So what do you do when you discover that the fault with the combine harvester you are working on comes down to two failed plastic bushes designed to support a £12,000 component?

The simple answer, of course, would be to replace the bushes, refit the part, give the invoice to the customer and move on – but simple has never been good enough for agricultural engineer Tim Chapman and the team at Lenham, Kent-based TC Agri.

“What we do is replace the bushes with a bespoke bronze part that we make and fit ourselves,” said Tim. “It’s a simple enough fix and it makes a huge difference to the life of the component – as well as to the farmer who wants to be able to rely on his combine during harvest.”

It’s not something a main dealer would consider doing, but TC Agri’s independence, allied to the engineering skills, experience and sheer ingenuity of Tim and his engineers, means it’s all in a day’s work for the swiftly expanding business.

TC Agri’s responsive approach to customers and its determination to add value to the work it does has seen the company become the first port of call for some of the biggest names in farming across the South East.

Tim and his team – engineers Jon Ling and Samuel Greenaway – service and repair combines, tractors, sprayers, forklifts, drills and most other pieces of machinery, but their support for farmers often goes well beyond that summary.
“While our official title is agricultural engineers, we see ourselves as problem solvers,” Tim explained. “It’s not enough just to fix something if you can find a way to stop it happening again.

“On one occasion I noticed that a problem we fixed on a tractor had been caused by a hungry squirrel chewing through the wiring. The farmer then asked if we could squirrel-proof his barn to stop it happening again, so that’s exactly what we did.

“It’s about customer service and about finding a long-term solution rather than continually replacing the same weak part or tackling the symptom rather than finding the cause.”

Its independence also means that TC Agri is not limited to own brand parts when it comes to fixing machinery but can make sure it fits the best. “Main dealers have no choice but to fit their own parts, but we aren’t restricted in that way,” Tim pointed out.

“We specialise in Claas combines but we also repair other brands and there are occasions when we know there is a better part available. If we are mending a Brand A combine but we know that Brand B makes one particular component in a better way or to a higher tolerance, we will fit the Brand B part.”

That attention to detail and focus on supporting the customer has seen TC Agri build up a loyal following, and the company currently looks after the machinery needs of 40-plus farmers and farm businesses, many of them big names in South Eastern agriculture.

With the business growing steadily, TC Agri has now been awarded a contract to sell and maintain Househam Sprayers after another demonstration of the company’s top-flight engineering credentials.

“One of the team fixed an issue with a Househam sprayer, and when the company got to hear of it they decided that we had the kind of skill set that would make us the ideal partners to sell and look after their well-respected machinery,” Tim explained.

Tim, now 45, specialises in electrical and hydraulic engineering and regularly rebuilds or adapts control panels and other components in order to fix an older machine or help a farmer meet a particular need or tackle a particular job. The company also has considerable expertise fixing air conditioning problems and will shortly be making its own hydraulic hose.

TC Agri is supported by a number of contacts with a wide range of expertise, all people who can bring in specialist skills when they are needed. It means that from panel beaters to diagnostic software experts, TC Agri is never stuck for expert advice.

On the engineering side, there’s not much anyone can teach Tim, who spent 20 years and more working for some of the biggest names in the agricultural machinery world before setting up TC Agri in 2009.

“The 2009 start up wasn’t actually the plan,” Tim commented. “I was working for a large engineering company but I wasn’t really enjoying it and so I announced that I would start up on my own.

“My boss told me I would never be able to take on such a challenge, but I left anyway and decided to take a few months out to do some renovation work on my home before taking up the challenge of setting up the business.
“In the event I didn’t even get five minutes off. As soon as farmers knew I was starting up on my own they were on the phone asking me to help fix and service their machines.

“I started off working from a van and a trailer, driving from farm to farm to service and repair machinery. It’s gone from strength to strength since then and now we are busier than ever.” The company is now looking for an apprentice to help ease the burden and boost the team.

As well as offering a full repair and maintenance service for all kinds of agricultural machinery, T C Agri carries out thorough examinations on fork lifts as required by the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) 1998. It also provides sprayer MOTs and other machinery testing.

The engineering experience of Tim and his team is also put to good use when faced with older machinery or broken components that can’t easily be replaced. “If necessary we just make what we need from scratch,” said Tim. “We have the skills and the materials to replace broken parts and we have very experienced welders on hand to help.”

The bespoke side of the business is something Tim enjoys and is certainly valued by farmers who sometimes want to keep a vital piece of equipment going beyond the point at which parts departments decide it no longer exists.
“As soon as someone tells me there’s no way it can be fixed, I get interested,” he admitted.

Tim has also been involved in more ambitious projects, creating a bespoke trenching machine and even designing specialist truck-mounted video screens for outdoor events.

With margins being squeezed and the price of new machinery a challenge when set against the current price of grain, maintaining, repairing and generally extending the life of expensive bits of kit is now more important than ever, and that’s where the skills of the TC Agri team can play a big part in farming success.

“It’s more important now than ever before to look after farm machinery, service it and make sure that it is performing efficiently and reliably,” said Tim, who fears that many farmers are paying the price for the recently introduced three crop rule.

“Some of the more unusual crops that farmers are now growing – the likes of millet and linseed – can play havoc with a combine if the operator isn’t familiar with the crop or doesn’t get the timing absolutely right. We’ve seen an increase in problems, including fires, since the new rule came in and it’s really not helping.”

What is helping is the support that comes from a reliable and cost-effective servicing and repair team, and that’s what TC Agri sets out to provide.

And while Tim and his team deliver the goods out in the field, he relies on the back office support provided by chartered accountants McCabe Ford Williams. “I’ve been really impressed by the service they have given me,” he said.

“Letting McCabe’s look after the bookkeeping and admin side has freed up hundreds of hours that I am now using to look after my farming customers.

“It means I can get out there and tackle real challenges – like mending a forklift for a dairy farmer who can’t feed his cattle until I finish the job. That’s the kind of thing that gives me a real buzz.”