The constant topic of conversation here, as in many households, is money related. To be more precise, it’s mostly about how we’re going to create more. Not necessarily for us personally, although that would be nice, rather there’s a call for the estate to diversify, a need compounded by Brexit.
We’ve been told to expect the current farming subsidy regime to be replaced by a points scheme that examines what we’re doing from an environmental perspective and awards us for being good farmers. As a concept this isn’t a bad idea at all, although there’s a worrying feeling of complexity surrounding it. How do they know we’re a good farmer? What sort of form filling process will be required and at what depth of information? How will it be monitored and policed?
With complexity comes delay and mistakes and, however it is structured, one guarantee is that the subsidies won’t stay at the level that they are currently. We are preparing ourselves for a 50% loss in Hungerton’s subsidy – it may not be as large as 50%, however as with many UK businesses in pre-Brexit uncertainty, we need to be capable of weathering the worst. When the existing farm subsidies comprise of between 50-80% of a UK farmer’s income any reduction is going to hurt.
At the moment Hungerton employs four full-time staff, four part-time, and calls in a host of others – accountant, lawyer, agronomist, land agent, farming consultant, plumber, builder, electrician, ground maintenance, architect, forestry consultant, lumberjack, lambing relief, environmental consultant, hydrogeologist, sheep shearer, house painter, hedge layer, surveyor, vet and business coach. Add in a yearly big capital expenditure item – a new combine, bigger grain silo, replacing a tractor – the inevitable house maintenance costs, and unforeseen events (such as challenging a quarry application), before anything for ourselves, well… like most businesses, the finances are an endless juggling act.
If the farm wasn’t so well managed we could look at ways to make it more efficient, to increase yield, or reduce costs. But it is beautifully managed, with constant slight improvements, and no real areas for significant change.
So we return to the rallying cry of landowners up and down the country – diversify!
Isabel and I have endless ideas; we’re constantly throwing more into the air and seeing which fly – although, I must admit, Isabel does the throwing and my job seems to be mostly about shooting them down: they’re not fat enough; they’ll take too much of our time keeping them aloft; I hate their feathers; or it’ll take too much attention from that one over there that could fly quite nicely.
There are a few little things that are already taking shape – the complete refurbishment of a bungalow (in the most amazing location, nestled into the woods overlooking a small lake), and the transformation of Francis’ artist studio into holiday accommodation, but they are small hops, when we feel that a decent leap will be required.
We’ve been working for a while on one project that we feel has wings. It’s not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one that we believe we can add our own magic to, with a twist that will make it special, unique.
We are blessed with a beautiful corner of English countryside, imbued with it’s own magic, and a large part of what Isabel and I can contribute is in knowing the right people to help. We are privileged in the friends and contacts we’ve collected over the years, and that their experience ties so well with where we’re wanting to head.
A couple of weeks ago we hosted a two-day residential brainstorming session with some of those friends, to work through this idea and learn from some unbelievably talented people. With our heads still spinning from the volume of great advice and positive direction, we know we’re on the right path – despite the inevitable late night “are we doing the right thing?” worries.
So the architect has presented his preliminary thoughts, the European funding bid has been lodged, the ecological site survey has begun, spreadsheets created (and redone, and again, and again…), competitors analysed, executors and trustees informed, and domain names purchased.
I’ll be posting our progress as it happens here. Hopefully you’ll join us for the flight.