Pinnacle Awards 2019

The Pinnacle Awards champion best practice in farm business management. This year’s finalists showed innovation, attention to detail and great tenacity. Charles Abel reports

MEETING the changing needs of the farming industry was a key theme as the 2019 Farmers Club Pinnacle Awards rewarded the UK’s top farm business management students.

Sponsored by the Cave Foundation and run with consultancy firm ADAS  this prestigious competition drew entries from colleges and universities across Britain, but not Northern Ireland this year.

Competitors were clearly thinking ‘outside the box’ to meet the evolving needs of society and policy developments, noted Prof William McKelvey OBE, chair of the judging panel, which also included Farmers Club Chairman Nick Helme, ADAS senior business consultant Tony Turner and Farmers Club Journal Editor Charles Abel.

Key criteria for the awards are precise project reports, with a succinct explanation of the business case, backed by robust financial analysis, recognising downsides and risks as well as upsides. Strong problem-solving abilities, good presentation skills, agile thinking, and an ability to stand up for ideas under scrutiny were also important. 

“It was very interesting to see the younger generation coming forward with new projects, ideas and thoughts – it really is very encouraging to know the industry is in good hands going forwards,” Prof McKelvey commented.

Competitive entries

In a keenly contested competition entries were initially sifted by ADAS. “It was a really interesting mix of projects, from a range of courses and modules, some team entries and some individual, some focused on core farming and others on diversification, a real case of apples and oranges,” noted ADAS consultant Cat Wolton. 

The eight top applicants attended a judging day at The Farmers Club in central London, including a probing interview panel and a 10-minute presentation to a room of fellow contestants, lecturers and judges firing questions from the floor.

Past, present, future

Guest of honour and inspirational speaker Deborah Flint encouraged finalists to focus on their “past, present and future” when seeking inspiration.

Self-confessed ‘newbies’ to the industry Deborah and husband Neil run the hugely successful Cinderhill Farm in Gloucestershire’s Wye Valley, a pioneering producer of artisanal sausage rolls and pies using home-grown native breed pigs and wild boar.

Drawing on a ‘past’ of 26 years in corporate charity fund-raising Deborah recalled a time in the Philippines when she was struck by just how many livelihoods farmers there could to support on small parcels of land. The idea of creating a thriving business on just 8 acres of UK farmland was born. It now employs eight staff.

Key to the ‘present’ was to live the reality of personal aspirations. For the Flints that meant an on-going drive towards truly ecological farming, including 100% renewable energy, rainwater harvesting, composting, recycling and heat recovery from waste. “It’s about wanting to get out of bed to do the job every day, and continuing to learn.”

And the ‘future’?  “Consider relationships from the past and present to build your future. And don’t underestimate the potential,” she urged. An initial contract to supply pies worth £20,000/year had grown 25-fold, with new customers signing up weekly.

“If an idea doesn’t turn out to be the final thing, don’t worry – we’re still developing new things all the time. And don’t forget you are the future of your farm, your land, your business. Look after that future.”

Intriguingly, Cosnard’s Net-winged Beetle, one of Britain’s rarest species, had been seen just 15 times in the UK, 12 times near the Flint’s farm, prompting a close involvement with the Species Recovery Trust (panel) in a bid to “pass the baton to the future”. 


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Alex Crawley, Royal Agricultural University – Pinnacle Gold, Nickerson Cup, £2000 

A truly distinctive business model from a first-generation farmer with a military background. The aim was to deliver eco-system services to a rapidly emerging market for grant-funded ‘hoof-powered’ nature restoration of rare species grassland, blended with ‘wild-flower fed’ premium beef sales. The project was aimed at meeting the need of non-farming NGOs (eg Wildlife Trusts) and public bodies (eg MOD) for out-sourced grazing of large areas of low productivity grassland, but also full compliance with complex issues, including conservation scheme rules, environmental regulations, public access and TB movement restrictions. A robust contract-driven business model with templated processes, backed by insurance, would use docile Belted Galloway cattle, tailored electric fencing (and even collar-based geofencing), daily volunteer checks and planned logistics to ensure appropriate grazing. Extensive research had identified a best practice model, which could be offered as a franchise. Excellent out-of-the-box thinking, consideration of key personnel, problem solving, communication skills and financial planning.

Sarah Morgan, Harper Adams University – Pinnacle Silver, £1000

Adding two six-bed log cabins alongside existing holiday let on mixed Shropshire farm to boost non-farm income and exploit owner’s proven strong hosting skills. Very clear report, including thorough financials, excellent investigation of competitor activity within 10 mile radius, grant bid, and sensitivity analysis for occupancy below 58% target occupancy and £100/night average rate. Enthusiastic, crisp, convincing presentation.

Ian Buchanan, SRUC Aberdeen – Pinnacle Bronze, £600 cheque

Realistic costings and detailed market analysis for a low-borrowing recently launched free-range rare breed pork enterprise north of Edinburgh, maximising revenue by selling key cuts through farmers markets and a proposed farm shop. Strong branding and good provenance story, evidenced on social media and web videos, building loyal customer base. Pragmatic, huge enthusiasm and great ability to think on feet.

Runners-up (all finalists receive one-year Club membership):

Charlotte Bailey, SRUC Ayr

Diversification enterprise to make and market premium Scottish “Drouthy” mead with a strong provenance story based on Ayrshire honey from locally grown oilseed rape.

Alistair French, Bridgwater & Taunton College

Detailed feasibility study showing the risks of investing in robotic milking, buildings and extra cows at college farm, proposing a single teaching unit in existing buildings instead. 

Phoebe Lole, Nottingham University

A mobile out-door dairy goat enterprise on Nottinghamshire sandland using more hardy Anglo Nubian goats to supply burgeoning non-dairy milk market, with grant support.

Julie Mackenzie, SRUC Ayr

Novel project to produce and retail ‘chicken of the woods’ mushrooms meat alternative, including market research and strong focus on organisational structure/leadership.

Max Porter, Harper Adams University

Produce and market kiln-dried oak coppice firewood to exploit anticipated legislation designed to cut particulate emissions from the use of wet wood in domestic stoves.

Photos from the Awards, plus the top three reports, can be viewed here: