WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF UK AGRICULTURE? WHAT DID JULIAN SAYERS TELL US THIS WEEK?
John Giles, FIAgrM Council Member
And all in half an hour or so?! As Julian said himself - at the start of his talk to the Thames Valley Branch of the Institute of Agricultural Management at the well appointed Mapledurham Golf Club – “that’s quite a tall order!”
Yet half an hour later, Julian had guided us through a whole raft of topics and shared his thoughts on a wide range of issues.
We shouldn’t have been surprised of course - as well as being a Director of Adkin, Julian has been involved with the farming and rural scene in the UK for a long period of time and has been involved as Vice President of The Farmers Club, Chairman of Trustees for The Worshipful Company, Chairman of City of London Pan Livery Food Group, as chair of the Tenancy Reform Industry Group for the Defra Ministers, Vice Chairman of Governors at The Royal Agricultural University , National Chairman RABI, Chairman of the Oxford Farming Conference and The Farmers Club.
With that sort of pedigree - we knew we were in for a special evening - and it turned out so.
It would be almost impossible to go through everything that Julian covered, but amongst the most important and interesting things to me seemed to be:
- we will see over the next few years, a rapid pace of change across the UK farming and rural economy
- the impact of COVID - not least, the effect on labour supply and the distribution chain has made Brexit, in Julian’s words, look like “child’s play”
- while predicting the future is challenging in such a difficult time – soaring input prices etc. it is clear that this (the future) is going to look very different. At the same time, the amount of change we will see, will also bring opportunities for some too
- to maximize these opportunities, there needs to be greater co operation in the supply chain. There will almost inevitably be greater rationaliastion too, and for some, the answer will be a planned exit
- the gap in performance between the top 25% of farmers in the UK and the bottom 25% is still far too wide and even now, only c. 50% of farmers generate alternative income to their core farming business
- for many farm diversification projects, location is critical and new skills sets must be developed. The Thames Valley might be as good a place as any in the UK to do these
- the gradual removal of support payments to farmers means that a period of very careful thinking is required as to how these farms are run and managed in the future
- farms that have no succession plans, have not invested in soil management and have high borrowings are amongst the most vulnerable
- the supply of farm land is a finite resource, but at the moment there are lots of potential investors ranging from other successful farmers who want to expand, new entrants to the sector attracted by opportunities for carbon off setting and ESG based projects and private individuals who have amassed personal wealth and who see the value of the investment underpinned by land values, as well as biodiversity net gain
- Julian also told us that in his view there was no such thing as an “average” land value and even in an area such as the Thames Valley, this could range (for arable land) from anywhere between £7,000 – 15,000 per acre
- in terms of developing alternative farming and rural enterprises such as solar/wind energy and vertical farming, it was important to get professional advice in to support their development, not least to deal with issues such as leases, contracts, revenue streams, de commissioning costs (if ever required). This is because for many of these projects, it is still not totally clear how they will develop over time. Farmers need to be thinking 5 – 10 years ahead and have a clear succession plan in place
Julian covered a huge amount of ground in a short space of time. It was clear he could have gone on for longer – always a good sign (!) – but he left us with a few highly pertinent thoughts as follows:
- farms need to develop an Action Plan for the business
- farms need to avoid drifting - support payments are being reduced - this is a fact
- get good people into the business - and make sure you keep them
- involve the Next Generation and plan for succession
- make best use of the farm’s natural capital
- engage with the community
- invest in training and CPD - this is where organisations such as the IAGRM have a clear role to play
This was a really good evening. Many thanks to Julian for joining us on a cold, windy night.
He is clearly a busy man and so we are grateful to him for making the time to do this and being so generous in sharing his thoughts. Thanks for joining us Julian.
John is a member of the National Council of the IAGRM and had a long standing involvement with the Thames Valley Branch but his “real job” is as a Divisional Director of Promar International, the consulting arm of Genus plc.