Farming’s next generation brings new energy to the family business
06:30 06 February 2016
Archant Norfolk © 2016
Children are usually expected to learn from their parents. But in a rapidly-modernising industry, what can farming families learn from the skills and ideas of the younger generation?
Agriculture faces many challenges in the years to come – including how to improve productivity in a competitive world, and how to retain the talent and energy of the next generation.
And while today’s farmers have accumulated a lifetime of knowledge to pass on to their sons and daughters, it may be necessary for them to break the mould rather than simply follow in their parents’ footsteps.
Perhaps the inspiration will come from university studies, or travelling the world, or by plying a different trade to acquire new expertise to bring back to the farm when the time is right.
Three examples of these “future farmers” will tell their stories at next week’s Norfolk Farming Conference, showing not only what they have learned from their parents – but also what they can teach them.
And in each case it has been adversity which has provided the opportunity for the changes which have revolutionised their family businesses.
A serious illness in the family was the catalyst for change which brought a trained accountant and mother-of-two back to a Norfolk farm business.
Sophie Young, 35, is a partner in MD Wright and Partners, a fourth-generation family farm in Acle with almost 600 acres of arable land and a portfolio of rental properties.
After graduating with an agricultural degree from Newcastle University in 2002 she joined Lovewell Blake and qualified as a chartered accountant in 2005, before moving to the specialist agricultural services group.
But she returned to the family farm two years ago after her uncle John Wright, who looked after the farm’s sheep enterprise, was hospitalised with severe pancreatitis in March 2013.
Now, having worked with solicitors and tax advisors to create a succession plan and a new partnership agreement, she has re-built the farm’s flock with 150 Welsh halfbred sheep alongside her 34-year-old cousin Oliver, also now a partner in the firm.
She said: “Oliver has worked on the farm since he left school but it is really only in the last year that we have become more involved in the running of the farm and the decision-making.
“After I had my second child it coincided with my uncle’s illness. Before that there was not really room for me to come in. It was good for me to go and learn these skills and bring back what I have learned.
“Because of my training I know how to use the farm planning packages on the computer, and I’ve been able to do the VAT returns and budgets. It is much easier for me because of the skills from my previous job.”
Sophie said the new partnership arrangement was flexible enough to create future opportunities for her children, five-year-old Toby and Hugo, who will be two next week.
“It will be there for our children if they want it,” she said. “Also, it is important to have this in place in time to have that changeover period where you are working side-by-side with the older generation. They have been doing this all their life and they have a lot of knowledge to pass on. Especially coming from an office environment back onto the farm, there are lots of things I need to learn.”
Sophie’s father, Stephen Wright, said: “She is a godsend. The skills she has brought to this business in the last couple years will be so valuable for us in the future, as well as what we’ve already had to deal with.
“When my brother’s illness came on it all happened in 20 minutes. The whole business of MD Wright and Partners changed from that moment. That was really the impetus for the next generation.
“The partnership was fit for purpose for us, but not for the children. That was where Sophie has been invaluable in the planning of the new partnership with her knowledge.
“John and I are both over 60 now and we always knew we had to make provisions for the future, but we put it off. John’s illness was a stark reminder that we needed to get on with it.”
Robert Hirst’s idea to integrate pig units into his family’s mixed farm was fast-tracked after a traumatic fire destroyed livestock and buildings just three days after his return from study and travelling.
Pregnant ewes and newborn lambs were lost when fire ripped through buildings at Hirst Farms in Ormesby, near Great Yarmouth, in March 2014.
Robert had just returned from six months travelling in Australia and New Zealand, following his studies at Harper Adams university.
The 24-year-old farm manager said the disaster was difficult to cope with, but it opened up the opportunity to re-invest £400,000 in a new pig unit, comprising two sheds holding 1,000 pigs each.
“I was struggling with jet-lag as it was, so to be woken up at 3am to see the farm was on fire was not the best start,” he said. “It was heartbreaking for us, but it gave us the opportunity to do something different with our business.
