reg Claas 750 tracked combine

Family: Married to Una with three children: Conor, 7, Aoibheann, 5, and Killian, 2

Crop rotation: Winter barley, winter oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter oats, beans, winter barley

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