Farmers thoughts are fixed on Brexit - and those who will deal with the fall-out

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 31 Aug 2017

THE farming community is facing a changing landscape as it waits to see how the Government will take it forward post-Brexit. But what are the main priorities in Lincolnshire and the Humber?  

Regional law firm Wilkin Chapman specialises in agricultural law and this summer used its exhibition presence across the region it serves to sample the mood, with results providing a vital insight into the issues farmers believe will affect them over the next five years. Here, together with other professionals and a farming family, we look at major issues in the rural hinterland. 

FARMERS must plan for the future and grasp an appetite for change in order to protect and grow the industry.

That is the view of legal experts at Wilkin Chapman, after the results of a Future Farms Poll were analysed a the Cartergate HQ.

More than 200 farmers took part in the poll, which was conducted at national event Cereals, The Lincolnshire Show and The Driffield Show.

Results showed agricultural policy was the main priority – with a backdrop of Brexit – with 41 per cent listing it, while succession planning (26 per cent) and diversification (20 per cent) followed.

Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers with Catherine Harris at The Lincolnshire Show.

Partner and head of agriculture at Wilkin Chapman, Catherine Harris, said: “This year there are many issues of real importance within the farming community. It is so important for our firm to fully understand the future challenges and opportunities for our clients.  One of the overriding discussions I have had with many farmers and landowners during the recent show season has been about future-proofing their business. Our poll results clearly echo those discussions.”

Speaking after hearing the poll results, which saw 13 per cent cite environmental and disease issues, National Farmers’ Union county adviser Danny O’Shea, said: “The Wilkin Chapman Future Farms Poll has shone a spotlight on the key issues that farmers and their families are currently concerned about.

“It is important that farm businesses are in a fit state to meet the challenges of the future – our exit from the EU will provide a different set of challenges for farming and horticulture so farming families must make sure that their business structures are secure and future-proof.”

As the NFU legal panel members for Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, Wilkin Chapman will use the information gathered from the poll to assist their agriculture clients. 

Ms Harris continued: “It is important for families to plan now to protect their businesses and grow the next generation of farmers and our expert agricultural law team is working with clients to do just that.”

Four generations of a family, with its heart embedded in the Lincolnshire farming community, have carved a flourishing succession path to secure their future, with support from the Grimsby-based firm.

And the Needham family is now looking forward to making that five generations with Ralph (pictured right) and Pat’s grandson Oliver showing the same passion for farming as his fore-fathers.

Pat Needham took part in the Future Farms Poll when she made her traditional visit to The Lincolnshire Show – citing how vital succession planning is to the future of the industry.

Today the Needham family farms 1,400 acres in South Cockerington, near Louth, boasting an arable business, which runs alongside the extremely successful breeding of pedigree Poll Charolais cattle, with a herd of over 200.

For the last 40 years the family has nurtured the cattle, and has built up one of the oldest and largest herds in the country. 

This is all a far cry from the 30 acres of land that Ralph’s grandfather started out with – an early success then was the sale of a family-bred pedigree shire horse, which was sold for £2,000 back in 1920!

One of the clear reasons for the success of this business is the maintaining of a strong family unit, with a desire to look to the future, to progress and innovate – and of course put in much determination and hard work. Ralph and Pat’s son and Oliver’s father, Alistair, is currently working almost every dry hour as he brings in the family’s arable harvest. This is farmed on land that has been acquired by the Needham family over the years as they look to provide a future for generations to come.

“Succession is vital for the future. Seeing your children and grandchildren take an interest and grow with the business keeps you motivated,” said Pat.

“My husband has always said that he is just a custodian of the land and that is very true,” she added.

It is clear the Needham family has worked hard to secure a future for the generations ahead, and this is something more families are now considering, as they look towards the years to come.

One financial expert has echoed the advice that land-owners and farmers should seek professional help to ensure a secure and stable future.

Neil Wilson is head of agriculture, for UK corporate and business banking at HSBC, and says it is clear to him that there are cases where those who are seeking to take over a farming business are not fully aware of the finances involved. 

“As well as a discussion about how the assets of the business may be passed on it is also vital to discuss the financial standing now and the likely position going forward so that those inheriting the business are aware of what they are taking on,” he said.

“Communication at an early stage with all family members involved is crucial. This is normally where the process falls down as mum and dad may have ‘sorted it out’ but no-one actually knows what the plan is. Challenges can also arise around how those non-farming family members are to be treated. Again, this falls back to communication,” added Mr Wilson.

Wilkin Chapman has worked with the Needham family for many years and has assisted them in growth and succession planning. 

Alison Elwess, senior solicitor specialising in wills, estates, tax and trusts at Wilkin Chapman, said: “There is no doubt that the vast majority of people wish to ensure the generations to come have a secure and prosperous future. In order for that to be assured, assets need to be passed on in a planned way. There may be informal arrangements in place, but it is vital that things are managed on a more formal basis.

“Seeking proper advice will help families to manage expectations and help the older generation hand things over to their siblings in a managed way. 

“A family business doesn’t have to be broken up and sold. There are ways that things can be worked through together and a solution can be found to enable the passing on of the family assets in a manner that is acceptable to all who contribute, mindful of course of those who may want to take a different route, which does not involve the family business.”

GOVERNMENT minister George Eustice made and appearance at The Lincolnshire Show, and promised investment to ensure a “vibrant and profitable” agricultural industry.

A special briefing was held at the 133rd annual event, led by the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

As previously reported, he fielded questions from farmers who were keen to understand post-Brexit policies, after which he assured people that the industry was in safe hands.

But he steered clear of pledging a future that would be subsidy-driven, saying he did not believe simply paying people for the areas of land they had was the way forward. Under EU policy, farmers are given subsidies on a per hectare basis.

DUAL ROLE: Mr Eustice in Grimsby with his fisheries hat on.

“We want to work in Lincolnshire with farmers to design policies which fit their needs,” he said.

“Area-based payments cannot be justified for the long term, instead we need to look at how we can support the building of a vibrant, profitable and confident industry,” added Mr Eustice, pictured above right, who is no stranger to the ceremonial county, having also visited Grimsby previously in his fisheries role.

Mr Eustice’s words were echoed by Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, Martin Vickers, who was a guest of Wilkin Chapman while at the event.

Mr Vickers said: “I recently had discussions with members of the farming community in my constituency and there was understandable concern about where policy will go from here. 

“In the short term there will be no sudden change, and further change will be transitional, continued support will certainly be the case as every Government recognises the importance of the agricultural industry in this country, it feeds the nation.

“What we need now is for farmers to get in touch with their MPs if they have issues or concerns. There has never been a better time for local MPs to help shape and influence policy.” 

Farmer Keith Spilman has 800-acres of arable land in Clixby, near Market Rasen, and on the Nottinghamshire border.

Taking part in the Future Farms Poll, he cited potential changes to subsidies as a major issue.

“I do believe a lot of farmers, especially tenant farmers, are concerned about any changes to subsidies,” he said. Mr Spilman said the hectare allowance enabled them to keep a constant business through good and bad crop harvests and market variations. “Without the subsidy, if a good proportion of their land is poor or prices are low, farmers could find themselves in difficulty. 

“My message is ‘don’t forget us!”

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