Policy? Protests? More intense farming? Less intense farming? More training? Benchmarking? A better joined up industry before and after the farm gate?
Sadly there’s no silver bullet because we’re talking about individual farmers with individual problems. And that’s what makes the problem even more difficult.
But there were a few messages that came out of a joint NFU NFUS AHDB event at Stoneleigh in the last week that could help shape the way forward. Consultants, feed advisors, banks, vets, trade organisations, accountants and farm charities, all attended.
It can be difficult to get consensus between around 60 industry folk. I facilitated the afternoon session on agreeing key messages and the ways to communicate this. I still can’t work out if people were quiet-ish or just being well behaved. Was I lucky or did it make my job harder? It was what it was, I survived and it was good to hear all views.
One was that change is necessary – whether farmers want to keep milking or stop. Which makes perfect sense I suppose. You can’t stay outstanding in your field if you remain standing still.
Another consensus, addressing the fact there are different situations on dairy farms, divided farmers into three categories: those that have a business plan to go forward with, those that have decided to leave the industry and those that want to stay in but perhaps need help to do this. It is this latter group that NFU and AHDB say they will target.
Other thoughts voiced included:
- Farmers need case studies of those that have survived by either diversifying in dairy or succeeding in agri-business after the parlour has closed.
- Farmers need to leave their farms in order to have a chance to see the bigger picture.
- Farmers need to talk to someone before their hand is forced rather than waiting until the business is on the at-risk register.
- Stopping dairying isn’t a failure. It might be the right decision for the farmer and the farm.
The last one is particularly difficult for the industry. Whilst the decision should be down to the farmer in the end there must be people to help along the way. This is because it deals with THE most complicated part of all farming sectors- the psychology of a farmer.
It’s the catch 22. Farmers don’t like help. They are very proud people. When they take on a farm they don’t take the custodian nature lightly. Some people work for a living. Some people live for working. Farmers just farm. There’s no distinction. And the ones struggling in the industry at the moment farm with their hearts more than their heads.
Is this the key to helping the industry: more head, less heart? There was definitely some support for this on the day with suggestions farmers need to understand the accounts better and have stronger business planning. But lack of planning is hardly a new topic for small and medium sized enterprises.
So where does that leave us? As I said at the start, there’s no silver bullet. But it’s absolutely clear that those across the sector need to consider the health of the industry as a whole, not just where they sit commercially in it. Decision-making needs to be triggered and those on the front line are best placed to help farmers reach the bull’s eye they want.