One of the UK’s biggest farming companies, Strutt and Parker Farms, has put itself up for sale for £200 million. “So what?” you may say.
“Another year, another big farm company decides to throw in the towel.” But, for me, this particular farming operation was a bit different. And quite frankly, if they’re selling up, then I’ve got the wind up.
A few years ago, I was invited by an Essex farmer society to visit a number of the largest arable farms in Essex and pick the “best” one. The visits always followed the same pattern – my co judge and I would be greeted by the farm manager, loaded up into a 4x4 and driven around the farm to ooh and ahh the immaculate crops, building and machinery.
But when we came to the Essex Strutt and Parker farm, it was another story. Here, we were taken straight to the farm office, given access to the farm’s audited accounts, and invited to pore over the profit and loss figures for the past five years. Only after that did we get the 4x4 trip, the detour to inspect the state of the art corn store, and the shiny new combine.
The financial results were impressive, and I remember that the farm manager seemed extraordinarily committed to his job, even to the point that at weekends, when he walked his dog, he would select routes that ensured he walked across each field over the two days. As, he put it: “The best fertiliser on a farm is the farmer’s footprint.”
Over the following couple of days we visited many more farms and many more acres as part of the judging exercise. But, after a while, one vast field of immaculate winter wheat blended into another, and one head high weed free stand of oilseed rape was hard to compare between fields in terms of likely yield or profit.
So, when my co judge and I went into a huddle at the end of the competition we had no hesitation in awarding the “best large arable farm” to the Essex Strutt and Parker farm entrant on the basis that – with little else to differentiate the competitors – they had given us open access to their accounts. Crops can be impressive, machinery sparkling new, and buildings of the most modern design. But whether any of that necessarily leads to profit is a very different matter.
Britain is leaving the European Union’s customs union. The basic payment scheme is on the way out. Free trade in food with the world’s most efficient agricultural exporters is a distinct possibility for UK farmers. And Strutt and Parker Farms have decided to sell up. Perhaps they are worried what their farm accounts might look like to visiting “best farmed farm” judges post Brexit? And who can blame them?