I never thought I would become a farmer in a million years.
As a child, I preferred to stay indoors with a book, and seeing my uncle slave away singlehandedly on his small dairy farm did little to change my perceptions of farming. So how did I end up milking cows? I blame my husband, Nick.
When he left his job as a surveyor to go dairying, we knew we needed to set up a business to achieve our goals, something which seems impossible to many new entrants due to the prohibitive start-up costs.
Having read about the New Zealand share farming model, and seen a neighbour successfully convert to a spring, block-calving system, we felt this was the way forward.
See also: Q&A with Liz Haines
Since then we have been on a learning journey visiting top operators in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, with a focus on getting a foothold on the ladder.
Buying heifer calves and leasing them to the business where Nick worked enabled us to build capital, but finding a business opportunity was tough.
We scoured the length and breadth of the country, looking at council farms, tenancies and profit shares. They were few and far between, and competition was fierce.
The council farms were usually too small, and the tenancies required too much capital. The “profit shares” were often just performance-related bonuses, with the farmer reluctant to hand over responsibility.
In our current arrangement, we provide the labour and machinery on the farm in return for a “contract fee”, and own a percentage of the herd.
The business pays the farmer a basic return for the use of his land, and both parties get a return on their investment plus depreciation. We split what is left: the “divisible surplus”.
This has enabled us to start up from a relatively small capital base. The farmer retains a strong interest in his business, along with the tax benefits, while relinquishing the day-to-day running to someone who is highly motivated to do a good job. It’s a win-win situation.
So why isn’t this set-up more common in the UK? Defra’s 2013 Future Farming Review highlighted the lack of mobility in UK agriculture, with 84% of farmers operating in established family farms, and only one-third intending to retire.
Yet we need 60,000 new entrants over the next decade to feed our growing population.
Joint ventures offer an ideal solution to both of these problems, creating pathways for new entrants, while allowing existing farmers to step back but stay involved, passing on their experience.
We need them to become an established pathway for newcomers, just like share-milking in New Zealand.
The review recommended the establishment of a matching service to pair up new entrants with farmers, but progress has been limited.
The RABDF and AHDB Entrepreneurs in Dairying course has a welcome focus on the skills required to seek out business opportunities, and it is great to see this continuing into its third year.
In Ireland, the 2015 Budget included measures to incentivise long-term letting of agricultural land.
This has created its own problems with spiralling rents in some areas, but it does show a commitment to action from the government.
For me, the decision to go farming was the best one I have ever made and I have been lucky to find a suitable opportunity – but this isn’t the case for everyone.
Promoting agricultural careers to young people is all well and good, but unless we create real opportunities for them to grow into, we will not retain them.
We need to focus as much attention – if not more – on opening the minds of the older generation to the wealth of options for succession. Only then will we secure the future of our industry.