Farmers may not realise but the public want to hear their stories
Once your farming business is established you may feel an urge to shake off any sense of complacency and look to grow or diversify. This presents many challenges and while there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution, a fresh pair of eyes looking at your business can give you a valuable new perspective.
I think today farmers need to be more outward-facing to the general public. They’ve got to be able to tell their own story a bit more.
For those who want to diversify and move away from just being a commodity-based production system, looking at what works for other businesses as well as what works on the high street can be revealing. Telling your own story to your end consumer is a powerful message in promoting your business.
A lot of farmers will say ‘there’s no story to tell, we just run a little farm’ or ‘we just milk cows’ but when you start talking to them it is interesting what can crop up.
So, it might go like this:
“How long have you been doing this for?”
“Oh, we’ve been farming here for six generations.”
“And what are your cows?”
“Well these won the Bath and West Show.”
“Really? And what’s so good about their milk?”
“Well we feed the cows on grass most of the year round which gives it a unique flavour.”
All of a sudden, you uncover a fascinating story behind their little farm - the key is to identify your own story.
Actually farmers are the ambassadors of the countryside, they have great stories to tell and they are ones the general public wants to hear.
Take a fresh look
Often there will be positives that you take for granted which are right under your nose – you can’t see the wood for the trees and it takes stepping back and looking from a different angle, or with another pair of eyes, to realise it.
Sometimes you have to invite other people in, whether they’re friends, family, or people who aren’t associated with the farm. There’s lots of consultants out there who will charge you money for these things, but you can often just ask a friend to come and write down a list of things that are really great about your place.
Because a lot of farmers are very humble and don’t like blowing their own trumpet - they hide their light under a bushel, and you think ‘you do all of these things, and you have such a great product!’
Some of the dairy farmers out there produce amazing milk. There’s a surprising amount of difference between milk from region to region, depending on the rainfall and the type of grass that’s growing. But it all gets put into one big tank and is mixed together and off it goes. So you never get to see that diversity - when you visit those individual farms you discover a huge amount of variety and quality.
Farmers who want to connect with this growing demand for unique and authentic produce, really need to look for gaps in the market and make sure they stand out from the crowd. So, positioning yourself could be down to strong branding, it could be to do with website development - producing products that you’re going to retail yourself really makes you put your own stamp on it.
Of course, everyone’s experience will be different and even those who plan methodically must be able to adapt and listen to their instincts to make it work best for them.
I suppose it’s like a sculptor who has a big chunk of rock. He knows what he wants to chip away and he knows what he wants it to look like, but sometimes he might chip the nose off by accident! Then you need to put a different nose on it or turn it into something completely different.
But I like to have a rough idea of what I want to do; I usually have a basic plan. At Jimmy’s Farm there are times when we run around like headless chickens, managing a crisis, or fire fighting of some sort. You’re constantly running to stand still.
I think it’s difficult for many farmers to make lots of big changes because they too are running to stand still sometimes, they are spinning all those plates, so it’s natural to ask 'when would I have the time to build a farm shop?'.
My answer would be - if you really want to do something, you’ll do it.
I originally built my farm shop for the price of a second hand tractor. We went round all the charity shops buying up all the plates and pictures and decorating it. There wasn’t much stock in our shop to begin with but we made it look like something that the customers would want.
Handing over the reins
As your business grows, it’s not always possible to continue carrying out all of the jobs yourself. You need to get the right people in who can take on some of the tasks.
I always pride myself on being able to do every single job on the farm – I can cure the bacon, I can feed the pigs, I can put up the fencing, I can do all those things. But equally having the ability to hand the reins over to a person you have employed to do that job is important.
For example, we now employ a gardener who recently took that job over from me. I used to plant all the seeds in the greenhouse and I loved doing that, as well as talking to our head chef and asking him what salad varieties he wants next year. I’ve handed that over, which for me is very difficult to do, but you’ve got to let people do their jobs.
Similarly, I used to write all the menus for the restaurant but now our chef brings all his ideas to me. I may change a bit here or tweak a bit there, but otherwise it’s great. We’ve also got Tanya, our overall general manager, Malcolm, our farm manager, and we’ve got a farm park manager, a head butcher, an events manager - the days of running everything ourselves has gone. You’ve got to let someone else take those reins allowing you to have an overall view. But always be ready to dive in when you need to!
- Farmer and TV presenter Jimmy Doherty has become an ambassador for Farm Essentials - NFU Mutual's new insurance product for smaller farms.