Long-established family business, W H Skinner and Sons is still operating from the family’s fruit farm in Maidstone, Kent. Brothers Peter, Paul and John Skinner have been expanding the wide range of services they offer to mid-Kent farmers.

The family provides agricultural, arboriculture and domestic contract services in addition to orchard work, ploughing and many other challenging tasks.

“Things have come a long way since we were using a Grey Ferguson 35 with a foreloader and fork when we were young,” said Peter Skinner. “We are now fully equipped to cover just about everything from orchard grubbing and windbreak removal to ground re-contouring, excavations, pond dredging, fallen tree removal and timber extraction.”

Having grown up on a fruit and arable farm, one of the key things which sets the Skinners apart from some other contractors is the family’s depth of knowledge. Peter operated an earthmoving business for a number of years while Paul and John continued to run the farm that their father William Skinner established just after the war.

Running their own farm has helped the Skinners to develop their portfolio of experience and enables them to provide clients with a unique level of service that would not usually be found among contractors from the plant hire industry, for instance.

“When we get called to a farm we don’t always just isolate the initial job we have been asked to look at,” explained Peter. “By looking at the farm as a whole we can often, if required, help to develop a strategy that will help to reduce costs.”

A few months ago, the team were instructed to remove earth from an embankment to make way for a property extension. The customer had originally been quoted by another firm for the removal of dirt from the site, but Paul quickly spotted a cost effective alternative solution. “When taking transport into consideration, moving dirt off site would have been an unnecessary expense. After looking around the farm we found that part of the orchard had been planted on quite a steep embankment and after talking to the farmer it was clear that not only were they often struggling to get tractors up the slope in wet weather but the orchard was due to be grubbed anyway,” said Peter. The farmer agreed to grub the orchard in order to make way for the spare earth. The Skinner team were able to cut out the expenditure of moving earth off site and, in the process, have also improved productivity and safety by re-contouring the steep banks which were difficult to negotiate safely.

Peter continued: “A lot of the work we do comes to us because our customers realise that we are versatile and very experienced in farm and rural contracting work. If we were from a different industry and didn’t understand fruit growing we probably wouldn’t operate in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of landowners. We think that our father’s training had a lot to do with this.”

Constantly working with growers to find the best way to carry out the job, the team are also sensitive to ground compaction issues which can come from moving heavy loads, customer security and confidentiality, as well as deadlines. Even when the order book is busy Peter makes sure the urgency of a job is factored in to ensure wherever possible that everyone meets their targets.

Knowing how important saving money and time is, W H Skinner and Sons has developed a one-stop-shop of services and they pride themselves on their versatility. If a grower or a new landowner want to re-purpose some land, the team would be able to do everything from the orchard grubbing to the ploughing, cultivating and clearance of any debris.

Having access to their own transport means that the movement of equipment can be done exactly when required and is usually at a lower cost. Such a broad range of machinery often allows them to see the whole process through to the finish where otherwise two or three contractors might need to be involved.

“Several customers have commented that we have completed works more rapidly than previous contractors have done, and that often we have left the site tidier and more level than they were expecting.”

Attention to detail is also key and the team will often complete more specialist jobs that may not be tackled by many agricultural contractors.

“If we’ve grubbed a five-acre orchard and the client wants it subsoiled, ploughed and power harrowed, we are often more well suited to the job than other contractors because our machinery is appropriately sized. We can also work in confined spaces and are willing to tackle intricate jobs too,” explained Peter.

“Orchard grubbing has quickly become a core part of our business. There are a whole host of reasons we are called out to grub an orchard; most of the growers we work with are replacing trees, but, for instance, we cleared an orchard earlier this year that had been abandoned for a number of years, and now another farmer has purchased it and wants to bring it back into production.”

With access to drotts, diggers, telehandlers, tractors and varying sizes of excavators, the team has an ideal range of machinery to grub any type of orchard from little twin stem trees right up to old standard plantations.

“One could do the work with just a bucket, but it is often uneconomic and can make a lot of mess. We have a range of claws and grabs which have been specifically designed to suit our purpose and they allow us to tackle any type of orchard plantations with optimum productivity,” said Peter.
The family are also qualified tree surgeons and, with access to more heavy equipment and capabilities than the average tree surgeon, are able to cope with an array of requirements from the removal of windbreaks to fallen trees and timber extraction.

“Along with the fruit work we also do a lot of tree removals for clients who have had large trees blown down during stormy weather,” said Peter. “People often choose us because they don’t have the equipment, the skills or the time for the job.”

“Recently we have had increasing numbers of growers calling us out to remove out-dated windbreaks. While there was a fashion to plant poplars thirty to forty years ago, many have experienced issues with too much shade, competition for water and nutrients and also the fact that the poplars can frequently get out of hand.”

With word of mouth powering the business so far, Peter is now looking to drive it forward through the development of a new website as well as exhibiting at the National Fruit Show for the first time this year. As a family, the Skinners have in the past entered fruit in the show, picking up some awards over the years and the brothers have fond memories of visiting, right back to when it was based in Marden.

For growers wishing to discuss the services W H Skinner and Sons offer in more depth, Peter and his brother Paul will be on Stand S53 at the National Fruit Show, on 25 and 26 October 2017 at Kent Event Centre, Detling.

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