Opinion: Time to tackle professional rural efficiency. Or procrastinate some more

This month I am determined to finally deal with my nemesis; I am going to organise my office. Like most farmers, my relationship with paperwork is at best ambivalent and at times downright hostile. I can procrastinate with the best of them and I have been known to clean the house from top to bottom in order to avoid the burgeoning pile of bills, bank statements and forms threatening to collapse our rickety kitchen table.

When I say office, my desk is the kitchen table and the office I refer to is actually the cupboard under the stairs. A few shelves piled with ring binders and boxes overflowing with miscellaneous pieces of paper along with broken TVs, DVD players, pictures that I never got around to hanging and all the Christmas decorations.

My vision of professional rural efficiency is some way off. I was finally forced to face the awful truth that my farm administration is horrendously sub-par when asked by Will to locate a pedigree certificate for the bull we sold recently and I ended up under a pile of old invoices with a cobweb dangling from my ear.

No more am I going to put off filing away Tb tests or organising my invoices by due date. I am going to develop a foolproof system whereby I can lay my hands on the most obscure piece of information in mere seconds. I will be going beyond simply tidying up the paperwork to creating a farm management blueprint that even Will can operate.

My newfound efficiency will free up time to spend on creating elaborate spreadsheets and pie charts of production data that will make me the envy of every farmer in Cornwall. I am going to become a veritable wonder woman of agricultural administration. Admittedly I’ve probably got more hope of breeding a flying pig.

I find that I am not alone in my apathy towards administration. None of us went into farming to push paper around; indeed it is the freedom of working for outdoors on our own timescale with no one telling us what to do or when to do it that is one of the most appealing aspects of a farming career. But that does mean that we have to be pretty self-motivated, especially when it comes to those jobs we really wish we could leave to someone else.

Admin is like an annoying fly, buzzing around in the background. You really want to swat it but it just seems like a waste of effort when there are other things that need you attention. Things that I find myself doing rather than cracking on with admin include:

  1. Playing with the kids – it is a really important job. Not to mention that they pretty much run my schedule, there is no way I can concentrate on paperwork when teddy is demanding that I help him build a fort out of sofa cushions; there is just no contest.
  2. Chopping firewood – preparedness is key. If I don’t split those logs today they may still be wet when we light the wood burner in November; that VAT return will have to wait a minute.
  3. Sorting plastic for recycling. It is far more satisfying to get myself covered in effluent and lord knows what else. I like seeing those neat bags lined up ready for collection and a nice tidy yard.
  4. Valeting the tractor. It has been getting worse for months, there is a clear inch of dried mud on the floor, Will can barely see out of the windows and somewhere in there is a forgotten pork pie that is really starting to stink. There is no way I can start to think about spreadsheets until the old Ford is in concourse condition.
  5. Pulling ragwort. Now this is an important job; we can’t have any of that stuff getting into the silage. Cue a sunny day working on my tan out in the fields over spending the day hunched over the table archiving records.

When I say paperwork, I am of course also referring to the vast amount of farm admin that never actually makes it on to paper. Many of us now use our computers for most of our legislative and farm assurance records and I am no different. I have tried a couple of fancy farm software packages but I have never really gotten on with them.

Despite being on the younger end of the farming spectrum, IT is not something I have an affinity with. Anyhow instead I have cobbled together a kind of ‘farm software lite’. A series of very simple spreadsheets, nothing links into each other or anything fancy but is does satisfy the FABBL inspector and allows me to keep track of basic production data, even if it is a bit clunky. At least I don’t need a support technician on the end of the phone to help me enter a vet med.

In all honesty, I really do want to get better at being a farm secretary and I am going to try to put some time to sorting out the chaos and getting in the habit of maintaining order. I am in awe of the farmers who can rattle off liveweight gains and calving indexes and I am going to join their ranks. All I need is a shove in the right direction and I will be a changed farmer, right after I finish forking out the calving pens.


Jess Jeans

Jess and her husband Will run 75 suckler cows on an 80ha National Trust farm on the Devon/Cornwall border. They have two children, Edward and Lydia. Jess has a degree in rural business management and enjoys horse riding in her spare time.

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