As I write the country remains in lockdown due to COVID-19 albeit in the hope that some restrictions will soon be eased in order to get the economy moving. Whilst life in the urban world must have changed beyond recognition, the countryside, and farming in particular, continues to function largely as normal although clearly with an added level of inconvenience.
For most farmers and farm workers it is business as usual and spring tasks have continued at a pace. The spell of fine weather has been a welcome relief after an appallingly wet winter and everyone has taken the opportunity to catch up with sowing, even if the prospect of returns of spring cereals may seem limited. Here in North Shropshire we worry about the damage to soil structure where permanent pasture was ploughed and sown with maize last year, only to be harvested in the most difficult of wet conditions with crucial minerals literally being washed down the road. Many crops were left in the ground and whilst large, modern machinery can work wonders, the damage to some fields was severe and will undoubtedly impact on yields this year.
History tells us that wars, famine and pestilence have tended to look kindly on farming while the rest of the economy struggles. However, this is a very different kind of crisis. Whilst food in the supermarkets is plentiful and many people are now either learning or re-engaging with the concept of ‘home-cooked food’ (which has a be a plus for the physical health of the nation), the restaurant, catering and leisure trades have more-or-less ground to a halt. The only establishments that remain open are care homes, hospitals and some schools and the net result is a drastically reduced requirement for home-produced milk, meat, salad and vegetables. Whilst as a business we are located in the heart of the dairy belt we also have a rich and varied farming-client base involved in livestock, cereals, vegetables and salad and many are reporting a drop in demand and/or price. Import and export supply chains have been interrupted and whilst we can live without Maine lobster, Russian caviar and South African avocados, we need to maintain the ability to produce our staple British products which are needed most at a time of crisis. Longer term the likelihood is that the value of these basic commodities will rise and coupled with poor plantings last autumn this could lead to significant price hikes, especially in cereals. However, the availability of labour, especially around harvest time may be a real issue for many intensive crop growers and while many sectors of agriculture may fare quite well, there will be some unique challenges facing specialist markets getting the produce to the table.
What does this all mean for the UK farming industry? Well there is no doubt that, more than ever before, we need to focus on business and succession planning and we cannot just ‘tighten our belts’ and ‘ride out the storm’. ‘Succession planning’ is such a buzz phrase at the moment but it really is not anything new. Even Shakespeare had a clear understanding of the concept writing as he did when Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was on the throne with no obvious successor. King Lear is the ultimate story of succession – he had identified his successors, sufficient land to share equally and a clear plan of action. But it failed tragically for one reason only – poor communication.
Family relationships are often complex but in the current situation of lockdown, farming families have a head start on the rest of the population as they are used to living and working together. However, discussing the daily tasks and workload is one thing and communicating effectively about the bigger picture is something very different. Succession is often associated with death (think monarchy) and no-one wants to think about their demise. Similarly, retirement is unimaginable for most farmers whose work is their life. There is also the very complicated inextricable link between the farm and the family home which can then be further confused by non-farming siblings and other interested parties not actually ‘working the land’.
Planning the future of the family farm is more important than it has ever been before. There were a great deal of unknowns about the effect of leaving the EU and this list has only been added to by the potential after- effects of the pandemic. Now is the time to plan the future of our farming enterprises and communication is undoubtedly the key. My experience as a mediator and facilitator with a wide range of farming families all over the country has taught me that starting ‘the conversation’ is the hardest part. Once we can get ideas, opinions and emotions out in the open, we can start to plan for the future.
Louise Taylor MA, MSc is an RICS Accredited Mediator and specialises in Succession Planning for farming families. She is Managing Partner of Barbers Rural Consultancy LLP and can be contacted on 01630 692500 or firstname.lastname@example.org