bfa shortlist

Contractor Tim Russon sets the bar high and prides himself on offering solutions to his customers whose farming needs are more niche. Emily Scaife finds out more.

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Exploring niche markets and thinking outside the box has provided award-winning contractor Tim Russon with alternative income streams and enabled him to use his kit year-round.

Tim impressed the judges at last year’s British Farming Awards with his innovative, problem-solving approach, which led to him being named Contractor of the Year.

Tim began his contracting enterprise drilling maize when he left college in 1988 and was keen to dodge milking duties on his dad’s 121-hectare (300-acre) dairy farm in Lincolnshire.

He says: “I did not like the idea of milking cows – I looked up to the men driving the big tractors and knew that was what I wanted to do.

I borrowed my dad’s tractor and maize drill, just as maize was starting to become an attractive crop for livestock farmers to grow.

“At the start I drilled the maize and another contractor harvested it, but people started asking me to do the harvesting too.

“So, in 1991 I took the plunge and borrowed £35,000 to buy a small self-propelled forage harvester. A year later I had to sell it and another one.”

Today, P. Russon and Sons employs 10 full-time members of staff, which increases to nearer 30 during peak periods.

Niche markets

Tim decided to explore more niche markets to avoid being forced to compete on price for more mainstream crops.

He says: “Initially I was offering forage harvesting and maize growing services in a predominately arable area.

“I was the only forage harvester in Lincolnshire at that point. Then the anaerobic digestion [AD] market came along and I suddenly was not as niche, but because it was in its early stages I was able to capitalise on the opportunities at a very early point.

“As a result, I have been able to invest in the equipment needed for very large jobs. Our single biggest forage customer for maize harvesting is 2,500 acres.

“There are a lot of contractors who would not be able to take that on.”

By focusing on more niche markets, Tim avoids competing with other contractors in a race to the lowest cost.

He says: “I provide good value for money, but at the end of the day I need to see a margin. And in a competitive market, the margins are never there.

“I am keen on telematics, so I know my costs. I record fuel usage, take note of the time it takes to complete a job and we keep updated spreadsheets for all our machines so we can keep a close eye on running costs.

“If you are competing with other contractors over price, sometimes you cannot charge enough money to cover your costs.”

Keeping a close eye on new technology is a key part of Tim’s job in order to increase productivity for his customers.

For example, using variable application of fertilisers is efficient and reduces the impact on the environment.

The business is experimenting with different cover crops to help protect the environment at harvest time and during the following winter.

Tim is also looking into rewilding projects to increase biodiversity, potentially opening up new services the business could provide its customers, such as habitat creation and management.


He says: “I am always looking for new opportunities and exploring what is out there. One of the sides we have developed more is using GPS on the tractors when spreading manure as people are valuing manure more, with the prices of inputs increasing.

As well as keeping a close eye on data to make sure he is running his business as efficiently as possible, Tim has actively targeted markets which allow him to run his machinery all year round. The advantage of this approach is that it also provides him with a steady income stream, while levelling out work peaks and troughs.

Last year, the business harvested around 3,237ha (8,000 acres) of maize using two new Class Jaguar 970 forage harvesters fitted with telematics to help with machine management.

To ensure these machines are used for more than four months every year, Tim has branched out into miscanthus grass cutting and harvesting, which uses the forage equipment at a point of the year which is usually quiet.

He says: “This year we will be using our forage harvester from January to, I suspect, May for miscanthus and then those machines will also be used for grass silage.

“Then we will be forage harvesting on and off throughout summer until we start harvesting maize in September.

“That will go on until November or, if we are unlucky, December.

“So, we will have got the best part of a year’s worth of use out of a machine which traditionally is only used for three to four months every year.”

Cutting and harvesting miscanthus involved a lot of trial and error at the beginning to make sure the equipment was up to the task.

Tim says: “We had to modify our machines completely. They needed a home-made drum and a lot of research and development went into making sure it would work.”

Tim uses his older Claas Jaguar 870 harvester to harvest miscanthus, as machines catching fire while harvesting the niche crop is not unheard of.

Another niche market Tim has tapped into is smaller square bales of straw for high-end customers.

He says: “The little bales are made of the very highest quality straw. I call it Waitrose straw.

“It must be clean and the best quality, but they sell for twice the price of a large bale of straw.

“We supply local showgrounds and events with conventional bales of straw and the small bales go to a straw merchant in Lancashire.

“They are for the horse market, which is another all-year-round form of income.

“The combining and crimping of maize is something else I have been doing for about 15 years.

“It had died off a bit, but it returned once the AD market came into force. Plus I still have some livestock farmers who like maize in their rations.

“It is all about finding more uses for the same machines.”

The future

This year Tim predicts the business will harvest 3,642ha (9,000 acres) of maize, 809ha (2,000 acres) of grass silage, 405ha (1,000 acres) of wholecrop and about 1,619ha (4,000 acres) of miscanthus.

These estimations are slightly up from last year, but Tim admits he has some big worries about the immediate future.

He says: “It is challenging at the moment to find enough high-quality labour and I am concerned about the price of equipment and how much it has inflated. I am struggling to see how sustainable that will be going  forwards.

“I am also a bit worried about my customer base losing the Single Farm Payment shortly – a lot of farm accounts aren’t profitable without it.

“But, at the end of day, we have all got to eat, so I am optimistic.”

Tim describes himself as a problemsolver and hopes this attitude will help him pull through the tougher times.

“If someone says something is not possible, I always think ‘there must be a way, let’s find it, let’s see if we can do it and then see if we can do it better than the last bloke’.”

Tim relies on word of mouth to secure new business and credits his win at the British Farming Awards with boosting his confidence.

He says: “Word of mouth is a big thing, particularly in the farming community. I like attending farm meetings and walks, so I try to go to those and make sure everyone knows who I am.”

In terms of the future, one thing Tim would like to do is achieve a more consistent product for the lucrative small bales of straw market.

He says: “There is technology out there  that we can try on our balers to see if that will help deliver a more consistent quality.”

Overall though, his barometer of success has not changed since he first set up his business.

“I like to feel as though I have helped somebody and done a good job. The financials must be right too though – there is no point in going to work and not seeing a good return on your investment.

“New Farm is still my base – 250 acres is arable, growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape and forage maize and the rest is grassland. We do not milk anymore, but we do have a beef suckler herd in the field by the side of the house and that is close enough for me.”


  • P. Russon and Sons was established in 1973 by Peter Russon, a dairy farmer, at the newly built New Farm in Burton, Lincolnshire
  • During the late 1970s, Peter diversified into agricultural contracting
  • During the 1980s, he was one of the pioneers of maize growing
  • His son Tim took on and expanded the contracting side of the business when he left college in 1988; he started with drilling maize and then branched out into harvesting
  • Currently two Claas Jaguar 970 forage harvesters are driven which are fitted with telematics
  • Employs 10 full-time members of staff and takes on an additional 20 during busy periods
  • The business branched into niche markets such as miscanthus and small bales of high-quality straw

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In a competitive market where margins are tight and efficiency is key, the partnership between contractor and farmer is pivotal.

Whether you are operating in mainstream services or have developed a niche for a given sector, you will be implementing practical solutions, developing strong customer relationships and offering a cost effective service to farms, regardless of size.

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  • Must own or manage an agricultural contracting enterprise in the UK
  • Size or scale of enterprise is not important
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