Today the Government has advised all business to prepare for a no deal Brexit; so much for “keep calm and carry on”. But what about farmers?  

Many other businesses can make changes to their business and see the results of those changes within as little as a week. Farmers take production decisions as much as 18 months to 2 years in advance. Certainly the first post-Brexit harvest is growing right now and lamb, pork, and beef production has been planned out with progeny being already fattened for post Brexit slaughter. In a factory, if things go really wrong, the business can just switch it all off for a while just as the car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover has done. Farms, however, just cannot do that. Animals and crops need husbanding and, contrary to possibly popular misconception, the British countryside does not just look after itself. 

Although it won’t feel like it, now is a great time to think about all of this, especially as many farm businesses finish their year on 31 March. Anything that needs doing before the end of the financial year will have to be started very early in the New Year if it is to be completed in time. Even if Brexit does not cause worries, the tips below will also help to drive resilience in any rural business.

The tips are neatly split in to ones relating to business structure and business operation:

Structure

  1. Dust off and update your business plan; if you don’t have one, write one. It does not have to be long or complicated, but writing down what the farm does will help make sure future business decisions are made robustly. Are you farming as efficiently as you can, or could you make changes to improve the business?
  2. Review machinery needs. Do you need all that machinery or do you need to include a critical upgrade in the business plan? Should that upgrade be bought forward or put back, and what about overall capital investment in the farm?
  3. Review any on farm opportunities available (e.g. renewables, let holiday accommodation, equestrian, etc.) consider and incorporate into the business plan with suitable timescales investment plans, cash flows, and budgets.
  4. Make sure any constitutional documents (partnership agreement, wills, powers of attorney, etc.) are up to date and consider the process of business continuity planning by bringing the next generation into the business and including them in this planning. They will then have a better understanding of how it works with the business plan, thus generating robust business continuity.
  5. Watch out for Brexit Clauses in tenancies and contracts. These will most likely disadvantage the farmer, so take proper advice on their affect to fully understand their impact on your business.
  6. Stress test the finances to understand the impact of the loss of the BPS and what happens as market prices rise and fall. 

Operation

  1. Review and understand any major contracts such as milk contracts etc. to understand how the contract operates and what, if any, impact Brexit might have on the contract.
  2. Are you reliant on feed deliveries at regular intervals and, if so, where do the ingredients for that feed come from? Imports of protein could be severely disrupted; can you stockpile any feed? Can you look to change where you obtain protein from, for instance using home grown lucerne rather than relying wholly on imported soya.
  3. Speak to major suppliers (e.g. milk buyer, machinery dealer, vet, CPP, and fertilizer merchant) to understand from them what they are doing to minimise the current and likely impact of Brexit. If they are not doing anything, ask them why and consider if you are using the right suppliers.
  4. Consider forward buying inputs imported from Europe (and possible the rest of the world) for delivery before March 29 in order to avoid any delays in delivery and increased costs caused by Brexit. Remember that the full impact of Brexit may not yet be fully taken into account on foreign exchange, and the value of Sterling could fluctuate significantly in the coming months and be aware of clauses passing on unknown tariff costs.
  5. Consider any critical machinery and equipment (milking robots, combines, forage harvesters, etc.) and arrange annual or major servicing before 29 March 2019 in case parts need importing from Europe. This will reduce the likelihood of major breakdown during any turmoil in the months following the 29 March.
  6. Where do your staff come from? Will they stay even if they are UK nationals? Can you invest in your staff in order to make them much less likely to be tempted away to another farm by, for instance, higher pay (and remember it is not just the pay packet that counts).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to say exactly what will happen following 29 March 2019. Even undertaking just a bit of planning will help farms and estates respond in a robust and efficient way in order to meet the new challenges that being outside the EU will bring. 

If in any doubt, take advice from the right professional team in concert ad take it early. Investing some money in that advice could be one of the best investments a farm could ever make at this point in time.

About the author

Joel Woolf Partner

Joel advises estates and farmers in relation to strategic business planning including business continuity and succession issues.