If hill farming is to survive post-Brexit, we need to challenge the 50-year-old model which sees producing increasing numbers of animals as the key to financial health. Competition from overseas, spiralling costs and the squeeze on farmgate prices is making hill farming more and more unprofitable and more dependent on the public purse.
When times get tough, farmers have turned to more production, often at increased cost to themselves, nature and the wider environment. As a conservation charity with 1,800 tenant farmers, this matters to the National Trust. By helping upland farmers become more entrepreneurial, we can ensure a brighter future for upland farming – where producing less could often mean more money and wildlife.
Recently, I spent a couple of days with Yorkshire Dales farmer Chris Clark. He is a neighbour of the trust and a farmer with a very different outlook on an upland farm business. Chris used to run 250 ewes, but now stocks about 30 ewes and their lambs and a dozen native Shorthorn cattle on his 161-hectare (400-acre) holding at Nethergill.
He cares deeply for his land and its wildlife. Stock are fenced out of newly planted native woodland and he diligently stewards his hay meadows. Chris is dedicated to making his farm pay its way. His recipe is simple: know your balance sheet, plan high margins and avoid unnecessary costs.
He takes frugality in managing input costs for his livestock to a new level. Cattle and sheep largely look after themselves, he uses no artificial fertilisers and no supplementary feeding of concentrates. In partnership with a top-class local butcher and chef, Chris and his wife Fi have created ready meals, which they sell locally and to guests they welcome to their self-catering accommodation.
In a traditional model, where cattle are sold at market, Chris would get about £800 for every finished animal. Now, with the meat used in his gourmet ready meals, each animal is worth £4,000. His on-farm accommodation makes significant revenue and is a market for ready meals.
What Chris’ story shows is the importance of business nous. For farming to thrive post-Brexit, we need to invest in farmers’ business skills. Most farmers are entrepreneurial by nature. But there is a case for Government to help farmers out: giving them the business advice to help them rethink and pursue margin and profit, rather than gross revenue and tax efficiency.
As a landlord and conservation charity, the National Trust has more of a role to play too. Statistic after statistic suggests money cannot be made by most upland farmers. But farmers like Chris Clark are showing it can. Post-Brexit, we need to seize the opportunity to build a better future for farming in our hills.