Robin Milton completed his six-year term as chairman of the NFU’s Upland Forum last month.
Chloe Palmer speaks to him about his farming career and his thoughts for the future of the uplands...
Robin Milton is not a typical hill farmer. He turned his back on the opportunity of lucrative career to return to the family farm and adopted a speculative approach to building the farm business at home in Exmoor.
He became chairman of the NFU’s Upland Forum in 2012 and has since campaigned relentlessly for the sector, achieving several notable successes including securing parity for the payment rate for severely disadvantaged land.
How did your career start and why did you choose to return to farming?
Having spent some time away from the family farm I was offered a job as a management consultant in the United States with a very attractive salary. I turned it down and instead opted for a move back to farming on Exmoor.
My choice to return to farming was prompted by an uncle’s decision to retire.
He was farming a small farm near to where I grew up and he rang me and made me an offer to take on the farm. So I said yes and took a 95 per cent pay cut.
How did you develop the farming business?
We took on my uncle’s farm in the mid-1980s and at this time, land was relatively cheap. Within five years of returning home, my brother and I had bought five blocks of farmland.
By the early 1990s, we owed a lot of money and interest rates were at 17 per cent.
But our perception of risk then was entirely different from how it is now because at that young age you think you are invincible.
How did your early experiences in farming influence your business decisions later in life?
My father was very active in public life for much of the time. I always said this would never happen to me! So he left the day-to-day farming to me and my brother, even though I was only in my mid-20s.
He would never let us use his farm as collateral for our investments, so we had to take on the responsibility for the risk.
Now my brother and I have sons who have always wanted to farm, so four years ago we decided to split the farm business to allow succession.
I now farm in partnership with my son but he is the priority partner and he became my boss at 23 years old.
How did you become involved with the NFU?
I had a farming injury when a sheep jumped off the top deck of a trailer and hit my knee square on causing multiple fractures and I also broke my ankle.
I was unable to farm for two years but I needed something to keep me busy.
Which achievements are you most proud of from your time as Uplands Forum chair?
When working with an organisation such as the NFU which represents all the farming sectors, you have to be able to make the case so the uplands are not sidelined.
One of the first things I did was to fight for equality of payment rates within the Single Payment Scheme and this caused some disquiet within sections of the NFU.
No other part of British agriculture except the uplands has its own section in the recent command paper, so it shows if you make a strong enough case it is possible to ensure the voice of the uplands is heard.
What are your thoughts on the likely future system of payment for public goods?
I think a system of payment for public goods bodes well for the uplands because there is now recognition the public good is there because of the management by farmers. This is why many upland areas are designated landscapes.
To maintain the farmed landscape we need a system which brings people back into the countryside.
But I think we must do more than just make a case for maintaining current payment levels. If the
landscape is a public good, let us see it rewarded properly.
We must be realistic and calculate the true cost of environmental management. To do this, we need to allocate some of the fixed costs of conservation works against this cost base rather than the farm business.
How do you view the current system of environmental payments?
The environmental organisations need to be very careful. They think their campaigning will drive farmers into their way of doing things, whereas in reality, it turns farmers against it.
Many younger farmers are now looking to innovate rather than embrace agri-environment schemes to secure additional income, although this may not necessarily be to the detriment of environmental management.
Eight years ago, my son decided to terminate one of our HLS schemes at the five-year break clause and we now manage some culm grassland on a county wildlife site in the way we think is best.
Since then, Natural England surveyed the grassland and recorded a doubling of the number of species present over the last ten years. So it seems farmers’ management may also lead to environmental gain.
Do you think Brexit will change farming in the uplands?
The last thing we must do is to treat Brexit as a threat. We must consider it as a series of opportunities and we should look at every one of them.
I think our younger generation are already doing this. They are looking at how they can optimise the different elements of the business.
I think there will challenges for those farming in the uplands and so we will see more of the right people in the industry going forward.
What advice would you give to young people coming into the industry?
I would always advise someone from a farming family to go and work for someone else before cominghome.
They will come back to the farm with a different mindset and it will open their eyes. They will be prepared to appraise risk using their own criteria and not those of others.
I would encourage young farmers to have faith in their own judgement.
How can future agricultural policy help the next generation of farmers?
We need to provide the opportunities for young, committed people to get into farming and
create a future payments system which is not tied entirely to land.
We must enable young farmers to access capital so they can borrow money when they need to.
It is absolutely essential we get future policy right now because if not, we will be held to account by future generations for many years to come.