The future of upland farming in the UK: a business model that works

upland farming sheep.jpgThis post is by Chris Clark of Nethergill Farm. It is the second in a short series about the options for the future of upland hill farming in the UK. 

In my previous blog I outlined the economic challenges faced by hill farmers today and suggested ways that they can take back control of their businesses and become profitable in a post-Brexit world. Here, I outline how, at Nethergill Farm, we came to realise we had to fundamentally change our business model to survive.

The challenge of farming in the hills
It was November 2005 when we first arrived in the Yorkshire Dales and looked into Langstrothdale from Fleet Moss. At least, we tried to look down Langstrothdale. The torrential rain all but obscured Nethergill Farm, the 180 hectares of the Dales we had bought and were about to start farming.

We had spent the past 25 years mustering funds to buy are own little piece of England.  The farmhouse stood impressively against the wintery elements, but the meadowland and pastures surrounding the house, cleaved out of moorland in the mid-1800s, looked as though they would take any and every opportunity to revert back to natural moorland.

We had come to the Dales to farm sheep and beef and we struggled for the first five years to make our business pay. But the combination of a lack of control over lamb and beef prices, and the elevation, latitude and prevailing weather of the high Dales, rendered our initial efforts futile.

Farming within natural limits enabled us to be profitable
So, we began to work with nature, letting Nethergill take the bearing. But we still had to generate an income and put food on the table.  We needed a business model that kept the bank happy and allowed us to eat.

We began by blocking the grips that had previously been dug to drain the moorland. We planted 28,000 trees, not all correctly sited unfortunately, we had so much to learn. Crucially, we halved the number of sheep and introduced the rare Whitebred Shorthorn cattle, a breed that can cope with the vagaries of the Dales’ geology and grazing.

Gradually we began to see improvements in livestock health, biodiversity and our cashflow. It was easy to see how our business was improving. Reduced sheep numbers allowed us to cut out almost all bought-in animal feed. The vet’s bill shrivelled since the worst thing for a sheep is to be surrounded by too many other sheep. Our business was now driven by margin and not volume, and our bank balance was finally improving.

Fewer livestock allowed nature to flourish
But it was not so easy to quantify the shifts in the natural processes. We needed a touchstone against which to gauge the changes.

All farming is dictated by geology and the capacity to grow vegetation. In the Dales that vegetation is grass. So, a survey of the Nethergill vegetation seemed a good place to start and two surveys have now been completed, in 2011 and 2017. Working with the National Parks Sustainable Development Fund and the Wharfedale Naturalists Society we now know the vegetative trends, and they are overwhelmingly positive.

By default, grazing with fewer, but hardy livestock, has led to a restoration of more natural processes. We are mimicking natural grazing without fertilisers, bought-in feedstuffs or uneconomical medication. This has benefited the hydrology with an increase in sphagnum (peat moss) leading to less water run-off and increasing carbon sequestration. Lost species are also returning to the farm including orchids, black grouse, otters, red squirrels and even the occasional travelling hen harrier.

It has not all been plain sailing. The return of flora and fauna has also included the poisonous bog asphodel, not a welcome presence for our livestock. But we are constantly learning how to cope with new challenges like this.

Is this a repeatable model for other hill farms?
The simple answer is, ‘yes’. The somewhat counter-intuitive approach of farming less stock enabled us to be more profitable, at the same time as increasing our resilience and environmental sustainability. It is the strictures of good business management, with independent yardsticks, that has dictated the land management at Nethergill. We now have a robust model which balances the needs of food production, nature and business.

All hill farmers need to use the natural resources they have available in the most efficient way. This may sound obvious but it is far from standard practice. It is usual to try to correct for the disadvantages of weather, latitude and elevation by adding inputs like animal feed and fertiliser to increase numbers of livestock beyond what the land can naturally support.

Not only is this an inefficient way to produce food, it adds considerable costs for the farmer. And these costs increase in a non-linear way: not just animal feed and fertiliser but away wintering practices become necessary and extra medication is needed to keep a larger flock healthy. Farmers who pass the maximum number of livestock their land can naturally support may make more absolute profit in the short term, but will have a lower profit margin, in other words make less money per animal, because of the additional costs incurred. For most farmers, further expansions will take them to a point where, after having made short term profits, the business starts to lose money.

The received wisdom that maximising output is the route to a profitable farm business is pervasive and strongly entrenched, but it is damaging the environment and risks destroying the industry.

In developing its new agricultural policies the government should ensure that it lays the foundations for hill farmers to build their businesses around maximising profit margins, rather than maximising production quantities or short term absolute profit. This will require knowledge sharing, advice and support for farmers to change their business models and experiment with what works for their farm business. Ultimately this will help the government to meet its own ambitions on the environment, as well as providing the only viable route for the survival of hill farming in the long term.

Read the first blog in the series The future of upland farming in the UK: what farmers are facing.

One comment

  • THE Chris Clark, ex-South Downs? Great to read this, could do with rejuvenating your pioneering work you did down here, some of your thinking for the lowlands. I hope your next blog will provide some inspiring words about the end product, the lamb market and your financial viability from good custodianship matched with premium produce sales.

    I worry about the future of our pastoral landscape, the very reason for the South Downs National Park designation. Sheep grazing is under threat due to Brexit and post-EU agricultural policy and practice uncertainty, the insensitive global food market, conservatism, real or perceived dog-worrying dramas and more besides.

    I believe we do have the natural resources management in hand, certainly with our more enlightened and caring farmers; we’ve also had 30 years of agri-environment mechanisms and delivery to “get it right” (from the pioneering South Downs Environmentally Sensitive Area, one of the first five in the country). What we don’t have is the supply chain, from farm to home, land manager to consumer.

    The land management end may be ok, with Gove’s “public funds for public benefit” future agri-env’t scheme, but it needs an economic outlet at the other end.

    The South Downs is one of the most popular landscapes in Britain, with millions of people as its potential customers, yet hardly anyone makes the connection between the landscape they love to visit and the economic need of the farmer who provides their recreation ground and view.

    The potential is enormous, it just needs joining up – land managers providing the sustainable farming system to work with the natural resources, visitors to reward them with their local produce purchases. We need that local supply chain and a marketing campaign.

    Farmers can regain control of their business, they already have their South Downs “clusters”, these could be developed into a South Downs “co-operative”, in partnership with the local abattoirs, butchers and other related interests. In that way, the way of life can be maintained, the landscape conserved and long-term sustainability assured.

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