In a new blog series, Matt Styles tells Farmers Guardian about what it is like to start a farming business from nothing.
As I sit here in the tractor eating lunch and writing this article, I am looking at the price and profitability of dairy cows whilst also looking over the particulars for another farm tenancy and wondering if I take on too much at once. If there is anything I have learnt since starting my own business it is that on any given day I can, metaphorically speaking, wear a variety of different hats. One minute I could be treating a sick animal, or wrestling with cantankerous machinery, and then go and collect eggs or trawl through excel spreadsheets.
It is safe to say that I am always learning something new - in fact, it is amazing what you do not know. I have been described as a jack of all trades, which by definition is better than a master of one. I believe a degree of flexibility is key to running a successful business. I was once told that there is nothing sadder than an old, lonely workaholic, and yet the advice we are given is to chase your dreams, work hard and only those who work hard will achieve the impossible. So where in that spectrum do you strike some sort of life balance? At present I am more focused on work - I rarely take time off, never take a holiday, regularly miss out on social events and struggle to make time for myself. Am I alone in this? I very much doubt it, and I think myself and a lot of other young farmers with similar aspirations are all working very hard.
So, what is the solution? Well it is something that I have been thinking about, and given that farming is more of a lifestyle choice than just a job, is there anything wrong with working seven days a week? If you enjoy what you do so much to the point you do not feel like you need to take a break, then why would you? Heck, I even moved my ewes on Christmas day because their field had flooded, and you know what? It was one of the best Christmas’s I have had. My point is it is a modern conception to have ‘leisure time.’ Do not get me wrong, my life is not about work 24/7, but if you enjoy what you do, what is so wrong with that?
Another piece of advice I try to live by is work smarter not harder. You can be the hardest grafter in the land and still have little success or money. I am, however, a firm believer that money should not be the motivating factor, certainly not in farming anyway. If you have a good product to sell then money will follow, focus on making a good product. As most involved in agriculture know, it is a lifestyle, and I wake up every morning thinking about farming and go to sleep every night dreaming about farming. It may seem sad to some, but it is my life and one thing I have learnt through my twenties is to not give a damn what other people think about you. No matter what you do or say, someone will have an opinion about it, so just be yourself.
So aside from the personal and financial challenges to overcome, what else is there? Well there is availability of land, market fluctuations, ever increasing input costs and the weather, to name but a few. But the biggest piece of advice I could give to anyone thinking of starting out in farming is to get good at problem solving. It is a skill that takes practice, and you learn as you go along. No two days are ever the same and I have found you are constantly evolving. It is worth it to have long and short-term goals in place - that will give you a vision of what you need to do to get there. Make a plan, and do not be afraid to change bits along the way.
It may all sound doom and gloom and to an extent it is – it is really hard graft and I am out there in all weathers, facing all kinds of new challenges. But it is also incredibly rewarding. I have never in my life felt satisfaction like it when, for example, you see a newborn lamb take its first suckle of milk from a ewe that you bought, and a tup that you chose. Then you get to see that lamb thrive and grow, and just for a moment all the troubles and worries just go away. Those are the moments I live for; that is why I am doing this - without pain and suffering there can be no great reward. Life, if you truly want to achieve something great, is just a series of challenges presented to you to overcome, but that is how you grow as a person. If you do not push yourself outside your comfort zone and always ask ‘what more can I do’ you will find you do not get very far at all. There is anything wrong with that, but I am a highly ambitious person so I find it difficult to understand why someone would not have ambitions or goals in life.
So, what is stopping you from chasing your dream? The answer is you. For me, the wake-up call was the day I realised it was never going to happen unless I just started doing it. I took a gamble and just went for it. It is the only way and really, what have you got to lose?