By Bruce McConachie, Head of Industry Development for QMS
I was recently on a webinar when someone said they thought basic payments and direct payments had caused innovation in agriculture to slow down, and that a lot of farmers were more concerned about retaining subsidy support than developing their businesses. And it’s a theory that’s hard to disagree with.
Whether or not you agree with that statement, one thing that is true is that we are moving quickly towards a future where subsidy support is more likely to be based on the environmental and public benefit credentials of our businesses, and less on their productivity.
While this may seem disheartening, we should look at this as a challenge, to grab our farm businesses with both hands and make sure they're prepared for the changing world ahead of them. Farmers are some of the world’s great innovators, but we are guilty of finding people to blame for problems more often than solutions to them. Too often the answer is ‘more support payments’ regardless of the question.
Ultimately, shouldn’t the end goal for every farming business, be the ability to farm without subsidy support? Whether that’s through efficiency, or productivity, or being rewarded for the public benefits we produce? £10,000 of profit, after £20,000 of subsidy is not a sustainable business model long term.
Sitting back and blindly hoping that the public suddenly realise what goes into putting food on their tables, and then deciding to pay more for it, is not enough of a strategy.
Hope is not a strategy. We have no better option than looking at what we can have control over, and that’s almost always what happens within the farm gates. We have to control what we can, and the first step in that is understanding what farm businesses are and how they function – only then can we understand what we need to improve.
Take golf as an example. If you have a bit of a slice (like me) you can’t expect to fix it until you can understand what’s causing it. You can go to the shops and spend a fortune on new gear, but if you don’t know what the problem is you’ll still be hacking around in the trees.
The only way to fix a problem is with information. Identify what isn’t working then correct it. Listen to experts and make changes, then you’ll be hitting fairways a lot more often. The same is absolutely true of farming, understand how everything is performing then make changes.
Getting your head around the information doesn’t have to be complex, even the most basic information is a starting point. While having farm management software is a fantastic tool, if you’re not used to it, it’s an intimidating prospect. But if you use it properly there is no such thing as bad information, whether it’s stored in the cloud and accessed by an iPad, or recorded in a notebook you got from a seed salesman in 1997.
Besides recording anything and everything you can, try to focus on the objective parts. It may sound counter intuitive but don’t get too fixated on the income coming in, because a year of good prices can hide a lot of poor performance.
Focus on the kilos you’re producing, as well as the time it took, and how much it costs to get them over the finish line.
At the end of the day, you have a lot more control over what happens inside the farm gate than you do over the cheque that comes back. So, understand your business and, like golf, keep score of how you’re doing, take note of ways you can improve, take advice and you’ll soon see improvements.
And this is where we come in. The QMS Industry Development team is focused on making sure that farmers, as businesspeople, have everything they need to make their businesses more resilient, productive, and environmentally positive. Our main driver is industry led research and innovation that will benefit the Scottish red meat sector. We can’t control market prices but with industry partners we can give farmers all the help we can to make sure farming businesses are as resilient as possible.
In the wake of Covid, we are finally in the process of launching our Sustainable Red Meat Action Groups as well as our Young Producer Groups. Like all the work QMS does these groups are about understanding your own businesses and identifying its strengths and weaknesses. It’s only once we have this information that we can see the changes we need to make, and to build resilience into businesses and into the wider industry, subsidy, or no subsidy.