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Farming’s dark secret: succession planning

“Families can fall apart because you have not taken any steps to sort out the future; and that is disgraceful,” says third generation farmer Abi Reader, who runs a dairy farm in partnership with her father and uncle just outside Cardiff.

Farming’s dark secret: succession planning

In Abi Reader’s case, it took her father’s ill health to trigger succession discussions onfarm. She had been working on the farm since her early 20s, but it was 14 years before she became a named partner in the business.

 

She says: “It is not that no-one wanted succession, it is just that no-one wanted to do it. I had many sleepless nights worrying about it, thinking how I would survive if something happened to another member of my family. You give up a lot when you work on a farm, so you deserve something back.”

 

Her solution in the intervening period was to take various agricultural courses to keep up her skills and save up money to be able to buy a house with her cousin.

 

She says: “It was the best thing I ever did, as it gave me a sense of self-worth to know I was employable and had somewhere to live.”


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Conversations

For Ms Reader, succession conversations can never come soon enough: “The barrier always seems to be time and avoiding having to have the conversation. It is farming’s bad secret, but it shouldn’t be.”

 

David Hanson, a relationship manager and agricultural specialist at NatWest, says farming is unusual compared to other businesses, because of the existence of family farms which have been passed down between generations.

 

He says: “When you talk about farming, it is about what are the exit plans for the current generation and whether the next generation will take it on.

 

“It is not as straightforward a conversation as before. They might not want to come back to the farm or might want to look at different ventures and use the farm as a base to develop new businesses.

Important

Mr Hanson says it is important the next generation is not left out of the regular financial conversations, meetings with the bank and other important farm business relationships.

 

Before becoming a named partner, with a share of the profits, Ms Reader says she would have had difficulty running the business if something had happened to her father or uncle.

 

As it was, she was handicapped by challenges, including being unable to run the business by paying bills, buying equipment or making decisions.

 

She says: “It is very frustrating phoning the Rural Payments Agency, for example, to sort something out and being told they cannot speak to you because you are not one of the business partners.”

 

Even now, Ms Reader still has uncertainty around what would happen to the farm business and its physical assets, including milking cows, crops and feed, in the event of a family death. That could be resolved with a more solid agreement for how the farm could be kept running in the short-term with contracts met until a long-term decision is made.

 

She says: “It would be lovely to say that on day one after a death we have something which would stop us all having a family meltdown. You may not get what you always want from farm succession, but if you know, you can prepare for it.”

 

Mr Hanson agrees, and as well as taking away the uncertainty and sleepless nights for family members, he says having clear scenarios in place removes a risk to the survival of the farm business.

 

He says: “There can be resistance to change, but if farm businesses are not changing with the times, the bank can be concerned about the prospects for the future.

Future plans

“If you have not yet properly thought through plans for the future, it is a risk to the business. You need to have measures in place to protect both the farm and your family and any financial obligations in the event of something happening to someone.”

 

Andrew Craven, 57, is on the other side of the succession conversation and thinking about how and when he can hand over responsibility of his farm to his two sons, both in their early 20s.

 

He says he has deliberately diversified his business near Boston, Lincolnshire, which includes freerange eggs, arable and haulage businesses, so there were different elements for them both to have their own responsibilities and ‘not tread on each other’s toes’.

 

Mr Craven says: “There are a lot of people who do not get the reins of the farm until they are 55 years old, which is a disaster in terms of the business going forward, because you are not in a position to take on new ideas and technology as someone who is 25-30 years old.”

 

Mr Craven who went through his own succession in the mid-1990s when his family’s farm was split four ways.

 

While he has not yet completely worked out how and when he will hand over the business to his sons,he plans for them to have a financial stake within the next five years as soon as they are settled and in a stable state.

 

He says: “I am very fortunate that they have both been involved in the farm from a young age and are keen to take on the business.“I do not think you should divorce yourself from the business. I think they will always want my input until I am in my box, but I do not want to hold them back, as even if I disagree with decisions they make,I may not be right.”

 

For Mr Craven, one of the biggest barriers to succession is the quality of the relationship between parents and children and between siblings if there are more than one.

 

There also needs to be an income in place to provide forthe person who wants to retire.

 

He says: “The business has to grow and have a plan for how the person who is going to leave can live. That comes down to money and planning for this event sooner rather than later, when there is time and you have control around yours and your family’s future.”

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