Window of opportunity open

28 September 2001

Window of opportunity open

By Robert Davies Wales correspondent

FARMERS who complain about struggling to survive in business must ask themselves if they should be in the industry.

Calling for a much more positive approach to current problems, consultant Tony Evans urged producers at a Gearing Up For Change conference at Builth Wells to exploit their advantages.

The grass production potential of Welsh farms, and plenty of customers at the farm gate with money in their pockets, would allow efficient producers to compete globally – though they might have to modify their systems.

"If you are not up for change and a fight then hand over to someone who is," said Mr Evans, a partner in Anderson Consulting.

He told the conference, the first in a series sponsored by NatWest, farmers weekly and the Central Science Laboratory, that dairy farming was in a uniquely favourable position, with low inflation, low interest rates, improved milk prices and cheap quota.

"Take the window of opportunity, move the business forward, drive up profit margins. Focus on what you are good at and do it well."

He urged evaluation of all assets, including personal skills, knowledge, experience and available grants, to see how income could be improved. But he cautioned farmers who were not good at what they were doing to resist seeing diversification as a solution.

His colleague David Thomas acknowledged that Welsh sheep producers faced huge problems. The government would not operate a welfare buy-up scheme for light lambs next year and many hill farmers would be denied access to away wintering.

Those involved in UK Farming plc must review their personal and business assets and objectives to decide where their futures lay. They could be commodity producers getting world prices, they might supply niche markets or become part-time.

Chris Lea, head of the National Assembly for Waless technical unit, said farmers should take advantage of the free business development reviews offered through the novel £20m Farming Connect initiative.

A single telephone call provided access to a review, technical advice and a portfolio of capital grants, ranging from improving slurry storage to on-farm processing. The service could also help farmers come to terms with the EU policy of supporting the environment rather than production. Doors must be opened for farmers to get payments switched from lambs to lapwings or cows to curlews.

Simon Jones, head of agriculture at NatWest, urg-ed farmers to carry out thorough and honest reviews of their businesses. "Stand back, look at the big picture, keep cool and avoid knee-jerk reactions.

"Focus on what you are able to control, not exchange rates, CAP changes and WTO talks."

While the influence of these external factors must be accommodated when changes were planned, the key things were for farmers to play to their strengths, to reduce unit costs of production and to solve core problems rather than turning to organics or diversification.

Where the business had to change, success depended on 100% commitment, planning and the monitoring of progress.

Powys farmer Edward Owen, who chaired the conference, said the industry faced such big problems that it was difficult to concentrate on day-to-day farming. "We have had 10 years of bureaucracy, busybodies and bungling, which is a recipe for stagnation."

Better government understanding of, and support for, livestock farming was an absolute priority. Mr Owen also challenged marketing experts to do a better job of promoting the natural green image of the products of grass-based production systems.

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