“We had some money to spend from the insurance, so we invested in two pig sheds. In my final year at Harper Adams there was a lot of talk about pig breeders wanting finishing spaces and I came home with the idea and with Dad we said let’s look into it. We made some phone calls and realised there was some demand for pig finishing spaces.
“I appreciate the guidance my parents gave me to go away from the farm, rather than just carry on with what we were doing here.
“Originally when I was doing my A Levels, my parents were saying: ‘You need to try something different and go away from the farm for a few years’. But when I was at Harper Adams I was keen on coming home and putting these ideas into practice.”
Robert’s father Richard Hirst said: “I think as parents we always wanted to encourage Robert to go away for 10 years and learn another trade, whether that was as a lawyer or a banker. But he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to come home and farm.
“I am conscious of lots of farming families where there is a grandfather, a father, and a son in his 30s with no role other than being a tractor driver. So I was keen that Robert picked up the responsibility straight away.
“If we had not given him the opportunity to take a bit more day-to-day control and bring these ideas in, then maybe he would not have come home.
“I think it is very important. As an industry, we have got to encourage fresh ideas, give young people the confidence that it works, and the enthusiasm to push it through. That is something the industry has not been very good at.
“There are lots of people doing what their fathers and grandfathers did, which is not necessarily wrong, but they might be able to do it better. He works ridiculously hard and it is great to have him back with fresh ideas and fresh impetus. I am enjoying farming more as a result.”
A dairy unit in Attleborough would have gone out of business without a radical change of system, inspired by the return of the farmer’s son.
By the time Ben Walker completed his completed his degree at Newcastle University in 2010, his father Ian had already decided the dairy could not survive with its existing business model.
So when Ben returned from his subsequent trip visiting farms in Australia and New Zealand he set to work with his father, and sector levy board DairyCo (now AHDB Dairy), to revolutionise Hall Farm’s profitability.
Now, it has transformed from an 11,000-litre system which housed and calved the cows all year round, to a 9,000-litre autumn block calving, with an increased reliance on grazing bringing a dramatic reduction of production costs.
The 160-strong herd has been switched from Holstein cows to British Friesians, and given access to 48 hectares of grass for grazing.
As a result, the use of concentrate feed has fallen from 4.2t per cow to 2.4t per cow. Milk from forage has increased from 5pc to 40pc.
Ben, 27, said: “On the old system, we would be losing money hand over fist, but at the moment with this system we can survive, even at the prices we are getting now. The cows would definitely have gone if we had not done this.
“I am not just ‘following in the footsteps’. I respect the fact that my father has got a lot more experience than me, but there are certain ways of thinking that have changed, both on the business side of things and the practical side. There are always things to be learned from other people.
“In Australia I worked on a big block-calving dairy unit and I learned a lot, and in New Zealand and picked up some tips on the grazing side of things.
Ben’s younger brother Tim, 25, is also a partner in the business and looks after the farm’s arable operations. He also toured Australia and New Zealand after finishing his university studies.
Their father, Ian Walker, said: “The last thing I would want is them coming home and carrying on what has always been done. They need to go away and get a decent education, and then travel, and see what other people do in other parts of the world.
“I did the same when I was their age. But I know there are some people of Ben’s age that have not taken the chance and will probably regret it later in life.
“By the time he finished at Newcastle, I knew our cows were not making any money. We had a father-son meeting down the pub before he went travelling and I said: ‘Do you want to do the cows when you get back? Because if you don’t, they won’t be here’.
“He said yes, so I kept them going and when he came back it was on the understanding that the system had to change.”
• The “future farmers” will be among the speakers at the Norfolk Farming Conference, being held at the John Innes Conference Centre on Thursday. Chaired by National Farmers’ Union vice president Guy Smith, it will bring a host of industry-leading speakers to the venue at Colney, including Defra minister George Eustice and Andy Wood, chief executive of Adnams.
•Tickets are still available for the event. For more information and to book, click here or call 01603 881 803.