20 February 1998

Sheep-only is best bet, Cumbrian unit advised

European funds are helping to

improve profits in Cumbria.

Jeremy Hunt reports

HILL producers in Cumbria who have sought advice from Farm Link – the countys new farm business support project – will soon be earning extra income after appraisal of their holdings, barely a year after the project launch.

Funded by Euro-cash through the Objective 5b scheme, Farm Link centres on a team of independent agricultural advisers who produce a free farm business and environmental review for Cumbria hill units, undertake a comprehensive review of existing income sources on the farm and present recommendations to plan for the future.

Farm Link has received an overwhelming response from farmers – 120 have already been visited by the teams advisers. Many producers will soon implement advice aimed at boosting their incomes.

Nancy Tweddell, project manager based at Penrith, says farmers who want to use the Farm Link service can phone to arrange a visit by one of the advisers.

"An adviser will visit the farm and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the business, look at the workforce on the farm and discuss the skills available.

"Any ideas for changes to the farm business will be considered; that might mean improving the existing set-up or moving into new ventures," says Mrs Tweddell.

"The farms environmental features will also be evaluated to see how they can be used and improved to benefit the farm."

A confidential written report of the farm business and the environmental features is prepared and an action plan provided, setting out in detail options for improvement.

"Up to this stage there is no charge to farmers. They have the option to proceed with Farm Links suggestions or to go no further."

Farmers who decide to take-up the advisers recommendations move on to the next stage which requires a farm business development plan to be prepared. This will include budgets and cash flows as well as marketing and feasibility studies where appropriate.

Farm Link provides further assistance concerning grant applications. Guidance concerning the use of independent consultants is also provided and Farm Link will meet 50% of a consultants fees.

Retired Newton Rigg College lecturer Andrew Humphries, well known to the countys hill producers, is on the team of advisers.

"Farmers are realising that change is no longer an option. There have been difficult times in the past but they have been blips; farming is now undergoing permanent change and Farm Link is enabling Cumbria hill farmers to take a totally independent review of their businesses," says Mr Humphries. He believes the project enables farmers to stand back and be objective.

"One farmer, who had previously sought advice from other agencies and commercial sources, said he was more confident talking to Farm Link because it had no hidden agenda. He appreciated the fact that the project had the future of family farm as a priority."

So what opportunities are being highlighted for Cumbrias hill farmers through the project?

"Changes to the core management of beef cattle and sheep on a hill farm may be a priority on some units whereas others may be able to restructure their livestock enterprise to provide capital for a non-farming venture such as equestrianism or tourism.

"Farm Link is not just about diversification. It may be that the action plan highlights scope for improved efficiency to core elements of the farm which would offer potential to generate extra income."

Phased switch

One example has seen a mixed beef and sheep farm begin a phased development switch to sheep-only, and instead of investing capital to improve a building used for silage, cattle are being sold to fund renovation and conversion of the shed to winter sheep housing.

"It was an option that had not been discussed until Farm Link undertook the farm business appraisal," says Mr Humphries, who is also providing additional help to enable the producer concerned to extract essential farm management data from his accounts.

The introduction of the ECs new 5b Beef and Sheep Scheme, expected later this year, will hopefully be well suited to farmers requesting advice from Farm Link, he says. "The Beef and Sheep scheme proposals seek to benefit both the upland environment and the upland economy and that sits well with what Farm Link is about."

The Beef and Sheep Scheme will hopefully provide the framework for farm grants but it will not be about increasing production. "The words efficiency and productivity are used in the proposals with the aim of helping farmers produce the same amount with fewer inputs."

Mr Humphries says that those farmers who have already reached the action plan stage through Farm Link are over the first hurdle, and are partially prepared to take immediate advantage of these grant opportunities when they are introduced.

"Farmers are realising that it will be more difficult to get restructuring cash into British agriculture after the year 2000. It may be better to go with these schemes because what lies ahead after that date may not be so attractive.

"Some farm businesses will be able to implement partial changes and improvements immediately, but its vital that hill farmers know what help is on the horizon."

Advice and information on Objective 5b areas from:

Ñ MAFF offices in Northern Uplands (Carlisle and Northallerton); East Anglia (Cambridge); Lincolnshire (Nottingham); Midlands Uplands (Nottingham); The Marches (Crewe) and the South West (Exeter).

Ñ Cumbria Farm Link (01768) 891444

Ñ Scottish Office project officers in Borders region (01835-824000), Dumfries and Galloway (01387-251360), north and west Grampian (01467-620981), upland Tayside and rural Stirlingshire (01738-635565)

Welsh European Programme Executive for new projects (01654-704900); access to current schemes, advice and training (01222-823292)

There is no objective 5b funding available in Northern Ireland.

One farm is changing to sheep only after Farm Link scheme assessment..

Advice list

Advice and information on Objective 5b areas from:

Ñ MAFF offices in Northern Uplands (Carlisle and Northallerton); East Anglia (Cambridge); Lincolnshire (Nottingham); Midlands Uplands (Nottingham); The Marches (Crewe) and the South West (Exeter).

Ñ Cumbria Farm Link (01768) 891444

Ñ Scottish Office project officers in Borders region (01835-824000), Dumfries and Galloway (01387-251360), north and west Grampian (01467-620981), upland Tayside and rural Stirlingshire (01738-635565)

Welsh European Programme Executive for new projects (01654-704900); access to current schemes, advice and training (01222-823292)

There is no objective 5b funding available in Northern Ireland.