FARMERS have been urged to make time to seek out and embrace new ideas as part of a strategy to make their businesses more resilient in the face of change,

Speakers at the 2018 Northern Farming Conference at Hexham mart told the audience of more than 200 to review their strategy if they had not done so already and spoke of positive changes they had introduced in their own businesses to make them more competitive.

Speaking on the theme 'Your Farm, Your Future', tenant farmer Robert Neill of Upper Nisbet Farm, Roxburghshire, a former Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year, talked of the benefits of taking time away from the farm to learn from others.

He explained how the learning he gained through completing a Nuffield Scholarship has encouraged him to invest in time-saving technology, infrastructure and redesign his cattle-handling systems, so they are safer for stock and staff.

He said: “Take the blinkers off. The world is a small place, go out and see what others do, as every day is a school day. I spend quite a bit of time off farm and have travelled the world to get new ideas. It’s allowed me to bring innovation back to the business and hope that puts my business in a better place moving forward.”

Neil Heseltine, from Hilltop Farm, Malham, explained how halving his sheep numbers had made his farm more profitable and less reliant on subsidy.

In 2012, he had compared the costs of his sheep and cattle enterprises and realised that while his sheep enterprise generated far more income than his cattle, the margin was low, as the associated costs of production were high and the business was labour intensive.

Making a switch to a more extensive system, with half the number of ewes, has produced higher profits, resulted in a lower impact on the environment, improved sheep health and increased the amount of time he has to spend with his family.

He said: “In terms of profitability, our reliance on subsidy has reduced from 70 per cent to 40 per cent, and therefore we feel we have a much more balanced and therefore more robust business, which is more able to withstand the vagaries and challenges of the farming life.”

James Standen, farms director of Newcastle University, shared his ambitious plans for the university's two farms – Cockle Park and Nafferton Farm – developed since his appointment to the role in 2017.

He explained how the first phase of his strategy has involved amalgamating two separate dairy herds into one, and restructuring the arable operations, so arable land on both farms is managed as one unit.

These changes have enabled him to sell surplus machinery and cows, which has freed up capital for investment and stopped the “heavy losses” which the two businesses had seen in recent years.

His aspiration is to establish the farms as centres of excellence for teaching, research and for the transfer of knowledge about practical and profitable farming.

He said: "I am great believer that if we are an exemplar farm and delivering best practice, it has to be a profitable business.”

Neil Wilson, head of agriculture for HSBC, warned that hope was not a strategy when it comes to planning and businesses need to think through the implications of a future with reduced levels of support and increased income volatility.

He said: "Don’t hope things will go your way – start thinking about things you can do. I am relatively comfortable with businesses that are not doing anything dramatic at the moment. What I am not comfortable with is businesses who haven’t even thought about it.

‘If you’ve thought about the bigger picture and decide that now is not the time to be making fundamentally strategic decisions then I am fine with that, because at least you’ve planned it and thought about it.”

Tom Hind, chief strategy officer for AHDB, said a significant number of businesses were either heavily or entirely dependent on direct support payments, so it was important to use the transitional period to prepare for their removal and work to make those businesses more resilient.

“Using that time wisely, so you can cope with the phasing out and elimination of direct payments, is absolutely pivotal,” he said.

Mr Hind said the government had made it clear that it wants to see the farming industry become more self-reliant. “Government believes the industry should stand on its own two feet. The next few years we may see some targeted interventions to help the industry get into that position.”

Allan Buckwell, emeritus professor and agricultural economist, spoke about the unknowns that farmers were facing in terms of Brexit and the implementation of the Agriculture Bill.

He said the Agriculture Bill offered little detail on actions that the government would take to improve farm productivity and there were big questions around the design of new environmental schemes and how much funding would be available to pay for them.

He suggested farmers needed to work in partnership with green groups to make a case to government about the level of spending that would be required to pay for the stewardship of natural resources.

“Farmers and green NGOs need to make the case for long-term support for this [public goods]. If we need £2-3bn, we have got to make the case that it is a sound use of public money. But if we don’t do it together, then we will be picked apart and the amount will be chipped away.”

Robbie Moore, Nuffield scholar, talked about his study into the perceived failings of short-term land occupation, with concerns growing about the impact on the long-term wellbeing of land and soils.

He spoke of the need for landlords and tenants to consider the triple bottom line – which involves establishing shared goals around social and environmental considerations, as well as economic ones.

“The farming sector and professional advisers need to broaden their outlook and be more imaginative when it comes to land tenure options,” he said. “The whole spectrum of land partnership structures should be considered."