How Simon Best has taken learnings from sport and applied them to farming

Right drills and going with the grain saw the former Ireland captain scoop Best UK arable farmer of 2021
How Simon Best has taken learnings from sport and applied them to farming

Simon and Rory Best on their family farm in Poyntzpass, Co Armagh

From a player’s first game of rugby, it is “drilled into” them that they must leave the jersey in a better condition than they found it - and the same applies to farming, Irish rugby legend Simon Best told delegates at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference.

“We did not inherit this land from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children,” Mr Best said.

“It’s what my father has done, and my grandfather before him and his father.

“To me, that is true sustainability.”

Mr Best, who runs Acton House Farm in partnership with his parents and brother Rory — who is also a former professional rugby player — in Poyntzpass, Co Armagh, spoke of his passion for both agriculture and rugby.

He recalled how on a warm September day in Bordeaux in 2007, it felt like his “world had collapsed”.

“September 26 is a date that will always stand out for me —not because it’s the date by which I
hoped to have started drilling, or even the date that I hoped to have finished harvesting late beans,” he said.

“It’s the day that my career as a professional rugby player came to a shuddering halt after I suffered a mini-stroke midway through the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, where I was playing for Ireland.

“Up to that point, over the previous 10 years, I played 23 times for Ireland and 124 times for my club, Ulster, captaining both teams during that time.”

His opportunity to pursue a career in professional sport had come “almost out of the blue”, he said.

He had just begun a degree in agriculture at Newcastle University, “when the sport that I loved since I was a small boy turned professional literally overnight”.

Simon Best congratulates his brother Rory after the win over New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in 2018.
Simon Best congratulates his brother Rory after the win over New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in 2018.

After beginning his professional rugby career with Newcastle Falcons, he left three years later, and went on to join Ulster in 1999.

He announced his retirement from professional rugby years later in 2008 due to his condition.

It was four months out from his 30th birthday when “I was told my rugby career was over”.

“After a few months of wallowing, the strong will and desire to achieve that had stood to me so well in my rugby career came thundering back and I was determined not to be remembered simply as a retired rugby player,” he said.

“My name is Simon Best and I run Acton House Farm in Co Armagh.”

With his family, he runs an arable farm growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape, and oats under higher-level environmental stewardship for White’s Oats, whose mill is less than five miles from the farm.

“We’re LEAF-accredited and I’ve been on environmental schemes for the past 20 years,” Mr Best continued.

“We also run a 60-cow pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd.”

Mr Best said he has taken learnings “from a life in professional sport” and applied them to farming, to “continue to drive what is now a fourth-generation farming business into the future”.

“We hear the term sustainability used in a number of contexts. But for me, it’s rooted in the concept of maintaining and enhancing,” he said.

“In the context of professional sport, we always speak about leaving the jersey in a better condition than you found it.

“From your first game, this is drilled into you.

“If, as an individual within the team, you focus on this simple mantra, then invariably the rest will follow.”

Beyond his sporting career, Best has applied the same mantra to farming.

“We are here after 100 years and we’re planning now to ensure that the land that we are custodians of will be here for the next 100 plus years,” he said.

“It’s the bedrock of why we farm as we do - this is our purpose and our why.

“I feel strongly that understanding why we exist as an organisation, a team, or even individual is the key to ensuring long-term success.”

Acton House Farm’s vision is focused on the production of high-quality food ingredients in an ethical and sustainable manner.

“I make no apologies for having the word production front and centre,” Mr Best continued.

“It’s what we do in terms of the crops we grow or the beef from our Angus cattle.

“However, we’re on the journey to ensure that this is done in a manner that is consistent with our purpose of long-term sustainability.

“And this really helps to align the organisation.

“Communication of what we do to the public, to the community, to our customers and wider stakeholders is really important as we as farmers enter a period of uncertainty in agriculture with climate targets and basic payment restructuring.”

They say if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it and in professional sport, “everything is measured”, Mr Best said.

“From what you lift, to how fast you run, to what you’ve had for breakfast,” he continued.

“This used to drive me mad at times, but now that I’m leading a business I can see why.

“For me, [measuring] is essential to driving high performance and to encourage innovation.”

On-farm, Best said using soil analysis was the “foundation” to ensure efficient production and long-term sustainability.

He also carries out otter surveys with Ulster Wildlife, and bird surveys with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on an annual basis.

“Working with our environmental stakeholders to measure the success of interventions and habitats, and then knowing firsthand what they do to encourage biodiversity is really crucial when it comes to selling our message,” he said.

Mr Best was awarded the title of UK Arable Farmer of the Year in 2021.

He said he won despite having a “relatively small arable farm from a livestock-dominated region” and believing he had “absolutely no chance against my peers in the arable hotbeds of the east of England”.

“It gave me an opportunity to write down all the initiatives that we’ve been doing over the past number of years, and to actually take a moment to consider what success looks like for us,” he said.

Winning the award last year he said, has been a “real endorsement” for his team and in the direction of travel of the business.

“[Our] future success is not likely to hinge solely on output,” he said. “[That’s] something any sportsman who retires struggles with most: understanding what success looks like”.

“From my sporting days, this was so obvious.

“You knew where you stood every week,” he said.

“Did we win or lose on Saturday?

“You’ll hear coaches or managers talking about seasons not being won or lost in one game.

“That’s usually after their team have lost.

“But as players, you simply never want to lose.

“There’s also significant momentum built on the confidence that comes from getting success.”

However, in farming or indeed most other walks of life, knowing what success looks like can be far less clear.

“For me, one of the attractions of farming is the seasonality, and the fact that you get a real sense of achievement or, unfortunately, sometimes underachievement at harvest time,” he added.

Looking back at the last 40 years, Mr Best said it has been an “extraordinary journey, from grain mountains to set-aside, back to production again, and now on to environment and climate change, all perhaps shaped by policy but driven by the innovation and progression of our great farmers”.

“My next focus is on carbon and understanding what our true verifiable carbon baseline is before we start to talk about how much we need to reduce or mitigate, or whether we can sell a surplus.”

He is currently taking part in a European Innovation Partnership project in which during the course of year one, members have done in-depth soil nutrient analysis, assessed current gross carbon emissions, and carried out modelling on the impact of different land uses and carbon emissions, he explained.

“All with a view of not only establishing that verifiable baseline but then devising strategies to mitigate and reduce future carbon emissions,” he said.

“I’m confident that work of this type will not only underpin the future of our farm but many others; and help to ensure we can continue to fulfil our purpose and hand that jersey on to future generations in a sound condition.”

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