Sustainable farm business models

Janet Dwyer introduced the workshop by explaining that it was an attempt to focus upon how to achieve robust and economically viable farm/forest businesses which also produced environmental and social benefits, in the uplands. Charles Scott from the Farm Business Survey (FBS) team at Newcastle University ran through the latest FBS findings which show the average hill farm heavily dependent upon subsidy from the CAP and agri-environment schemes, and with a low net farm income within which the value of farm output is smaller than the cost of farm inputs. Liz Genever from EBLEX, Adrian Banford from Cumbria Fells and Dales Leader and Judy Richmond from the National Trust then gave presentations exploring key factors for successful farm businesses in uplands, stimulating a heartfelt and positive discussion from participants. As a result of workshop participants’ strong support for this network topic, a small group will take away some of the messages and look at how the Uplands Alliance can really add value in respect of promoting sustainable upland farm business models.

Key points made:

  • Whilst a large proportion of net farm income is from agricultural production, single farm payment and agri-environment scheme income are together more significant, because the associated costs of agriculture outweigh the direct returns from it. What are the prospects therefore for different approaches to reduce farming costs and increase incomes, in the uplands? Maybe low input systems such as Pasture Fed Livestock could be one option – with much lower variable costs and maybe a lower volume of output, but with the opportunity to niche market or direct-sell the product and thereby gain added value.
  • There are profitable hill and upland farms – we need to understand what makes them successful and harness that information. There is no one size fits all model of success, but there are a range of options pursued successfully around the UK and others can learn from them.
  • There is scope for genetic improvement of stock beyond simply looking at hardiness; there should be greater focus on some of the less high-profile health issues which nonetheless impact on productivity; and there needs to be more attention to reducing feed costs.
  • There were some concerns over a proliferation of short term tenancies which discourage land managers from taking ‘the long view’ in their management strategies.
  • Farmers want to retire with dignity; taxation rules do not encourage succession and it can be difficult to facilitate transfer when the housing stock is limited and very expensive, and the farm won’t support more than one proper income. Maybe not many farmers have pensions. Those who have made the decision to step back and let their sons or daughters take on the farm reported that it was something that really needed to be done; holding on to the reins too long would only damage the relationship and would not be good for the farm business.
  • Grazing restrictions mean fluidity between sheep and cattle numbers is no longer possible – many farms in schemes cannot graze certain species (either sheep or cattle) at specific times of year and this may also lead some to drop one enterprise, to make the management simpler.
  • There was positive opinion on the next generation of young people coming through, keen to farm – they should be encouraged to bring their own ideas and make a go of things, it was felt.
  • Size and profitability is a complex issue – some smaller producers succeed as well as larger ones; different strategies for growth are possible and sometimes getting smaller can make good sense: it all depends upon your markets.
  • Sometimes there may be no opportunity to go off-farm for training, as farmers have to be tending to stock every day.
  • The fact that this group wanted to do something which would really help most farmers was welcomed – too often, these kinds of conference involve ‘experts’ telling farmers that they need to do more for the environment rather than being willing to listen and try to understand farmers own challenges and concerns.

There were positive views on the potential role of the Uplands Alliance:

  • Just by existing it was going to help
  • Sharing information/best practice would be valuable, between hill and upland farmers in a range of different locations around the country. A ‘rolling roadshow’ could be organised to enable the message to be spread around the main upland areas of England, examining what makes for a successful hill farm business and sharing experience between areas.
  • Such a roadshow could also provide an opportunity to think medium term – to reach consensus etc. concerning the best way to support these farms, over time.
  • There was an interest in bringing farmers closer to science so that they can become active participants in experiments designed to scope and test different approaches to sustainable and successful business management.

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