THE UNCERTAINTY created by Brexit and a desire to see the family farm succeed for years to come led one Welshpool farming family to make a feathery change.
Farmers’ Union of Wales members Mark and Helen Williams, who farm 40 suckler cows and 900 ewes at Pen Y Derw, near Welshpool, decided to diversify into egg production and have been up-and-running since June this year.
The poultry unit, which is home to 16,000 free range hens, provides the family with an additional income, as well as offering extra part time employment in the area.
“We have looked at poultry farming for the last ten years and the uncertainty created by Brexit, bearing in mind that most of our income has been provided by lamb trade and farm support payments, gave us the push we needed to make the decision and get the ball rolling,” said Mark Williams.
The planning process started in early 2015 and after lots of drawings, surveys and modelling, planning was granted in November 2015.
“Egg production is mainly a domestic market, so that takes the fear of having to export away. Originally we thought we would be going into broiler chickens but when researching the market a contract was difficult to find. The final thing that made us decide were our 3 boys. We are expanding the business to accommodate them if they wish to take over the farm in the future,” added Mark.
The eggs produced at Pen Y Derw are sold to L J Fairburns & Son, who collect them to be processed (graded) and packed, and they are then sent to distribution centres and onto supermarket shelves.
The chickens produce between 14,500 – 15,500 eggs every day, and Helen is in the chicken shed by 6.30am to check the birds, before heading back to house by 7.30 to make the boys their breakfast and do the school run.
Then its back to the chicken shed to start packing eggs by 9am, which takes about three hours.
By around 5pm Helen makes her way back to shed to do the final walk around and check the hens are ok.
Talking about her new routine she said: “I have to fit things in around the boys where possible and the mornings are now taken up with the hens.
“Before I had time to do other jobs, such as housework, banking, paperwork etc. so the pace here has definitely changed. Looking after the chickens is not so heavy and physical as looking after the sheep and cattle and it’s work in a dry and warmish environment.”
Walking around the chicken shed, Mark explains the production process: “The hens lay their eggs in nest boxes. Then the eggs roll onto the egg belts, which take them onto a cross conveyor and into the packing room.
“Here they are graded by hand, go through the machine to be stamped and put in trays. Then they go along a belt into a tray stacker, which stacks trays in sixes. Once we have a run of six stacks we put them on a pallet, which is a total of 720 dozen eggs. This is then wrapped and labeled and left in the cool room for collection,” he said.
Even though the couple have now got used to their new routine, it has not all been plain sailing from the start. Helen explains: “The birds arrived in a really hot week in June and they weren’t eating or drinking enough to start, although they were still gaining weight.
“That was a bit of a worry for us but thanks to the support from Lloyds animal feed we managed to get everything sorted. We also had a few very minor teething problems with the equipment but now everything is running well. With all the eggs our hens are producing we look forward to lots of cake here at home and a reduced fertiliser bill.”
But do the couple think they have made the right decision 4 months into their new way of life?
“We are still learning and it has changed our life quite a bit, maybe ask us again in 12 months time,” laughs Helen.
Having visited the farm and seen the new chicken shed in action recently, FUW County Executive Officer Emyr Davies said: “Mark and Helen are a credit to our industry. Their enthusiasm and dedication to give their farming business a chance of survival in light of the uncertainty created by Brexit is really an inspiration.
“Of course, this sort of diversification doesn’t suit everyone and there are often stumbling blocks with regards to planning that hold many farm businesses back. I would urge those in charge of granting planning permission to think again and not be the block that holds those farms back who want to future proof their business.”
FUW welcomes new minister
THE FARMERS’ UNION OF WALES has welcomed the announcement in continuity in the Welsh Government, following the Cabinet reshuffle (Nov 3), which saw Lesley Griffiths continuing in her role as Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, with the addition of a deputy, Hannah Blythyn as Minister for Environment.
Responding to the news, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “We welcome the continuity of keeping Lesley Griffiths as our Cabinet Secretary. Our working relationship has been a positive one and we look forward to continue working with her.
“With issues such as climate change and water management dominating agendas such as those listed in the Well-being of Future Generations Act, we are pleased to see Mrs Griffiths will be able to continue to fight for the interests of our rural communities – communities for which agriculture is a cornerstone.
“We are also pleased to see that Hannah Blythyn has joined the Cabinet. The addition of a new Minister recognises the complexity of the portfolio and we look forward to working with Hannah in the context of her remit.
“We met with Lesley Griffiths last week and will now seek a meeting with Hannah Blythyn at the earliest opportunity, to discuss those issues which are of concern to farmers and have an impact on all aspects of her portfolio.”
Commitment on funding welcomed
NFU CYMRU has welcomed the Welsh Government reaffirming its commitment to ring-fence funding for Welsh farming post-Brexit.
