A programme that aims to support and equip family farms with the knowledge and tools to build business resilience is bringing big benefits to those involved.
Small family farms are at the heart of rural communities, but with volatile market prices and dramatically changing agricultural policy they are also often the businesses under the biggest pressure.
Research by The Prince’s Countryside Fund – whose patron is the Prince of Wales – found small family units had the potential to be just as profitable as larger units. However, most were in need of business support to do so.
As a result, in 2016, the fund launched The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme with the aim of helping those most challenged by change and most reliant on subsidies.
The free programme is currently running in 15 locations across the UK and is open to farms with two full-time equivalent staff, where livestock is the main enterprise. Seven, small farmer group workshops are delivered by farm consultants and cover a range of topics, including financial, business and environmental management.
Farmers also have a consultant visit the farm to undertake a business health check where financial and performance data is gathered and used for anonymous benchmarking as part of the group workshops. Families will also have a number of one-to-one sessions with a consultant to establish where improvements can be made on their farm.
The programme is supported by a number of companies and, in 2015, Morrisons donated £250,000 through its Foundation to support four years of workshop activity.
Allan Wilkinson, head of AgriFoods for HSBC, is a trustee of The Prince’s Countryside Fund. He believes resilience is not just about financial resilience, but also personal resilience and having the ability to adapt to change with confidence.
He says: “The programme supports farmers to build on their core strengths, while really changing weaker areas of their business. The most resilient businesses are the ones that take action and embrace change.”
FOR Gerard Donnan, gaining a fresh perspective on the business and which direction to take it in have been some of the benefits of getting involved in The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme.
“It’s made me have an eye on every detail. Why are we doing it? Could we do it better? That gets into your mindset. Can you increase efficiencies to maximise your output?” he says.
Gerard farms with his wife Jo-Ann. They run 35 predominately Limousin and Simmental suckler cows, with calves sold as stores or finished, depending on the market. The farm also has 120 Texel, Suffolk and Texel cross Suffolk ewes. Lambs are sold through a local co-op to Linden Meats.
Gerard signed up to the programme in October 2018. Although he already had a good handle on costs through his involvement in other focus groups, he felt this would provide ‘a fresh look at things’.
Having a mentor come out on-farm to look at the business also proved valuable. The Donnans had already been thinking of ways to maximise output from the farm and considering whether to increase sheep or cattle numbers.
“It was a different perspective on it. Rather than me saying, I’m going to do this, that or the other, he forecast calculations on whether it would work or not,” says Gerard. Following the forecasting, it’s likely that they will increase sheep numbers.
He believes being around positive thinking people in the programme’s various meetings has also been valuable.
“It’s nice to get into a room and see that, yes, what we’re doing at the moment might not be ideal, but let’s find our way round it.”
Ultimately he believes approachingfarming as a business is vital to ensure long-term resilience.
“First and foremost, we have to realise we’re business owners. We have to run farms as a business. You cannot run it as a hobby and say, this is what we did years ago and it has to work.”
SUPPORT from The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme has proved ‘a god send’ for the Poad family, who admit that without it, they likely wouldn’t be farming today.
“I 100 per cent feel like we have a more resilient business,” says Stephen Poad. “I’m more confident for the future. We are carrying on and if we hadn’t met The Resilience Programme, we wouldn’t be.”
Stephen farms with wife Maria and son Ben. The farm runs 190 Holstein cows and rears beef from the dairy herd. They also have 400 Mules and Dorset cross ewes.
When poor milk price hit in 2016, Stephen approached milk buyer, Dairy Crest, with concerns that the business was unlikely to survive. A previous large investment in milking robots had also made the situation worse.
“We didn’t have any margin. We were going under because of the sheer cost of them [robots] and we weren’t getting results,” he adds.
Dairy Crest put them in contact with The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, which sent out consultant Edward Richardson to look at the business.
“He dissected what the cash flow was like and the bank balance and looked at what was happening outside. He gave us the confidence to change and woke us up,” Stephen says.
A lot of the advice focused around getting a better understanding of budgets. At the time, the family were finishing Holstein bulls, which Edward identified as costing them money.
As a result, he suggested using sexed semen on a proportion of cows to reduce the number of low value Holstein bulls produced. British Blue and Montbeliarde sires are now put on the rest.
The Montbeliarde crosses are higher value beef animals and also offer the flexibility of being kept as replacements. The British Blues are sold at birth.
The family has also started to serve cows from six weeks after calving, where as before they may have waited three months. This means there’s less stale cows in the herd which has helped milk production. This currently sits at 9,000 litres a cow.
The Poads have also attended some of The Resilience Programme meetings in St Austell, with the benchmarking meetings proving valuable to other decisions.
Mr Poad believes the whole programme has helped bring the family together.
“We didn’t argue a lot before, but it feels like a unit now and we all understand what needs to be done.”
FARMERS across the UK are pledging their support for this year’s 24 Hours in Farming. You can take part on any social media platform including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, from 5am on Thursday, August 8.
We want to know about your typical working day and any other activities you might be involved in, such as hosting farm visits, meeting fellow farmers or professionals, attending meetings or adopting new strategies on-farm.
Throughout the day, FG will be encouraging engagement by commenting, sharing and collating posts into stories throughout the whole event.
Download your free 24 Hours in Farming poster to share with others on your site, or send in a picture pledging your support, at FGinsight.com/24HoursinFarming