In an increasingly complicated farming landscape of legislation, regulation and advancing technology, farmers require expert input to get the most out of their businesses and stay within the rules. Adam Clarke meets three farm advisers offering outstanding customer-driven support in their own fields.

David Coombes

Cedar Farm Practice, Hampshire

David-Coombes

The complete farm vet in the eyes of any livestock farmer would offer not only treatment, but also advice on herd health, nutrition and reproductive services.

And that is exactly what Hampshire-based vet David Coombes is doing for the 250-strong client base he has built across his home county, Dorset, the Isle of Wight, Berkshire and Somerset as director and senior clinician of Cedar Farm Practice.

Combined with a passion and enthusiasm for livestock and his own small dairy herd, he offers his clients the perspective of both a vet and herdsman.

A restructuring of the business eight years ago allowed it to focus solely on farm animals and David was quick to seek new services to offer and generate profits for the business in the face of squeezed margins on drug sales.

Business facts

  • Livestock-dedicated veterinary practice with bases in Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight
  • 250-plus clients across five counties
  • Three full-time and two 
part-time vets
  • Advice and treatment for dairy, beef, sheep and pigs

Extending reach

In the short term, David says further expansion into the Isle of Wight is a key goal for the business and he has recently taken on a graduate with sheep expertise to attract more clients.

“Vet services and animal health advice is currently limited on the island, so that could provide us with an area of growth, and our new vet is a small ruminant specialist keen to expand that area of the business.”

David is wary of growing too fast too soon and potentially taking on too much for his three full-time and two part-time staff.

“We are very much client-driven and don’t want our current client base to become disillusioned with our services,” he says.

Embryo transfer

It is the area of genomics and embryo transfer that is driving David’s long-term vision for expansion and offering his client base a unique genetics service to improve herd performance, primarily in dairy and beef production.

Already a popular technique in North America, embryo transfer allows a producer to quickly multiply the most desirable genetics within a herd using in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) of retrieved eggs from the highest performing cows, with the highest pedigree bull semen.

Already providing 7% of his client base with the service, David believes there is an increasing demand for embryonic transfer in the UK, which has so far been slow to adopt the technique.

“We are in the advanced planning stage of setting up a central laboratory, along with five other practices that have shared the investment. We are also looking to bring in some expertise from outside the UK.”

Pushing yields

The positive effect David is having on his clients is evident at West Park Farms, situated near the village of Lytchett Matravers in Dorset. Farm manager Tony Wonnacott says milk yields from his 240-head dairy herd has increased from 7,000 litres to more than 10,000 litres in 11 years.

“He has his own dairy herd, which gave me the reassurance he knew the headaches of managing milking cows and he has produced some show winners, so is strong on genetics, too,” says Tony.

Communicating with the manager, herdsman and nutritionist, David has helped improve herd health and increase milk yields from forage, which now represents 4,000 litres of the 10,000-litre average, cutting costs and increasing efficiency and profitability.

“Another great aspect of his advice are the reports he submits after each visit, which detail condition scores. As the records have built up, it has been possible to identify any health or nutritional problems quickly and address them,” adds Tony.

Nerys Jones

Agri Advisor Solicitors, Wales

Nerys-Jones

In just three years, Nerys Jones has built an impressive client base of 550 from a standing start by offering a personal approach to agricultural legal advice.

After a break from working at a solicitors firm in Swansea to have her first child, the idea was also born to start her own legal advice business, tailored to meet farm and rural enterprise needs.

The daughter and wife of a farmer, her empathy with the industry is a key strength for maintaining her existing client base and attracting new business, Nerys explains.

“I had a strong vision of how I wanted to offer advice to farmers and after speaking with a business consultant, I decided I had nothing to lose and went for it,” she adds.

The result is Agri Advisor Solicitors, which has been assisting farmers throughout Wales to the border counties of England and up to Cumbria, providing advice on all aspects of agricultural and planning law and CAP consultancy.

In addition, Nerys provides mediation services for families and partnerships.

Business facts

  • Offering advice on all aspects of agricultural legal advice, including planning and environmental law, CAP consultancy, training and teaching mediation services
  • 550 clients throughout Wales and parts of England
  • Two offices in Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire, and Welshpool, Dyfed

Expansion

Based in Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire, a newly converted barn now provides an office for the business, along with meeting and conference facilities. Nerys has also just opened a second office in Welshpool.

“The new office helps to bring our service closer to our clients in north Wales and England. Face-to-face contact is important in what we do and we want to maintain that local feeling as much as possible,” says Nerys.

The workforce has inevitably increased and a dedicated team now runs the legal consultancy, which is the mainstay of the business.

But the addition of a land agent and plans to add a financial adviser in the near future will expand the skill sets within Agri Advisor Solicitors and allow a broader service to be provided.

