Is a fear of change holding back Norfolk’s farm businesses?
Liz Bishop Photography 2018
With their industry in an unprecedented state of flux, farmers have been urged to cultivate a more adaptable attitude to change and equip themselves with the right knowledge to make difficult business decisions.
Farmers shouldn't fear change - in fact, it may be the only thing that can help their businesses thrive in an uncertain world.
That is the message from Norfolk's new Monitor Farmer after joining the national knowledge-sharing network run by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).
Richard Ling, of Rookery Farm, at Wortham, near Diss, said his business is no stranger to change - or to making difficult business decisions.
Its dairy herd, rendered unprofitable by low milk prices, was disbanded in 2011 and, after careful deliberation, was replaced last year with a beef enterprise aiming to finish 180 British Blue cattle per year for Morrisons supermarkets.
And there is more evidence of the farm's adaptability in this year's arable rotation. A crop of triticale is being grown on a one-off seed contract as a replacement for sugar beet, which has been deemed too financially risky after last year's extended ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments left it vulnerable to pests, meaning the yield and the margin could not be guaranteed.
And Mr Ling said he has got an "even bigger decision coming this autumn" with oilseed rape, his main break crop, for the same reason.
All of this comes during a period of unprecedented flux for the industry, with Brexit bringing changes to farming and environment policies, a new trading environment, and the phasing out of direct subsidy payments.
But the 39-year-old said now is not the time to shy away from major decisions.
"Because I have been brought up in an era which has involved so much change, I have had to learn to adapt," he said. "I look at things and say: If it is not right, then something has to change.
"That is partly why I wanted to go down the Monitor Farm route. The next ten years will completely change the face of agriculture in one way or another. There are so many unknowns and I would rather do that while talking to 200 fellow farmers and getting their views on it, because we have surely got more chance of making the right decisions for all our businesses going forward if we are all talking.
"Farmers often take a long time to build up their business to something they are happy with and something that is earning them a good living. Once you have got to that stage, I think most people's natural life is to ease back a bit and settle. But you should be more prepared to change.
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"After talking to quite a lot of people already, some of that comes down to the fact they are so scared of losing money that they are scared to change.
"But ironically because they don't want to change, that is what stops them from making money.
"People might not think they have much to say, but they might just say the one thing no-one else has thought of. It could be the most important thing."
Rookery Farm was one of seven farms across the country to join the AHDB's Monitor Farms project earlier this year - filling the Norfolk gap left by the end of the three-year Dereham Monitor Farm project at Swanton Morley Farms.
Mr Ling manages more than 400ha across varied soil types, of which 286ha is owned and the rest is contract-farmed for two other farming businesses.
For the arable operation, he mainly operates a minimum-till system but assesses each field based on soil health, and said he wants to encourage farmers to have an open mind on cultivation techniques.
On the livestock side, the beef finishing unit has been designed with a simple and flexible system which is much less labour-intensive than the dairy herd, and makes use of the farm's staff during quieter periods in the arable operations.
"Eight years ago we used to be dairy farmers, but we were losing so much money it was unsustainable to keep going," he said.
"So we took financial advice from outside, and we looked at the whole business.
"People need to be realistic. The problem my parents and I had was that we were all so involved in the business and we were making emotional decisions. To make a true business decision we needed to take the emotion out of it and be realistic."
Part of the Monitor Farm project will include benchmarking Rookery Farm's performance against similar businesses.
"For too many years farmers have, when it comes down to the financial side of everyone's business, it is like no-one must know about it," said Mr Ling. "But by doing benchmarking and different things over the years you quickly learn whether you are in the right area or not, and it gives you the confidence to make some of these really difficult decisions.
"I don't see a more important time to be a Monitor Farmer, purely because of the amount of change on the horizon. At the end of the day it comes down to this - knowledge is power."
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