By Fiona Sloan
Finding ways to either supplement farm income or improve margins are the discussions taking place around every farm kitchen table or office in Scotland. The increased cost in overheads, has led to many farmers making changes in farming policy, which past generations would have considered unthinkable but if future farming generations are to carry on, these changes are becoming fundamental to the sustainability of the whole business. This doesn’t only include changes in the farming enterprise itself but also changes in succession thinking, something all too often, put on the back burner until it is too late.
The only certainty in life is that we will die. The only uncertainty is when that will happen. The task is to be brave enough and bold enough to have the discussions and make the decisions as a family, before someone has to make them for you.
These are only two of the subjects tackled at the recent Women in Agriculture meeting held at Whitriggs Farm, Denholm, Hawick, which began with a farm walk kindly hosted by Lesley Mitchell and her family.
On a not so pleasant day in The Borders, the 50 plus attendance of women of all ages, from all walks of agricultural life, joined together to walk and talk about the policy changes at Whitriggs, which had come about from those necessary conversations about the future. Historically women in agriculture have often had a specific role, which didn’t always involve them in the actual running or future of the business. Since the 1980’s however, it has become increasingly more apparent that many are no longer farmers’ wives but are married to farmers.
Many have careers which support the farm finances, some have part time positions, which allow them to work around the children and farm and an increasing number are fully integrated into the farming policy, allowing them to jointly make decisions about both their and their children’s futures.
There is also a realisation that a work life balance is fundamental to the outcome of the business. Agriculture is an industry with an unacceptably high incidence of suicide and poor mental health, a subject still taboo to many but a necessary concern to everyone, farmers included.
Whitriggs is a great example of a family looking to the future, with the recent addition of the next generation consolidating that thinking. “We needed to look at our margins.” explains Lesley, “That to me, as the number cruncher of the business, seemed to be the way forward. There is limit to how much you can expect on the top line, therefore we had to look at ways of reducing our inputs if we were going to move forward. Everyone comes up with the ideas in the business but if I look at the figures and if they don’t stack up, we have to think again.”
The Mitchel Family moved from traditional continental cross cows to an organic system of smaller crossed traditional breeds, in the hope that they could cut down on the time the cows required to be in during the winter, saving on both concentrate and more importantly on the bedding for the herd. The success of the change over has seen the herd staying out all winter becoming self-sufficient on grain and costs being reduced from £18 to £4.50 per head, achieving more that they had hoped for. “This isn’t a system which would suit everyone.” continues Lesley, “but it worked for us and the numbers stack up. It means we can do all of our tractor work during the winter with silage bales strategically placed on the hill, with son Stuart, the engineering mind of the team, custom building equipment to roll out bales of silage placed there in readiness for the winter. They are now also self-sufficient in barley and straw.
“The sheep flock were doing ok” explains Robert, “but only ok. We took some tests and found there was MV in the flock and the only alternative was to cull and replace the flock. However, we could not ensure that any replacements we bought would not have a similar issue, so we looked at replacing the flock with a herd of red deer. The “numbers again stacked up” according to Lesley and this new venture has proved to be a success for the farm and an enterprise that the whole family were on board with and enjoy working with the deer.”
The family philosophy is “Be Your Best Self.” They are all open to available training and information and have learned as they have gone along. They are not afraid of failure or change but make every effort to ensure that, in whichever way they take their business, that the figures must be right first and they are taking specialist advice on the way forward. A work life balance is clearly very important to the family and they are managing to balance that with a successful business, in which they are all invested.
Following the farm walk, the group gathered for lunch in Denholm to discuss their morning, do some networking and to listen to talks from various excellent speakers, on those things which affect the future of any family business, namely inheritance, succession and most importantly wills and powers of attorney.
Almost half of those present had still not made a will, which was surprising to those who had. With the uncertainty of life/ death and long-term illness the importance of ensuring that all of the family is protected should be paramount on any family farm. Leaving it to someone else to sort out after your death is just not acceptable. Everyone should be aware of what will happen on your death, regardless of your age, whether father, son, mother or daughter. Don’t leave it to the courts to decide, because you don’t want to have that conversation with your family. Powers of Attorney and Wills need to be in place, should anything suddenly happen to make you or your partners suddenly incapable through disease or accident. Those who are not “a partner” in the business but are part of the business, need to also have the conversation on where they stand in the future should things change and they have no legal rights. Inheritance in these circumstances can soon reduce and disappear under the solicitor’s bills but money well spent now can save a massive tax bill in the future.
Take advice from an expert now! Get a will in place and a power of attorney if appropriate and take the stress out of death for you and others. It might not be cheap but there is a difference between expensive and too dear and it will be a fraction of the solicitor’s bills if you don’t.
Yes, it might be a difficult discussion to have and yes, it may take some time to bring the subject up and get things in place but you can’t have that discussion too soon. Ask yourself what you want to achieve for yourself and your family. In the future and take it from there.
Women in Agriculture Scotland brings members of our community and its support network together to make new friends and acquaintances and learn from one another to the benefit of Scottish Agriculture. Anyone can join for free at https://www.womeninagriculture.scot/