Since the early 1980s, John Henderson has been a pioneer of share farming from his estate near Skipton, North Yorkshire. With retirement looming and share farmers Tony Shepherd and David Coates being transferred on to Farm Business Tenancies, Ben Briggs went to meet the trio and asked why this form of farming had worked for them.
For decade after decade John Henderson watched and help shape, in his own way, the changing face of British agriculture. Now, at the age of 75, he has decided to retire, bringing the curtain down on more than 30 years of share farming success.
“My father always said you should ‘sit down while they are still clapping’,” says John, from his well-appointed office at Kelber Farm, Coniston Cold, near Skipton, North Yorkshire.
“Mind you,” he adds, “this is not my farming obituary, is it?”
A natural raconteur, he is a man with a fascination for the political workings of agriculture, albeit one who has little time for the current crop of politicians, and he has been a long-time trailblazer and promoter of the share farming principle, sometimes to the annoyance of those in the tenanted sector.
But with his family now in London and his duties as a grandparent taking him to the capitol more and more, he has taken the decision to put his two share farmers, Tony Shepherd and David Coates, on to 20-year farm business tenancies (FBT) and place the whole 708-hectare (1,750-acre) estate in the hands of an agent, allowing him to break away from formal day-to-day involvement in the business.
With David’s arrangement starting in 1984 and Tony’s in 1990, the trio admit the switch to a tenancy on January 31 this year was very much ‘the end of an era’. It’s clear working together is an experience the three men have all enjoyed and the relationship both David and Tony share with John, built on mutual trust and respect, has been at the core of their share farming agreements’ success.
The concept of share farming first attracted John’s attention in the early 1980s when, as chairman of agricultural land use at the CLA, he spent his weekdays in the organisation’s offices in Belgrave Square, London, and evenings living out of The Farmers Club, Whitehall.
Heavily involved with the inner workings of the CLA for 15 years during the 1980s and 1990s, John was able to meet a range of people and new ideas in the process.
He says: “I got involved nationally with the CLA in the early 1980s and met a man called Richard Stratton, from Cornwall, who was interested in share farming and had been to Australia and New Zealand to learn more about the concept.
“It was something which interested me and then, when one of the farms on the estate became vacant, I was wondering how someone would rent it from me in the state it was in.
“At the same time, David had come back from college and was farming with his mum and dad on the estate and we decided to see whether a share farming agreement would work for us.”
Still working together 34 years later, it is clear the experiment went well and David now runs a successful beef and sheep unit on a different farm to the one he originally took on, as well as a diversified equestrian paddock and haylage enterprise (see box).
“You can use the system to make it fit for you,” says David. “We started on one farm with a certain arrangement and have changed it as things have moved on. It is flexible.”
When John and David’s partnership got underway in the 1980s, the CLA published its first guide to share farming and John took up the issue on a national level, touring the country to give talks about the practicality of such arrangements. It is still an issue he is passionate about and one he wishes more land agents would consider, rather than opting for what he believes is the ‘easy option’ of an FBT.
With David already on board, Tony became involved with the estate – compiled by John’s father, a Keighley woollen mill owner, in the years immediately after World War II – when he wrote John a letter in the late 1980s asking if he had any land to rent.
Tony, who comes from Gargrave but not from a farming background, says: “Fortunately for me, John filed that letter away and after I came back from a stint in Australia and New Zealand he got in touch.”
A Harper Adams graduate, Tony was offered the chance to run St Helen’s farm in a share farming partnership, while at the same time running his own sheep contracting business.
With the original farmhouse sold to someone willing to spend the money to renovate it, Tony commuted to the farm from his home in Gargrave for 10 years before he was able to acquire a piece of land from John and construct a purpose-built home for him and his family.
Again, the partnership has been a success and Tony and John were In Your Field writers for Farmers Guardian for three years until 2015. But the three men are clear while share farming has worked for them and they would all like to see it more widely considered in the industry, it is not for everyone.
John says: “Every college is full of good young people but the challenge the industry faces is getting the older farmers out, which is not an easy solution. Farmers get to the age where they should retire but they do not have family coming through and the thought of stepping away frightens them to death.
“Share farming offers them a chance to step back but not necessarily step away if they do not want to. You get the enthusiasm of a young person to do the bulk of the work and it also allows them to buy a way in if that is possible.
“People are missing a trick if they do not assess the options.”
Tony adds: “We have had negative comments along the way. Not all farmers want their landlord to know what they are doing, so it will not suit everyone. However, we have always thought it was good to have a relationship with the landlord so you can bat ideas back and forth with a non-family member. John can come at issues from a different perspective and this makes you approach things differently.”
Pot Haw Farm, Coniston Cold
St Helen’s Farm, Eshton
David and Tony clearly appreciate John’s role as a farming mentor and David believes it is something which should be more widely adopted. It has clearly made a big difference to the way he runs his business, especially with John’s insistence on monthly separate meetings with the pair.
David says: “The meetings are something I have enjoyed and they have been one of the highlights. You might have a range of problems in front of you, but a problem shared is a problem halved.”
John adds the monthly meetings have been key as they have introduced ‘a discipline’ to the partnership and ensured all parties have kept on top of relevant paperwork and documentation for fear, simply put, of turning up to the meeting and not having done what was appropriate.
The share farming agreements have been run on a 70:30 split of year end operating profits, with the larger portion going to David and Tony (see box for more details). Not set in stone, this has been tweaked, in David’s case, at a time when investment was needed in the farm.
David says: “We needed some new scrapers for one of the sheds. You could argue that as these were replacing a scraper tractor they were a machinery cost and would therefore be covered by me.
“However, John and I had a discussion and decided they could be classed as a fixture. He went on to pay for the automatic scrapers but, as a result, we increased his stake in the share by 2 per cent to reflect this. He could have argued the other way, but we arrived at a good solution.”
All three agree they have not always seen eye to eye on everything, but the nature of the men means that, on most things, they have worked towards compromise if they can.
But what now? Well, with Craven Cattle Marts auctioneer Ted Ogden, who is also FG’s Mart’s the Heart current auctioneer of the year, valuing the stock and fixtures on both units, Tony and David have given John his relevant share before transferring to the FBTs.
And while both began their partnerships with John at the start of their careers, they now have FBTs which will likely take them to retirement or see the next generation enter the business.
For David, this means the return of his son Harry, aged 30, to the farm after time spent working as a structural engineer.
“He has been a partner for 18 months,” says David.
“Hopefully he brings new ideas and new business discipline to the farm. I also hope it means I can have a weekend off away from the business because, like a lot of farmers, if I am here I will always find something to do to keep me busy.”
The cyclical nature of the partnership is also not lost on Tony. He says: “John took a risk when I was in my early 20s and offered me the opportunity to share farm at St Helen’s Farm, for which I have a lot to thank him. Ironically, a 20-year FBT will see me through to retirement.”
For John, the prospect of moving closer to London is being weighed up and while it is clear he is setting things in place on his own terms, he is nevertheless proud of what he has achieved.
“I shall miss it hugely and it has been enormous fun,” he says. “David and Tony are very different people and this has been great fun as I would not want them to be the same; the challenges have always been different.”
Whether in Yorkshire or London, however, you get the feeling John’s passion for share farming and the wider industry in general will burn brightly wherever he resides.