Organic conversion provides way forward for young Aberdeenshire farmer

A new generation of farmers are looking for ways to reposition their businesses in a context of environmental degradation and accumulating changes across the agricultural sector.

Over the next year, Clydesdale & Yorkshire Bank is excited to be showcasing examples of successful farming endeavours from the new agricultural generation of under-30s, with Farmers Diaries and real-life case studies of their businesses across the region.

Siblings Sally and Kenny Mair are an example of young farmers at the forefront of this trend, helping to take their long-established family farm in Turriff through the process of Organic Conversion with financial support from Clydesdale & Yorkshire Bank (owned by Virgin Money UK plc). Currently encompassing three generations and very much a family enterprise, the Mairs are known as successful and highly reputable livestock breeders and former dairy farmers operating out of Aberdeenshire, the North East corner of Scotland. Yet, brought on as farm partner in 2018 when the sector was facing difficulties, Kenny stepped up to the responsibilities of succession and helped to begin a phased withdrawal from the dairy sector. The aim being to take the business back to basics in order to secure Organic Farm status.

During National Organic Farming Month, Kenny talks about the inspiration for the change: “We were finding that the most difficult thing was this need to constantly push to keep things viable in terms of making greater efficiencies. After taking the time to step back and reassess, it dawned on us that it was possible to go about things in a slightly different way. After much family discussion and debate, the decision was made to wipe the slate clean and pursue a different angle on livestock farming. It was a horrible feeling when the dairy herd had to go, however was nice to be able to start with a blank canvas. The plan is to run it simply, taking inspiration from old fashioned farming alongside implementing data and technology to maximise output from our livestock”.

The large-scale farming enterprise, with 830 arable acres, started the organic conversion in April 2019. The business has two years to convert to a fully organic farm holding for both sheep and cattle in a five year plan. Kenny, Sally and the rest of the family will work closely with their Regional Specialist Agricultural Bank Manger – Gregory Hannon, to benefit from his financial guidance in terms of knowledge and support on how to deliver the changeover. The aim is to also attract Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) grant funding through the conversion cycle.

“We will be running a 100 suckler cow herd by the third year of the organic conversion period, after purchasing around 50 cows initially and then retaining some home bred heifers to integrate into the herd each year. Because of the limits on purchasing livestock replacement, it forces you to breed your own stock, which actually, we love doing. We are a livestock farming family and our passion is and always has been breeding livestock. By the end of year two, in April 2021, we will be classified as fully organic cattle.”

The family also leases land for growing vegetables, planted on a rotational basis, including grass, oats, carrots and potatoes – all of which is part of the organic conversion story.

Kenny touched on some of the challenges that the Mairs are overcoming in terms of keeping the levels of fertility in their soils “Soil quality is key and we are keen to keep the grass as a major factor, with rotations and some cropping, as this regenerates the soil as opposed to stripping it bare. This has helped us strip the farm back and not be spending needless money.”

The bank has provided much needed support, building on their long-term relationship with the family in order to deliver the flexibility of funding required for the change in cash flow from a monthly milk cheque to seasonal payments to facilitate the family’s organic journey. Gregory Hannon, Commercial Agribusiness Relationship Manager from Yorkshire & Clydesdale Bank spoke about the partnership and the ambitious project:

“To make this conversion on this kind of scale, it was essential for the Bank to support the Mairs both financially and with specific expertise. Right now, we’re seeing many of the younger generation farmers coming up and wanting to make changes for the future sustainability of their businesses, both economically and environmentally. This I believe is both important and encouraging.

“There is a real surge in interest in going back to how things used to be done, and because of the added price benefits that organic farming offers there is a strong incentive business wise.

We worked on the cost analysis and projected returns, understanding the objectives and supporting the planning on how to phase the transition. Now, one year into their organic conversion, everyone has been pleased with how things are progressing and what the future of the Mair farming enterprise will look like. For me personally, it is very satisfying to be part of this journey and to be able to help them along the way.”

With the constraints of livestock numbers making it hard to secure organic, Kenny is fully concentrated on slowly building up their quality of stock and eventually becoming a supplier. This will be the natural culmination of their generations of breeding experience, where the conversion plan forecasts that the family will grow their sheep flock from 500 to 625 ewes for both purchase and retention, with further plans to establish a Beef Shorthorn pedigree herd by year two of around 15 cows with followers.

With so much change on the way, Clydesdale & Yorkshire Bank continues to be committed to supporting farmers with innovative investment and financial planning. Their Agricultural Relationship Managers play a central role, working closely with customers to provide the farming finance they need. These banking services meet both their day-to-day requirements, as well as funds for longer term projects in agricultural entrepreneurship like organic conversion, machinery investment, and environmental schemes.



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About The Author

John Swire - Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.