Farm Business Advice Centre recommends change

A strategic review has given Martin Howlett the confidence to pursue a different business agenda, rationalising his farming business and expanding his eco-tourism enterprise. Olivia Cooper reports


Martin Howlett and his family have been contemplating changes to their business and remain committed to farming. But new advice has convinced him that he must shift his attention to the most profitable enterprises.


The free appraisal, carried out by consultant Laurence Gould Partnership under the government-funded Farm Business Advice Service, recommended three areas of change.


“Although it told us a lot that we already knew, the report really focused our minds,” says Mr Howlett. “It has confirmed our thoughts and given us the confidence to go ahead.”


Recommendations


The first of the recommendations, which is already well under way, is to streamline the beef business to make it more profitable and less time consuming.


“So many businesses are doing more and more just to stand still. With the Continental-cross cattle, we are chasing grass and pushing the system and are still making a £200 a head loss on the steers after fixed costs and family labour.”


Instead, Mr Howlett wants to concentrate on Welsh Black beef. Now, the farm supports just 20 Continental cattle, with 50 suckler cows aimed at the specialist Aberdeen Angus market, and 100 Welsh Blacks. Cattle numbers have fallen by 150 head in just one year.


Mr Howlett has considered whether to buy more Welsh Black cattle this autumn, but much will depend on the trade for calves and the demand for native-breed meat.


Addressing prices


Beef farmers’ concern over unsustainable prices and tiny returns from beef was highlighted last week at a heavily oversubscribed meeting in Cornwall, organised by the English Beef & Lamb Executive. But Mr Howlett welcomes the commissioning of a report into why beef and lamb prices in the south west are behind the rest of the country.


“Prices in the south west do need addressing. There’s no point losing money on our beef production system, and the Welsh Blacks are the only ones showing a true profit. By reducing stock numbers we can do the right fieldwork at the right time, and it frees up time to concentrate on other areas of the business.”


The FBAS report identified two other areas of the business as strategic for future growth. One of these was the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, to which the farm was accepted in February, and Mr Howlett’s successful tourism enterprise, which offers holiday-makers eco-friendly accommodation in native American-style tipis.


Venture


Mr Howlett hopes the two ventures will complement each other, as the tipi field is in a conservation area, alongside many of the HLS management areas.


These include an old mining water channel, now covered by woodland, which acts as a natural corridor for the rare heath fritillary butterfly between a nearby SSSI and other valued woodland.


“That’s probably what sold the whole HLS option to Natural England. We were very pleased to be accepted, because the scheme is becoming so exclusive.”


Other options include restoring stone walls, particularly on the old deer park boundary, stabilising an old arsenic mine flue, and very low input grassland to encourage the horseshoe bat. “For this we can reclaim capital grants of about £50,000, and will receive a £3000 annual payment. This barely covers the cost of the work, even using our own labour, but we realise it has to be part and parcel of mixed farming in the West Country.”


Attention to detail


Meanwhile, three new tipis were let for the first time this Easter.


“If you go in for any form of diversification on the farm you’ve got to ‘think public’ and discipline yourself to run two separate businesses. It’s all down to image and attention to detail.”


So far the tipis – which cost £6000 and are let at up to £350 a week – are booked for 14 weeks, and Mr Howlett hopes to get the newly revived business established and breaking even by the end of the year.


“I am confident about where the farm business is heading now – with a bit of help from the professionals we have found some real solutions. We’re not giving up farming, we’re just redirecting our efforts to the most profitable areas.”


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