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How to run a farm

An ex-chartered surveyor, Jamie Williams adapted to even longer working hours than he was used to, but still allows time for marketing.

After trading in the city life to buy a farm, ex-chartered surveyor, Jamie Williams about his new found agricultural career, his lessons learnt and his advice to prospective farm buyers

Can you describe a typical day for us?

I work long hours. So with my fallibility of trying to do anything myself, I start about five, then I'm into the office - which is a caravan in the yard - for about three or four hours. 

I go back into the house for breakfast. The lad who helps me on the farm, Matt, will arrive about 8am/8:30am when he's working, and I'll give him my job list and we'll talk about what we're going to do today. 

I'll go back into the office, and office work, which is mostly accounting and marketing, is a big proportion of my morning. I've got an online shop and I organise collecting orders from customers.

I'm in for lunch or out and about for lunch - if I'm delivering - and then the afternoon is practical work.

All the chores are done by Matt in the morning - the feeding, checking the stock - then [in the afternoon] we go into moving sheep, fencing fields, selecting pigs for slaughter or for selling on, the medication or anything else that needs looking after. 

That's my afternoon, and in winter it tends to be quite a short day, so I'm then back in the office or in the workshop tidying - I'm forever tidying. That's my biggest problem, self-discipline with tidying. I've only just seen what colour my desk is. 

Your natural weaknesses, when you're part of a team in a company, get lost. The rest of your team fill the gaps. When you're on your own there's no one to fill those gaps so you quickly learn your weaknesses. 

The rental levels are high but if you're using marginal ground - ie, ground that the big farmers don't want - then there's very low value, particularly for grassland

So you either bring someone in to fill them, or you teach yourself to fill them yourself as best you can. 

So do you see yourself hiring more staff to fill those gaps any time soon?

There are a couple of guys round here who have been brought up on farms who are far more knowledgeable about farming and the capabilities of the local ground than me. 

A lot of the land we take on is pretty grotty: it's margins of farms where they don't want it for arable work, it's little paddocks that belong to some of the bigger houses around here. And if there's a lad in the village who grew up with his horse or a couple of sheep in that paddock then he'll know that paddock very well - its drainage, its flooding...

What lessons have you learned from your relatively brief time in agriculture?

I think I was naïve to think I could do it on my own. If I were to do it again I'd go on a course and talk to professionals far more at the beginning. 

I would put myself on a bookkeeping and business management course to learn about the differences between running a limited company and a partnership, tax, directors dividends, corporation tax, should you register for VAT... I hadn't heard of something called single rate tax before. 

All these things come out the woodwork five years on; if I'd known about them on day one then I'd be a lot stronger.

Third-party intervention is invaluable. Last week I went away on a course designed to analyse your business and yourself - your strengths, your weaknesses. 

I was like a sponge for a week - I learnt a massive amount about what I want to do and why I'm doing it. In life, and in business, you don't get a chance to do that.  I'm working from 5am-9pm every day... when have I got the time to sit down and analyse last year?

What has been the toughest part of running a farm?

Cash flow is a nightmare. You get credit from a feed company or supplier with 30 days to pay, then you invoice your customers who suddenly ask you for 60 days. I was totally naïve. 

Agriculture is a safe place to be; the banks like agriculture. But if your cash flow management is poor you'll be Z-rated within minutes. 

Then you can't get credit for your feed supply, so you're getting £12,000 feed delivered today and you've got to pay for it up front because they won't give you credit. So unless you've got a big pot of cash somewhere, cash flow's major.

Any tips for prospective farm buyers? 

Whether it's the old boy in your village who used to run your farm, or someone who used to work on it, these are the best people to talk to before you buy. 

There's a reason why they're selling it, usually because they're leaving the sector or it's gone badly. If you can find the people who worked for them, and in agriculture they tend to work locally, they can give you the insight. 

Rental deals and share farming agreements are a really cheap way in. You don't have to buy 150 acres. 

OK, I was lucky - I got to buy my little patch here. But otherwise everything I work with is rented, given, donated. I'm using gear that's pulled out of hedges.

It's a low barrier to entry if you rent. You don't need a million or even £100,000 - you can probably start a farm with tens of thousands. It's doable. 

The rental levels are high but if you're using marginal ground - ie, ground that the big farmers don't want - then there's very low value, particularly for grassland. 

If you're competing with the paddocks then you'll pay good money but if you're just competing with graziers then a pound an acre doesn't sound very much does it?

In hindsight I shouldn't have bought the land I own. It's the wrong type of land. 

I should have kept the capital elsewhere and I should have rented. But I've bought an asset that isn't devaluing; it's probably going up in value. 

Another key is where you do it. If you do it in an area you know it is a hell of a lot easier and you are known. 

If I'd gone off to North Wales where I'm not really known but I felt there was an opportunity it would have been a lot harder.

Any other tips for running a farm once you've acquired it?

If you trust another farmer, use his stuff as well. A guy in Devon is going to grow some chickens for me. 

And I can use my ground, which is better suited to sheep, for sheep. He is closer to the processing unit so there is a lower food mile for the bird to travel. 

Technology can help farmers and social media shouldn't be underestimated. I sent a press release the other day and my neighbour said: what's a press release? He's producing a commodity which has its market value and that's it.

But if you're adding value, even on a micro level, you're bigging up the profile of your wheat. It may be that someone notices it and tries to buy it direct. This is easier with livestock, but less so with bulk commodities. 

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Adam Bannister

About the author

Adam Bannister writes for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other industry publications.


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