Age of the farmer-entrepreneur

15 Feb, 2016 01:00 AM
The case for the entrepreneur (at least in the UK): output from farm commodities has fallen over 40 years, but output from other farm-based enterprises has climbed threefold. (Source:
The case for the entrepreneur (at least in the UK): output from farm commodities has fallen over 40 years, but output from other farm-based enterprises has climbed threefold. (Source: "Entrepreneurship: The Kiss of Life for the UK Farming Sector")

“Farmer” and “entrepreneur” are not words normally seen next to each other. That’s a pity, a stimulating new study observes, because a farm is a great platform from which to launch entrepreneurial activity.

“Entrepreneurship: The Kiss of Life for the UK Farming Sector ( papers/ofcreport2016a5final.pdf)” was commissioned by the 2016 Oxford Farming Conference. If the farming businesses the study refers to are mostly British, the entrepreneurial principles it illustrates are universal.

Entrepreneurial success stories tend to focus on shiny new technologies. The authors of “Entrepreneurship” point out that being entrepreneurial is an attitude, not a fashion statement, and that adventurous farmers often have a firm foundation for entrepreneurial endeavour sitting right under their feet.

“Everyone highlighted in the case studies in this report remains true to their agricultural roots, retains a strong grounding in farming and respects the land or ‘home farm’ as their golden goose of productivity,” reported authors Dr Muhummad Roomi, of Cranfield University, and Graham Redman of The Andersens Centre.

They spend several pages on illuminating what makes the entrepreneur, as opposed to someone simply engaged in good business.

Take Louise Nicholls, a tenant farmer who runs a “high specification” bed-and-breakfast and holiday cottage business from her farm near Dundee. Using spare rooms and a vacant cottage to generate extra revenue is plain good business, the authors comment.

But Ms Nicholls isn’t stopping at good business.

“Having a series of redundant grain silos that they own, which face a beautiful view and are beyond the hubbub of the farm’s daily activity, she is converting them to novel high specification accommodation. She is also building on other interests close to her heart that would add value to the tourism aspect and generate revenue themselves, by developing a range of unusual livestock herds, including boer goats, alpacas, micro-pigs and anglonubian goats,” the authors report.

“She is remaining true to herself yet also creating symbiosis in her enterprises. That’s entrepreneurial.”

The report proposes that entrepreneurialism is “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”.

There is good reason for farmers to develop new businesses. Over 40 years, real output from UK farm commodities has fallen. The proportion of “other” output from agricultural enterprises has increased threefold in the same period.

Unsurprisingly, “remaining profitable” and “avoiding destruction” are the two leading reasons the authors give for farmers to become more entrepreneurial. To this, they add, “seize opportunity”, “compete with large firms” and “grow exponentially”.

Or, as one farmer put it, “there is no money in being average”. Or, as someone else has more poetically expressed it, “The winds of change are blowing ever harder. Some will build a shelter, others a windmill”.

The first step in the entrepreneur’s journey is to identify opportunity. “Look for ways to add value to other peoples’ lives and businesses,” the report advises.

“This is the key to add value to your own. Why? Free trade assumes both parties in a deal expect to be better off from it.”

Devon dairy farmer Geoff Sayers, who made the “farm as golden goose” analogy to the authors, has exploited this idea with business acumen and a gift for branding.

Mr Sayers returned to the family farm after a career in international finance and set about using the property as a platform to build multiple interlocked businesses.

“Through purchase, rent, contract farming and share farming agreements, he has grown to manage five organic dairy farms with approaching 2,000 milking cows. His organic meat business, The Well Hung Meat Company, supplies meat boxes nationally similar to the ‘veg-box’ model, and his dairy processing business, Holy Cow, is supplying top retail outlets nationally. He lets eight holiday homes and rents vehicles for wedding and other occasions.”

The home farm remains pivotal to this entrepreneurial business sprawl: even the farm Landrover is available through the car hire business.

Can anyone be an entrepreneur? Probably, the authors say.

“Entrepreneurialism is not binary. It is not either on or off like a light. Nor is it something you will never have if you can’t currently find it in you. It is something that everybody has within them, but of varying amounts depending on the nature of the person and how their environment has developed it within them.”

That cheers Alf Brooks, chairman of the Oxford Farming Conference. In his preface to the report, he observed:

“Farming frequently hits difficult times, so to read the following pages and learn that everybody has entrepreneurial capacity within them, is heartening.”

Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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