Battle to get in to farming was worth the fight
Devon farmer Rona Amiss, talks tenancies, travel and taking chances.
By the age of three Rona Amiss wanted to be a farmer. When she hit 18, and bagged her first real farm job, she was convinced farming was the way forward for her.
Rona’s story, and ethos, is indicative of many who have managed to get their foot on the farming ladder - take what you can, when you can and where you can.
It is not a model which works for everyone, but it was one Rona decided to pursue. During her time at Harper Adams, where she studied a BSc (Hons) in Agriculture, she met her future husband and aspiring farmer Nevil, who had grown up without even a garden.
But together they began their pursuit to get their foot on the ladder, with the eventual hope they would secure a farm tenancy of their own.
After college, the two worked in a wide range of farm jobs in a bid to learn as many skills as possible.
Rona says: “It wasn’t well paid, but we saved hard, worked long hours and increased our capital worth. As well as attending courses in vocational skills which we thought may be useful.
“Farming is seen by many as closed and as an industry it is not very encouraging if you are not from a farming background. But nothing in life is easy and during our farming career we have met the most unlikely people which have given us a great deal of help and encouragement.”
The pair applied for, and were offered, a 73-hectare (180-acre) hill farm in Exmoor, on a five-year Farm Business Tenancy.
Following the collapse of sheep prices and the indirect effects of foot-and-mouth in 2001, Rona and Nevil decided to diversify into poultry production and built an abattoir and a direct sales business.
In 2005, the family had expanded to five children and their tenancy was not renewed, so they moved to Higher Fingle Farm, a 23ha (57-acre) county council farm in Devon.
Today the family have a small suckler herd of 20 cows which are sold as store cattle or directly as grass-fed beef. Around 70 Hebridean cross sheep are sold as lamb and mutton boxes along with organic duck eggs and organic poultry, which are processed on-site along with goat meat.
“We try to add value to all our products and maximise the returns from a small acreage,” says Rona. “We also do training courses in poultry processing and production, education visits and have a small consultancy business helping with farm planning and paperwork.”
By her own admission her journey to date has had its fair share of challenges but it seems nothing has, or will, deter the couple from achieving their dream.
Joining many in her thinking, she believes the industry - including existing farmers - needs to encourage new entrants.
Although the industry is generally united in the need for more new entrants more needs to be done to deliver practical initiatives and opportunities which will prompt and steer change.
“To be a first generation farmer can seem like an uphill battle. With less people employed on farms it is very difficult employing students and apprentices. They do need training and supervision and they make costly mistakes. I know I did and I cringe to think of them.”
Last year, fuelled by her desire to progress, Rona was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to discover what opportunities there are for new entrants and what could be created.
Her trip saw her visit eastern USA, Cambodia, Thailand and France, to name but a few, and the all too familiar problems of high rent, challenging landscape and huge financial loans were only too apparent.
She returned to the UK with key recommendations for the industry and has spoken at various conferences to reinforce the key areas needed to boost and nurture new people into farming.
“Leadership and co-operation is needed, with a strategy to provide quality opportunities to encourage new entrants and their successful progression on the farming ladder.
“It is in farmers interests to help and support new entrants to make agriculture a thriving industry again. Without a family farm the new entrant often has no equipment to borrow, no mentor and needs to pay a fortune to have a day off.
“An informal network of mentors and someone to talk to could prevent a crisis and give the support a business needs to be a great success.”
Sharing responsibility may alleviate any additional stress farmers may feel they are taking on should they invest their time in new entrants.
“There is a good project on Dartmoor called Moorskills where a group of farmers share apprentices so no one person has to do all the supervision. I would think it beneficial to see more projects like this.
“We know getting your own farm is very difficult but there has been a lot of talk about creating opportunities, such as the Earth’s Trust and other similar first step schemes, as well as farms which are being let for new entrants which are a start.”
It is the subject of land availability which Rona believes is also blocking progression opportunities on the farming ladder.
“If we progressed off our council farm there would be an opportunity for a new entrant, but the farms which are suitable for progression are now exceptionally expensive.
“The nature of farming currently is to get bigger to spread costs. A large established farmer expanding their acreage can afford a higher rent and is a lot less risk for the landlord than a progressing young farmer.
“There needs to be a more flexible approach to land-use, with more development of a partnership approach between landowner, agent and tenant.
“If some estates would look at taking these progressing tenants and realise slightly lower rents may mean you have the chance of gaining an exceptional tenant who will be committed towards a long-term future.
“It’s time to re-evaluate the risks associated with new entrants. A landowner’s patronage of the right new entrant would reap long-term rewards for their estate and help reassure other landlords.”
Looking to the future, Rona is adamant the family will progress the business into a longer term tenancy.
“We have three more years left as a tenant here and we are actively looking for something we can afford which is larger.
“We would love to stay in the South West but this may not be possible. Rents are very high for the type of farm we are looking for and it is a very competitive market so we need to make sure we can compete at the highest level.
“At times it has been a hard slog, but the advantages of bringing up our family in a beautiful place and doing something we both enjoy far outweighs it. No two days are the same so we never complain we are bored.
“I hope the concern about the lack of new entrants is breaking down some of these barriers. As a girl wanting to farm I think my biggest hurdle was trying to find a pre-college farm to employ me, I was very lucky a really patient family took a chance on employing me.”
Advice on getting started
- Business Link has recently improved its website, where you can get information and advice on starting your own farm business. For more information visit www.businesslink.gov.uk or call 08456 009 006
- A new national mentoring programme offers useful and practical advice in different areas to support your ideas and business growth. Visit www.mentorsme.co.uk
- Whether you are pre-start, starting out or growing visit www.startupbritain.org which also offers a new Enterprise Calender for access to local help, advice and events