Farmer Focus – John Pawsey

I can’t be certain when you will be reading this contribution to the UK’s formative regenerative publication, but what I do know is that most of you will be about to, or will just have, sat around the Christmas table with your family.

It can be tricky territory. Especially if you are all working together in a family farm situation where life expectations have never been discussed and/or familiarity has bred contempt. It does happen.

I’m not a fan of mirrors because whenever I pass one, a weird old bald man stares back at me. At fifty eight years old and with three young adults between the ages of nineteen and twenty four, I am reconciled to the fact that some kind of succession will have to be discussed as it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the weird old bald man in the mirror is me. Knowing my lot, after a few late festive nights, lashings of wine from the West of France and endless cold turkey sandwiches, my offspring’s future involvement in the family business will be discussed. I need to be prepared.

Unfortunately the days are gone when the reins of any business can be passed onto one’s children just because they have sprung from your loins, or more accurately in my own situation, from Alice’s loins, (I played a small part a few months earlier in the pregnancy, apparently) as we need the best people for the job. But what are the opportunities if your successors don’t necessarily fit the traditional farming bill?

For many of us, having diversified our businesses over the last twenty years, it’s not just about farming, which is a bit of a relief as my one of my daughters whilst hermetically sealed inside a luxury tractor cab, blasted with banging tunes, is quite capable of entering a field with an implement that she has assumed has been liberally greased and adorned with fresh wearing parts by the previous occupant. On exiting the field she has been known to turn around for the first time to discover that she has three punctured tyres and the right hand wing of said implement is imbedded in the field’s sole telegraph pole, or as we call them in the barren wastelands of East Anglia, a Suffolk tree.

When I joined our family company in the mid eighties when all we did was farm, persuading a son or daughter to join a family farming business was considered to be a form of child abuse, but possessing no qualifications due to being terribly naughty at school, I was grateful for any opportunity laid at my door. Also, there was a certain agricultural establishment in Gloucestershire that laughed in the face of scholastic achievements as long as your cheque didn’t bounce. No longer the case these days I’m afraid.

The modern rural business is now able to offer a multitude of opportunities which weren’t available to me in my early twenties, and anticipating a Christmas questioning, I have been considering how to engage my young adults and their various aptitudes, and have drawn up a list of new job titles to tempt them.

The roles are as follows.

An Enlightened Agronomist: a few do exist but the majority of agronomic advisors are still happy to reach for the plastic bottle to cover their backs just in case. We have knocked the confidence out of our farmers with the complexity of chemically based agriculture making us feel unqualified to make even the most basic decisions. It’s like raising the bonnet of a car and on seeing an expanse of plastic you close the lid, leaving the job to someone else because you can’t see any recognisable components. You assume that it no longer contains the internal combustion engine that you have worked on for years. Enlightened agronomists can see though the plastic.

Trial Designer and Data Analyser: we are constantly trialling various agronomic scenarios but often don’t complete the work with any rigour to get meaningful answers, or we just do it for a year and think that the results are good enough. We have been collecting data in terms of yield, crop quality, work rates, soil health and biodiversity but we haven’t layered that information to really understand where the real opportunities are for efficient profitable food production with room for nature. It’s not a full time job but when combined with the enlightened agronomist role, it could be.

Administrator, Book Keeper and Inbox Curator: to free us up to do all the creative things (see above). We need to get out of the office. Although mobile devices have allowed us to de-shackle ourselves from the swivel chair, my life is still plagued by administration. I remember being lectured by someone from our levy body about not being as productive as other European farmers. It’s because I’m spending too much time dealing with nonsense when I should be making better decisions for my business. The only inbox I had when I arrived on the farm was a physical paper one but now I have that and an ever expanding array of digital ones too. No, I don’t want to join your f***ing WhatsApp group!

Contract Farming Massager: although I like to feel that we give our undivided attention to our farmers we contract for, there is always more love to impart. Where agents are involved, our farmers get lots of juicy figures but we need to spend more time keeping them up to date with all the things that we are inventing and trialling on our own farm so they know that we are future proofing their businesses as well as our own. We have also missed opportunities to take on new contract farming arrangements mainly due to the lack of time to pursue them. It has to change.

Crop Polisher and Value Adder: part of the reason for converting to organic farming was to go more niche and make the market rather than take it. But we need to go nicher (is that a word?). The easy wins are to take back some of the processing and added value we give away. De-hulling our spelt, cleaning our home saved seed and mixing seed blends on the farm. Separating our own bi-crops and other multi-species crops. Putting in a bagging unit to direct sell some of our exotics. You are probably all doing it already.

A Roboticist: a role that gets me thinking of the term motorist. Motorists were invented over a hundred years ago and were “a thing” because you couldn’t just jump in a car and roar off. You had to check a multitude of lubricants, learn copious amounts of hand signals and something called double-de-clutching. Nowadays we just drive a car, possibly own more than one and never check the oil. In a hundred years time I suspect that we will just instruct robots, possibly more than one and never check their (vegetable) oil. In the meantime, we need the skills of a roboticist.

And then there are all the jobs that we hand over to the man (it usually is) in the coloured corduroys: an Environmental Designer, a Net Zero Minder, a Carbon Creditor and a Green Washer. All new roles and crucial to capitalise on the opportunities that will be available to us in the coming years. Some expert help will be needed but we should be able to do a lot of the work ourselves. Biodiversity net gain needs to be our net gain and not somebody else’s.

There is an opportunity for a Website Wizard, Social Media Schmoozer and a Brand Manager. Our website is horribly old and clunky and needs immediate attention. You maybe aware that I love a bit of social media, and although @Hanslope on Twitter gets my full attention, @ShimplingPark does not. And then there is all the other platforms that we are blissfully ignoring like TicTac and SnipChit to name but two. Everyone needs a brand manager, don’t they? The above is not a full time role, but an important one if we are to fully engage with our customers.

Although most of our redundant farm buildings have been re-purposed as offices, commercial lets and dwellings, there is always room for improving our offering and so two new roles could be created as a Property Tickler and an Asset Sweater.

The list goes on, and I suspect that reading this you have come up with several more positions of your own. Please do email me your inspired wisdom to as soon as you can and they will be presented to my progeny.

You may be asking yourself at this point what any of this has to do with direct drilling? Absolutely nothing. But succession is something that we all have to grasp and if you are not doing so, then please make a New Year’s resolution to do so. For the sake of you and your family.

Wishing you an extremely Merry Christmas, the best New Year and an amazing Harvest 2023