What is the blueprint for farming success after Brexit?
A positive attitude to change is one of the most critical factors governing farming success after Brexit, according to an award-winning consultant.
The topic of “preparing the typical East Anglian farm for Brexit” was discussed at a farmers’ meeting at the Easton and Otley College campus outside Norwich.
Speakers included Jamie Gwatkin, the 2016 national farm advisor of the year, who specialises in arable businesses across East Anglia and is director of six joint venture businesses in the region.
He said in his 32 years of experience he had “always been working towards where we are going to head after we exit the EU” by ensuring no farm’s profitability is wholly reliant on EU subsidies, which will be phased out in favour of a new environmental land management scheme after Brexit.
His blueprint for a resilient business included a forensic focus on production costs and margins, with clear goals and budgets, an understanding of risk and a “mindset for change and innovation”.
In an increasingly competitive world, Mr Gwatkin warned farmers they cannot rely on consumers to pay more for British food, so should focus on their own cost-efficiency and maximising non-food incomes such as property or growing energy crops.
He said successful arable businesses should be generating an average gross margin of between £700-£950 per hectare, with 30pc of turnover coming from non-farming enterprises, and they should benchmark their performance and resources by “looking over the hedge” at their peers.
“But the first key element for getting your business right is having the right attitude,” he said.
“Before you start on the business side, you need to make sure you have a desire to farm and you need to make sure your glass is half full, rather than half empty.
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“When the alarm goes off at half-past six in the morning, you need to be saying: I want to get up, this is what I want to do. I want to face the challenges of the day. If you have not got that then I think you are on a downward curve. Desire and attitude are absolutely critical to where we are going in the future.”
This view was endorsed by Simon Eddell, farm manager of the 1,200ha Rougham Estate near Bury St Edmunds, who also spoke at the event.
“I am the biggest believer that any change, good or bad, will bring some kind of opportunity, but ultimately it is all about mindset,” he said.
“We need to be open and receptive to change, looking at new ideas and, to steal a phrase from Michael Gove [the environment secretary], we need to make the most of our ‘natural capital’ – but I mean it in a business sense; to step back and look at your location, your infrastructure and any redundant buildings in a different light.
“Everyone’s business will have some kind of natural capital that can be exploited, and sometimes the non-farming opportunities are more exciting than the farming opportunities.
“That is not to say you put farming on a back burner, but you don’t want to wait to see how Brexit is playing out before you make any decisions, and maybe that money you might have spent on a tractor could be spent on a holiday let or some other kind of enterprise that could bring income in the short term as well as the long term.”