Brendan and John Hughes run Hughes Agricultural Contracting and Straw Supplies in Co. Kilkenny. John is the current FCI national chair and is married with two adult children.
The massive baling operation sees the duo produce between 8,000 to 10,000 straw bales annually for Walsh Mushrooms in Co. Wexford.
Conor Halpin, journalism intern, speaks to John about agricultural contracting.
Firstly, when did the Hughes brothers begin contracting?
I worked in the family business as the spare driver at the weekend. Dad traded as Kevin Hughes and Sons. I like it, and usually, you are in a different field every day.
My father started his agricultural business in 1947. Over the years, he progressed from saving hay to silage with a double chop, then moved to precision chop forager and then to a self-propelled harvester.
My dad, Kevin, always told us in the early years, that he had the first hydraulic loader on a tractor, in the county. He got a lot of business from his farming customers, especially loading farmyard manure into his spreader.
In the late 1980s, we took over the farm from our dad. We employ a full-time employee and seasonal help as needed.
When did you change business direction?
In the early 2000s, we decided to change our business’s direction and focus on a select offering of services. Out went the silage and maize cutting, with increased investment in the big square baling, as straw baling was a significant service for us.
We were able to focus on other aspects in the cereals in this season. To note, we mainly specialise in tillage.
Depending on the amount of winter wheat that was sown each year, we currently bale about 8,000 to 10,000 bales (8x4x4s). I am also involved with GLAS through my 52-acre tillage farm with wildflower bird cover and forty-acres of cereal crops.
In reality, this farm size is only a hobby farm. I use it to demonstrate the benefits of strip-till tillage. It has been 14 years since I last used a plough on this farm. Crop yields are as good as my neighbour farmers who are on a plough-based system.
What agricultural services does Hughes Agricultural Contracting and Straw Supplies offer?
The services offered are ploughing, cultivation, seeding with a one-pass drill and two strip-till drills, rolling, maize, seeding, sugar and fodder beet seeding, cover crop sowing, crop spraying, combine harvesting with yield monitoring and on tracks, grain haulage, square baling, and haulage.
We currently specialise in over 2,000-acres of harrowing, seeding spring barley; cover crops are great for soil protection. Also, we harvest winter and spring beans and a variety of cereals.
In December and January, you can find us hauling straw; I am in the workshop currently working on the third corn drill for the upcoming corn season.
What is John Hughes’ attitude when purchasing machinery?
Technology has improved in tractors and high-powered implements; there is a major change from year-to-year in a tractor in terms of technology.
The business moved from five John Deere tractor to one in recent years. John Deere and the Claas are the makes of tractors in the fleet at present.
I feel operators using this equipment need training to get the most from your investment. You have to be familiar and learn to get the best from the tractor upon purchase.
We went from a three-metre power harrow to a six-metre to keep the seeders moving. Seeding and harrow implements used are three seed and fertiliser drills and various cultivators.
What is the passion behind Hughes Agricultural Contracting and Straw Supplies?
We love going out to different farms and the community; we have a responsibility to look after the crop, to the best of our ability. I prefer not to be in a big rush to take on too much work. Our motto is to do the best you can in the field you are currently in, and get it done correctly for our clients.
I want the farmer to get a good crop out. If we have pride in the work, we can be proud of our efforts to see a job well done.
A good working relationship is very important to Hughes Agricultural Contracting and Straw Supplies and knowing and meeting client’s requirements. Keeping your eye on the ball is very important.
Why did you join the FCI?
Over the past 40 years, I have been involved in several agricultural contracting associations. Shortly after FCI had started, I joined up. FCI will be ten years in existence this year.
FCI have seen what our colleagues in Europe have achieved, and we believe we can do something similar for the members of FCI. Agricultural and Forestry contractors need to be represented at a national level and within the EU.
What is the FCI’s mission statement?
FCI promotes and supports the farm and forestry contractor sector in Ireland with information, advice, and representation of the highest level to ensure that the farm & forestry contractor’s role is recognised within the Irish farming and food industry.
FCI aims to raise the standard of operational and management skills within the Farm & Forestry Contractor sector in Ireland through the provision of information.
To allow high-quality decision making that can fuel a greater acceptance of the vital role that farm & forestry contractors play in active farm decisions—making to achieve a sustainable and world-class Irish farming, forestry, and food industry.
What are your plans as national chair of FCI?
Developing membership for FCI is a slow build. I have been a contractor for over forty years, but I’m passionate about it. It is a tough living but can have its rewards. You are your own boss, and you work your own hours.
In FCI, we will do as much as we can to progress the agricultural and forestry contractor sector. Still, we need the support of a strong and committed membership to help the association to progress and prosper.
I believe that if you are in the agricultural or forestry contracting business, then you owe it yourself to be part of an organisation that will represent your business sector at a national level.
To conclude, what does the future hold for the agricultural contracting industry?
Firstly, because of the seasonal nature and low level of returns, the conditions for potential younger members are limited. There are better opportunities available elsewhere. Therefore, where will the industry be in the future?
For some agricultural contractors, it’s like they are stuck on a merry go round and cannot get off. Eventually, time will catch up and then what?
We have been looked down upon as a poor relation by the government. Contracting has not been given the attention it deserves in the past years. It’s not a hobby; it is a business and should be treated as such.
The government does not seem to understand the contracting business because we are rural-based; we are being put under the one umbrella.
Agricultural contracting is not recognised as a stand-alone industry within the agricultural sector. It is treated as part of farming when many agricultural contractors are running a full-time professional business, employing over 10,000 people and with a fleet of over 15,500 tractors with an average annual spend by farmers of €630 million on agricultural contractors services.