Helping farmers, owners and shareholders to build more sustainable horticultural businesses lies at the heart of Chris McClarron’s work at Thomas Elder Consulting.
According to him, the first step to sustainability is revealed in the data.
Chris uses a data driven approach to help identify gaps in yield and performance, likening himself to a “horticultural accountant”.
“With careful analysis, tracking and benchmarking of a farm’s data (such as soil, crop performance, quality, market, input and operational costs), and the aid of new ag tech technology, it is possible to move beyond opportunities for short-term improvement to build productivity and profitability in horticultural businesses on a long term, sustainable basis,” Chris said.
“While growing horticultural crops can typically be either a feast or famine, our objective is to help owners to put their businesses on an even keel by producing consistent yield and quality, year in and year out and tracking the metrics to be able to make sustainable business decisions.”
“This approach allows growers to remove the variability in their operations, place them in a stronger position with customers, improve their returns and assist them to develop more sustainable businesses that thrive into the future.
“For owners and shareholders, it’s also about greater visibility and accountability for their capital investment.”
Chris has a wealth of experience in horticultural operations, large and small, in the United Kingdom, Europe, Israel and Australia, across a variety of crops, climates and environments.
He specialises in working with businesses to identify efficiencies in farming, supply and quality procedures as well as formulating agronomic strategies and plans for horticultural operators.
“We start by gathering the facts and figures of what’s going on, paddock by paddock, to identify issues behind low quality or poor yields and working out what needs to be done,” Chris said.
“New technology, like remote sensing, has a valuable role to play in identifying problems and providing insights into yield variability, as the first step to formulating plans to fix these and further down the line, by providing data to track performance.
“The data is there in the yield and profitability figures, showing the net returns from inputs and allowing us to examine whether there are gains to be made from different crops or varieties or more targeted nutrients, soil ameliorants, or variable rate application – or a combination of these.”
Chris said farm managers, workers and agronomists have valuable knowledge and insights to add to the picture and should be involved in improvement processes from the outset.
“Additional gains are always made by engaging with the people who are working the paddocks and seeing the crops every day,” he said.
“They know their soil and their farm and can help with background information such as the history of soil or crops, where most of the time, ag tech can only identify the problem rather than telling you how or why it has happened.
“Therefore, it is crucial to have the engagement and buy in from all stakeholders.”
Chris added that simple changes such as a change in variety, fertiliser or irrigation regime may be sufficient to place smaller operations on a secure footing.
For larger operations, however, tracking the metrics around what’s happening ‘on the ground’ is essential for the visibility and accountability required by shareholders.
“In larger operations, managing all the farming units, from supply, genetics and agronomy through to post-harvest operations requires more complex planning to lift the overall performance of the business and provide consistent, high-quality produce for customers,” he said.
“For growers who are willing to take these extra steps, there are so many opportunities both in Australia and in export markets that the future looks extremely positive.”