A recent Matthew Naylor column in Farmers Weekly, arguing that the next generation shouldn’t get too much too soon, sparked a huge response – some agreed, more disagreed and most asked: What’s his story? So we decided to put him on the spot
What’s your current farming operation?
I farm in partnership with my dad; we each own 50% of the business. We grow crops on about 160ha per year.
The challenge of finding good land in south Lincolnshire means that this is a combination of owned land, an AHA tenancy of my father’s at Welland House Farm, my FBT at Vickers Farm, some shorthold tenancy agreements, some exchanged land and occasional cropping licences.
We are not a big business, so we have had to specialise on the crops where we are competitive. We produce 30-40ha of potatoes, which we market through Nene Potatoes, a growers’ co-operative. We grow 60ha of flowering bulbs and cut flowers, both indoors and outdoors, which we sell to UK retailers.
We add value to most of these in our own packhouse. We are a LEAF Marque farm and are in ELS so we have some land devoted to wildlife habitats and we exchange or rent out the remaining fields for vegetable production.
We have developed a trial ground at Vickers Farm for new product development, which is a joint venture with Finlays Flowers, a PV scheme and a small portfolio of property lets.
How did you get involved with your family business?
I left school at 15, after taking my GCSEs, to work with my dad and grandfather on the family farm and took a day-release course at a local college. We farmed about 60ha in total, with an arable rotation of wheat, sugar beet and potatoes, as well as daffodils and vegetables.
“There was a bit of gambling, a bit of luck, a dollop of who-you-know-not-what-you-know and an awful lot of crawling inside muddy potato washers at 9pm at night to mend them”
This was in 1990, we were very typical of family farms in our area at the time and there was a lot of physical work. I took an allotment of my own in the village at 16 and invested the money that I had saved from my wages in daffodil bulbs.
How can you claim not to have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth?
I have been quite privileged in many respects, especially compared to farmers I have met in other parts of the world, but I am hardly the Duke of Westminster. My parents and grandparents worked hard and this presented me with opportunities that I am grateful for. My job was to take the business forward.
I wasn’t given any equity in it and have had to build a shareholding through my own efforts. I managed to build up some assets of my own outside the business, I had some luck marketing daffodils at good prices early on and managed to obtain a starter holding of my own in the mid-1990s, so I had something to contribute when we formed the current partnership after my grandfather died in 1999.
You allude to the challenges you’ve faced – surely they can’t have been as big as those faced by someone, say, without relatives in the industry or who’s struggling to get their first tenancy?
My generation started farming when commodity prices were falling and markets were disappearing. It was a really hard time to break into the supermarket supply chains. Most family farms of our size have disappeared in the past couple of decades. There aren’t many farms of our size that have been able to generate investment capital while supporting three separate households as ours has had to. Probably my challenges don’t seem as big to young people now, but they are looking at me after 20 years of hard work, investment and risk.
Why don’t you feel more sympathetic to new entrants?
Because my sympathy won’t do them any good. We don’t live in a communist system and we all have different start and end points. This is the tough reality for new entrants. I don’t feel any envy, malice or deference towards anyone who started work on a bigger farm than this one and I don’t feel any pity, superiority or responsibility towards anyone who starts with less.
British agriculture is structured to reward the best operators and success usually comes to those who most deserve it. Flat-rate entitlements and FBTs have made things easier than they used to be. There are all sorts of share farm opportunities now. We have two first-generation farmers in our village; they are both in their 40s, are highly talented and drive Aston Martins. They are much more successful than I am.
Don’t you think that we should encourage more new entrants?
No. Farming is a tough and volatile business and you need to go into it ready to deal with the risks. They can’t expect the government to shoulder-lift them over the hurdles. Good farmers don’t need encouraging, they can’t be discouraged.
How do you respond to the suggestion that you were saying young people should be ‘seen and not heard’?
I certainly didn’t say that – I was a gobby young person myself. Youth and naivety last a preciously short time for all of us and I’m much more prosaic now. My point is that we mustn’t disproportionately tip agricultural policy in favour of the inexperienced.
It is more food that we need, not necessarily more farmers. We need a clear ladder for progression so that the industry isn’t constantly learning from needless mistakes.
Key turning points in your career?
These have usually come through relationships with our customers and gaining their trust and backing. In the first year of the tenancy on Vickers Farm, I grew 16ha of potatoes, which yielded well and were excellent quality. A university friend of my sister’s had recently started buying potatoes for the local Marks & Spencer supplier. He bought these potatoes from me and we struck up a great working relationship.
Over the next few years, we ended up developing a potato washing and packing business with him and then handling salad potatoes from Israel. This really helped us establish ourselves financially.
So there was a bit of gambling, a bit of luck, a dollop of who-you-know-not-what-you-know and an awful lot of crawling inside muddy potato washers at 9pm at night to mend them. It wouldn’t have worked without all of those parts.
Best decision you ever made?
It was hiring, training and trusting Chris, my cousin, who is basically our lieutenant in the business. He is BASIS-qualified and manages a lot of our production. I like him to carry responsibility, just as my dad allowed me to at a young age. Chris has much better attention to detail than I do and thinks with much more clarity; this allows me to focus on the business direction rather than just production.
Worst decision you ever made?
Because I am trading perishable products on a daily basis, I have to make hundreds of decisions every day. Some will be terrible. It is a constant process of acting, reacting and learning so nothing gets out of hand. When we decided to stop packing potatoes it was disappointing and cost us quite a bit of money, but the experience and facilities we had built led to us developing our flowering bulb business.
What do you hope to achieve in the future?
I’m happy with our direction at the moment. We have invested substantially in the past five years and so the business has gained a bit of momentum. I’m not as interested in impressing people as I was when I was younger but hopefully, by improving our sustainability, focusing on better crops and supplying the best customers, we will keep improving our profitability.
We have always aimed to generate a good return on our invested capital rather than statistics to boast about.