As the industry evaluates the success of the International year of Family Farming (IYFF) in raising the sector’s profile, UK farming leaders gave their thoughts on the sector’s future.
Specifically, the tackled the question: ‘Can family farms survive in a global agricultural environment?’
“It is family farms which have made much of our landscape the way it is today and each generation wants to maintain and improve the land within their care.
“However, family farms are constrained by unpredictable margins, fluctuating productivity and problems with succession planning.
“The vast majority of family farms are unincorporated businesses, which means they are taxed at personal and not company rates. This inevitably leaves less to invest in the business.
“To continue stimulating economic growth, the Government must simplify the tax system to reflect modern rural businesses by extending tax relief and treating privately-owned rural businesses more consistently with those operating in other economic sectors. This will ensure family farms can compete on a global scale.”
In Scotland the tenanted family farm has traditionally been the backbone of quality livestock and cereal production for growing export markets and the entry route for aspiring young farmers.
Owner-occupier farms are finding it difficult enough, but add in the over-heated rental market and tenant farmers are in real danger of being squeezed out by ambitious land-grabbing large established farmers.
In Scotland the problem is compounded by a feudal system of land tenure, with 432 individuals owning 50 per cent of the land.
Next year will be the year of land and tenancy reform up here and we look forward to a more inclusive and fairer society where more land would become available for families to play their role.
Family farms are the life and soul of Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry and I believe we are proof family farms can survive, and in fact thrive, in a global agriculture environment.
A significant stumbling block remains the current supply chain operation, which does not deliver fairness and profitability for all partners.
We want to see a commitment from our supply chain partners, such as retailers and processors, to creating a successful single integrated supply chain which allows all partners to be profitable – including farmers.
The Government can help by supporting farmers and their businesses find export markets abroad.
UK Trade and Investment has a key role in helping farmers in this and need to offer tailored support.
At home, I want to see more UK-grown produce, especially from smaller farmers winning contracts with the Government.
Procurement rules must be further changed to make this happen.
With more and more family farms reliant upon Farm Business Tenancies (FBTs) with fixed lengths of term, we need to see a greater degree of security through longer term FBTs.
The knowledge and wisdom of family farms must also be appreciated by policymakers when they are developing farming and environmental schemes. Family farms can help themselves too by ensuring clarity of business structures within the family by writing everything down.
Processors and retailers also have a part to play. They often market products to consumers through the prism of the family farm and it is about time they put value back into that image by supporting family farms through the price they pay for their output.
Catherine runs independent sheep consultancy firm KN Consulting and also farms a 160-hectare (400-acre) upland sheep unit in conjunction with her parents.
The family started farming in 1977 and gradually built-up from a 28ha (70 acres) farm in Llanybydder to a 162ha (400 acre) farm in Talley.
One of three daughters, Catherine was the only one who wanted to carry on the business.
She said: “I have always been involved in the industry and worked off the farm for five years after finishing my PhD. In 2009, I set-up my own sheep consultancy business so I can also get more involved in the farm at home as well as continuing to work.
“The main challenge is there isn’t the ‘filter’ you have when working with colleagues so it is a lot easier to be grumpier.
“The kinds of things you do when you work for a commercial company such as regular review meetings, agendas and targets tend not be implemented in family farming systems.
“It would be great to see the increased use of these ‘governance’ procedures presented, discussed and encouraged within family farming businesses.
“With my consultancy work I use KPIs to help measure and monitor flock performance and profitability and I actually think their wider use within family farming businesses could take some of the stress and conflict out of decision-making. It is a way of leading people into the concept of governance without too much formality in its early stages.”
Families are integral to most farm businesses and often provide a route into the industry for new entrants.
Rebecca Laughton was given the opportunity to set up a vegetable enterprise on Tamarisk Farm in Dorset where she first worked as a WWOOFer (Worldwide Worker On an Organic Farm) eight years ago.
She said: “I started out on an acre strip that had already been ploughed and cultivated, and produced a range of crops which I sold to three pubs and three shops, but have the flexibility to expand in future as more land is available.
“For me, being part of a family farm has many benefits. I am able to share the family’s knowledge and experience of farming, draw on their skills and machinery for cultivation, and use manure produced by the overwintered cattle. Therefore I can avoid investing in machinery, and use hand tools, but call on the tractor when appropriate, significantly minimising costs.”
Ms Laughton said the practical and moral support the family have offered her has been ‘invaluable’.
“Through countless conversations about farm issues I have gained invaluable confidence and knowledge.
“For the many people like me, excluded from farming by high land prices and initial lack of experience, arrangements such as this can increase access to land-based livelihoods, while bringing fresh ideas and increasing the range of products that a farming family can provide.”