“A significant number of our clients are Welsh speaking, too, so all our staff are Welsh speakers, which further maintains that personal touch,” says Nerys.

Industry influence

On top of managing a rapidly expanding business, Nerys sits on the CLA policy advisory committee and lectures at Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities.

She also teaches for the Agricultural Law Association (ALA) and runs Lantra-accredited courses for farmers on cross-compliance and CAP rules and changes.

“They are allowing us to tell farmers what is on the horizon and sort out any potential issues before they arise,” explains Nerys.

Community reach is also important to Nerys and her business, sponsoring local shows and running an award that recognises local entrepreneurs in west Wales.

Helping hand

One Agri Advisor client is grateful for the huge influence Nerys has had on realising her dream of purchasing the former family farm and setting up a research and educational centre near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

After finishing her PhD at Oxford University, Sarah Beynon needed advice on the purchase of the 40ha farm and its buildings, which would house the project for the years to come.

“Through word of mouth we heard about the great service that Nerys had provided others and she has been a huge help to me in a very stressful time,” says Sarah.

Nerys took control of all legal aspects of the project, including funding, purchase, public liability insurance policies, licences, sale of outlying land, Glastir and single farm payment matters, and planning applications.

Gary Markham

Churchgate Accountants, 
East Anglia

Gary-Markham

A one-stop shop for all your farm business and financial advice is Gary Markham’s vision, and he has achieved this goal with Churchgate Accountants.

Gary is a man with a wealth of experience in both tax and accountancy, who is building a business that goes way beyond numbers and tax returns.

He saves his clients money by offering professional financial, tax, accounting and legal advice, but in addition helps shape their businesses to give them confidence for the future.

“Agriculture is my passion and I wanted to bring together a team that could offer farmers an integrated business and financial advice package in one place,” he says.

The business started when Grant Thornton decided to close its Bury St Edmunds office and Gary and a small group of fellow employees decided to lead a management buyout.

Taking over the lease of the office, along with staff and clients in 2011, Churchgate Accountants was born. It now advises 525 predominantly arable clients across about 49,000ha in the eastern counties and East Midlands.

Through reputation and word of mouth, the firm has increased its client base and doubled its turnover, taking on 11 young recruits. A second office has also opened in Huntingdon.

“Bringing on young people and helping them progress is important to me, both in Churchgates and my clients’ businesses,” adds Gary.

Business facts

  • Servicing 525 clients across 49,000ha in eastern counties and East Midlands
  • Providing advice on all matters financial for a family farming business including: accounts, business and tax, investment and pensions, estate planning and trusts, legal advice and mediation services
  • Provide benchmarking reports and seminars

Cementing structures

Gary’s infectious enthusiasm for his trade is transferred to his clients, among them Cambridgeshire grower Andrew Rampley and his family.

The family business – based in Southoe – has made many changes recently, setting up a machinery syndicate, taking on a new farm business tenancy, building a new grain store and hatching plans for a wind farm.

Andrew says Gary has supported these changes and his knowledge of the practicalities of farming and ability to see the bigger picture has been invaluable.

“The original family farm was too small to support my brother, father and I, so the machinery syndicate was the first step in expanding the business.”

Once the machinery syndicate was set up as a limited liability partnership with neighbours, it allowed more efficient use of machinery and the partnership could take on extra land and farm in its own right. The two core member farms now farm 1,220ha between them.

Gary has also set up a self-invested personal pension (SIPP) for Andrew, using taxable profits to fund the new grain store and then rent it back to the farm.

In addition, a discretionary trust fund that receives farm property rental income is used as a tax-efficient source of school fees for Andrew’s children.

“During the past five years, we have saved a substantial amount of tax and we now have a solid business structure in place that gives us the confidence to expand or invest in improvements,” explains Andrew.

Farm blueprint

The structure Gary has helped put in place for the Rampley family is now his blueprint for future family farm clients, addressing the issues of tax planning, succession and machinery use and cost efficiency.

But keeping one step ahead to adapt the structure to reflect constant industry changes requires a dynamic approach, and arranging debates with solicitors and land agents keeps his knowledge on the cutting edge, Gary says.

“Churchgates also has a technical backup team to research changes and weekly internal newsletters keeping everyone up to date,” he adds.

Gary’s influence stretches beyond his client base. He regularly speaks at farmer meetings, agronomy groups and national conferences, on top of contributing in the national agricultural press.

“It is all about helping people and not just numbers, providing the best service we can to meet clients’ needs.”


Sponsor’s message

Mole-Valley “Mole Valley Farmers would like to congratulate the finalists. As a farmer-owned business supplying a range of quality products and services, we recognise the important role advisers perform in supporting productive, profitable farming businesses.”

Julie Edwards

Head of agricultural marketing and corporate communication

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