Offer of royal help for Lancashire's farming community

Sarah Bolton and Graham Whitwell with children Thomas and Charlotte at their family farm
Sarah Bolton and Graham Whitwell with children Thomas and Charlotte at their family farm

A free programme to help farm businesses become more resilient is being launched in Lancashire this autumn, thanks to the Prince’s Countryside Fund. Fiona Finch reports on why farmers particularly need such help now.

Down on the farm these days there is plenty to worry about.

Ruth Kendal

Ruth Kendal

Mention the B-word and it’s a trigger for tales of uncertainty. Noone can predict just what will happen to exports and prices if Brexit goes ahead. And noone knows how exactly the Government’s proposed new ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) will compare to current European subsidies.

The truth is that like many businesses, farm businesses are living in uncertain times.

But a new initiative coming to Lancashire this autumn will be offering 20 family farms in the county the chance to join an advice, networking and information sharing programme which has royal backing.

The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme offers free business skills training and advice to family farms in 15 locations across the UK each year.

Graham Whitwell at work on the farm

Graham Whitwell at work on the farm

Those securing a place on the free programme are guaranteed one to one support as well as the opportunity to attend a series of workshops.

The programme will be led by Cumbrian-based, not for profit company The Farmer Network on behalf of the Prince’s Countryside Fund. The ultimate ambition is to create a more efficient and sustainable future for each business.

The next programme for family farms, which must have a main enterprise of beef, sheep or dairy, starts on October 15 at The Crofters Hotel at Garstang. The farms of participants can be either owned or tenanted.

Sarah Bolton, a recently appointed Lancashire NFU (National Farmers Union) Ambassador, is one of those who has signed up to take part.

Sheep at Carter Fold Farm

Sheep at Carter Fold Farm

Sarah, 40 and partner Graham Whitwell,43, recently took over the tenancy from Graham’s father of Carter Fold Farm at Waddington in the Ribble Valley.

Their farming income comes from three sources - 450 breeding ewes, over-wintering other farmers’ cattle and a milk round, which delivers bought in milk. With two small children, Thomas, three and Charlotte,18 months, their lives are busy.

Sarah explained why they are delighted to have secured a place on the programme. She said: “As a young farming family with Brexit and everything coming forward we are just trying to look at options to increase profitability and look at opportunities for diversification. We have to weigh up all our options.”

From sharing business knowledge to accounting advice, she believes there will be much to gain.

Benefit will come from networking with other farmers as they all share their experiences.

Running a business from home demands many skills and Sarah said: “We try to do as much as we can ourselves in house just to try and cut costs and save a bit of money where possible.”

With a background in agri environment, Sarah, who graduated from the university of Aberystwyth and Graham, who trained at Lancashire’s Myerscough College, near Preston, are keen to compare their ways of working with other farmers and gain new insights.

She hopes to return to consultancy work when the children are older and added: “When you look at our income it wouldn’t take much to upset the business.”

Across the UK up to 300 farms can sign up to the programme each year. The intention says The Prince’s Countryside Fund is to help participants secure ‘a viable and resilient future for farm businesses, by equipping them with the information and confidence to help them survive and make the right choices for themselves and their families.

Ruth Kendal is the Project Manager for the Lancashire group and also for a Yorkshire group, based in Skipton. She said: “They’re focusing on beef, sheep and dairy farming, looking at the impact Brexit might have on businesses and becoming resilient to change in the farming sector, building and developing their businesses so they are more resilient to change in the marketplace.

“At the moment it’s just the uncertainty farmers are in. We don’t have enough information to know how it might impact. This programme is essentially to build resilience up irrespective of the Brexit outcome.”

Adam Day, managing director of The Farm Network said: “The worst case scenario for the beef and sheep farmer is absolutely dire. The worst case scenario is if we leave without a deal on October 31 will be a 48 per cent tariff on lambs exported from the UK to Europe.”

He cites concerns that the Government “does not recognise food as a public good” and warns: “As a country we are now less than 60 per cent self sufficient in food and that figure is increasing by one to two per cent every year. We are relying more and more on imported foods.”

By introducing benchmarking it’s predicted participants will be able to identify where they can make improvements and better understand their business’s strengths and weaknesses.

Accounts, budgeting, animal health, involvement in environmental schemes and diversification will all be discussed and speakers will include industry leaders.

Ruth said: “Each workshop overs a broad area, but all link to the broad theme of building farm resilience to change. This programme brings different generations together so they can talk through ideas on farm business to help move the farms forward.”

* The first five workshops will run from October, with one to one support provided over the summer. The final two workshops will take place in autumn 2020. To join or for more details call project manager Ruth Kendal on 07397 985324 or The Farmer Network on 01768 868615.