Last week NFU Cymru met with Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths AM, and in a wide ranging discussion covering a range of topics, Brexit topped the agenda.
Following the meeting, NFU Cymru President Stephen James said: “I am pleased that in our meeting with the Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths AM, she reaffirmed the commitment from the First Minister that funding for Welsh agriculture from the UK Government to the Welsh Government will be ring-fenced for Welsh farmers post-Brexit.”
The Cabinet Secretary’s commitment follows on from a response that the First Minister gave to Plenary on October 24 and reaffirms the commitment in the Welsh Government / Plaid Cymru Securing Wales’ Future document which stated that it is ‘essential that equivalent or greater resources to those Wales would have received from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are provided from the UK to support Welsh farming’.
Stephen James continued: “NFU Cymru’s message on future funding arrangements has been clear and unequivocal. Governments in Cardiff and Westminster must maintain current levels of investment for farming in Wales, to ensure Welsh farmers remain competitive and can continue to produce food to the highest standards whilst maintaining and enhancing our environment and meeting our climate change obligations.
“At Plenary, the First Minister mentioned that he would consider looking at alternate ways of working and we would absolutely agree with that. This is an opportunity for us in Wales to work collectively to create a new agricultural policy framework that helps to achieve our vision of a productive, progressive and profitable farming industry that delivers jobs, growth and investment for Wales.
“We see the development of a new policy framework as an evolution over a period of time, with the timeframe for change very much determined by our future trading relationship with the EU.
“With the UK Government having committed to the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament, the next step is for the UK Government to clarify how these funds will be allocated amongst the home nations. This allocation should be based on the current formula for distributing CAP funds within the UK.
“Farming is a long term business and we need clarity and certainty on a range of issues including funding, trade and future agricultural policy. Developing agricultural policy and budgetary frameworks should be developed in partnership between the governments of the UK, so that a common policy framework can be agreed. A common policy, but a policy which allows flexibility for each country to take account of the pattern and practice of farming within their country.”
Family farms on the brink
FEWER than one in five family farms are making a profit from their farming activity, according to research undertaken by the Andersons Centre on behalf of The Prince’s Countryside Fund.
Analysis of data from 172 participants in the first year of The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme has shown that the average farm made more than £20,000 loss from farming activities, and instead is reliant on other income streams to make a profit.
The shortfall was made up by income from non-farming activity, such as tourism enterprises, renewables, direct selling of products to the consumer, or income from working off farm as well as farm payments.
According to the report, broadly speaking, farmers face two business choices in order to cope with declining economic fortunes: either to focus on a farming solution or to redeploy resources away from agricultural production. In reality, it may be a combination of the two or farmers may vacillate between the two courses of action with periods of off-farm work generating income interspersed with a focus on the farm.
There are, of course, two further options open to farmers. First, they may cease farming, either entirely through selling up the farm or by letting their land. Or secondly, they might tighten the belt and continue business as usual.
Worryingly, many operators of small farms, believe the near future will see them retiring or otherwise leaving agriculture altogether.
Lord Curry of Kirkharle, chairman of The Prince’s Countryside Fund said: “Although the initial figure is startling, the research from the Andersons Centre shows that farmers are increasingly looking at their farms as a business, and are proactively looking for how they can generate an income from diversified sources to remain profitable.
“This is more crucial now than ever. Farmers must develop their skills and improve their business confidence to survive. If they do not, the risk of extinction for the family farm is very real; farmers must act now to both strengthen their core farming business and to spread the risk.
“The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme is vital, because it equips farmers with the tools they need to remain financially stable. Maintaining diversity of farm size is essential to protect the British countryside and our rural communities.”
The Andersons Centre developed a bespoke and easy to use Business Health Check Tool for The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, allowing farmers on the programme to benchmark their performance, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and make informed business decisions as a result. Data from this tool was analysed to identify trends and performance in the farm businesses involved in the initiative.
The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme aims to help 300 family farms, across 15 locations, each year. It brings together like minded family farm enterprises in local networks, to review their current activity and identify improvements and opportunities that can be made on-farm to build resilience, effectively helping farmers to take control of their businesses. Farmers who took part in the first year have confirmed they have higher levels of confidence in their business, better business management, and stronger communication within their family.
The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme directly addresses some of the issues raised in a report commissioned by the Fund from the University of Exeter, ‘Is there a future for the small family farm in the UK?’
The report detailed how the loss of small family farms would have devastating effects for the British countryside, leading to loss of employment, breakdown of rural communities, and potential negative environmental consequences. The report concluded that it was essential to maintain a diverse range of farm sizes, but that this was in significant jeopardy.
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