The current custodian at Moat Farm – Antony – welcomes me onto the farm, located on the edge of rapidly expanding Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire. Despite its electric gates, you know you have arrived. While I wait for the gates to open, people dart in and out of offices converted from the farm buildings once used by Antony’s grandparents in their traditional mixed farming enterprise. Yet there is no doubt this is still a working farm – the heavy urban traffic and building work a quarter of a mile back down the drive are a world away.
The generations need to trust each other.
Antony and I make our way to a small conference room at the end of the farmhouse into which he and his wife, Samantha, moved in 2000. They have two children: Chloe (14) and Max (11). Previously, his grandparents lived in the farmhouse, with Antony’s parents based on an adjoining holding. Tim lives on one of the family’s farms on the edge of Burford in Oxfordshire.
AWAY FROM THE FARM
Like Chloe and Max, when Antony (now 45) and his brother Tim (43) were growing up there was no pressure to commit to the expanding farming business. They helped during school holidays but were encouraged to continue their studies to degree level.
The opportunity and encouragement to find work and skills away from the farm was a blessing in coming years – especially when the farm and their father’s health both came under pressure from encroaching urbanisation.
At that stage Antony had qualified as an accountant and Tim was established in London. They both came home on account of Richard’s ill health, with Tim working on the farm and Antony increasingly focused on the legal process involved in compulsory purchase associated with building development and bypasses as the conurbation drew closer.
A reminder of this on-going work is ever present; up behind his grandparents’ farmhouse there is an enormous scar on the landscape: The HS2 railway line will pass 200m from their back door and has guzzled up 59ha of the home farm.
THE FARM’S HISTORY
But it wasn’t always this way; In quieter times, 1931, Antony’s grandfather Dick started the family’s faming legacy. Fondly known as Tricky Dicky, he secured casual grazing rights and started retailing milk. Just nine years later, he had the means and acumen to acquire 40ha near Stoke Mandeville.
By the mid-1970s Dick and his son Richard were managing a 240ha mixed farming enterprise while Dick’s wife Eva reared turkeys for the Christmas market.
Richard was an only child so succession should have been relatively straightforward. That was before his mother, Eva, bypassed him and gifted Moat Farm directly to just Antony.
“That fragmented ownership certainly clipped my father’s wings,” explains Antony. “It diluted his control over the business, making it harder to achieve his aspirations, both operational and strategic.”
But this is a family for which the glass is always half full: The experience has been put to good use. They have used their entrepreneurial acumen to ensure this family business is fit for purpose now and in years to come, with a range of diversified enterprises protecting the mixed farm at its core.
Richard and Antony’s flair for collaboration helped set up a machinery joint venture in 2007. Antony then joined the board of the Joint Venture Farming Group (JVFG) two years later – a collaboration where members benchmark financial and physical performance, thereby increasing profitability and efficiency. And last year he established Dudley Peverill Associates, a farm diversification consultancy business with his partner (and previous work experience student) Alex Moss.
THE FARM TODAY
Richard is still actively involved with the farm, although the daily management is now Tim’s and Antony’s responsibility.
The farming enterprise now stretches across 10 miles, with 400ha owned and a further 200ha farmed under a contract farming agreement.
The 800-turkey enterprise more than holds its own. Its public interface has been strengthened with the planting of 2,000 sloe bushes, resulting in sales of sloe gin in the pop-up seasonal farm shop – alongside home-produced honey – all managed by a strong support team built up by Antony.
As Richard now considers retirement, Antony has joined the farming partnership, easing the pressure at transition. This will obviously require extra time, so Antony’s business coach suggested he put aside 10% of his time to prepare for the change.
The best learning experience is living and breathing a business, rather than being taught in a classroom.
He uses this allocation to crop walk every week with his father. It has been incredibly productive, with discussions over each crop’s performance helping to convince Richard that Antony is, in fact, ‘an active farmer’ rather than just an entrepreneur in Dick’s mould.
“I have always been aware my father was not confident or keen on all the other arms to the business I have introduced over the years,” says Antony. “But recently, it meant a great deal to hear him recounting that I had no option but to take the business in a diversified direction. That experience has made me very aware we need to trust the older generation as much as the next one.”
TRUST IN EACH OTHER
The younger generation, Chloe and Max, have also inherited a love for the great outdoors and express a strong interest in traditional mixed farming. Antony and Samantha have instilled a work ethic in them both from an early age and they help on the farm.
“I believe children must have the freedom to mature at their own speed with their own interests. We need to trust where that will take them and not try to contrive a situation where the child feels an obligation to the farm, in order to earn their parents’ trust and respect,” he explains.
“The best learning experience is living and breathing a business, rather than being taught in a classroom. By installing a respected colleague into that business, you are also providing mentorship – hugely important to a young person’s development.”
Children must have the freedom.
With that, Chloe drives past in the John Deere gator. “This is a millennial farm which is continuously evolving: That gator is the best gift I could have given the children,” says Antony. “It provides independence for them to go out and explore or do jobs on the farm while teaching them responsibility – all in a safe environment.
“Half the jobs our children and grandchildren will do have yet to be invented: Who am I to dictate what use this land has in the future? The only sure thing is that we shall keep investing in the farm because ‘they’ aren’t making any more land.
“And I will only consider retirement when there is an able replacement,” he continues. “He or she might be a family member, someone involved in a joint venture, or a share farmer. The latter is a great way to bring young blood into the business alongside my experience to help expand it.
“And this is where trust between generations comes into play. No-one sets out to make mistakes or wrong decisions. If we have done our best by them, our children will do their best. But, as is often the case, there can be friction when the younger generation requires a degree of lending to pursue their own business interests at a time when those assets are held in the older generation’s name.”
Antony is at pains to point out that his family – like others – owns the freehold to their land; but the land’s utilisation will be different for each generation, which will find its own direction.
“We are land custodians, spending our whole lives holding our farms together. It’s easy for a parent to divide a farm evenly between their children and walk away. This can set children against one another, blowing apart a family and can result in the breakup of the farm to pay out all beneficiaries. It’s the worst legacy and creates a very emotional situation.”
As a direct result of his father’s experience, Antony advocates introducing a mediator to the succession planning conversation. “If nothing else, introducing a mediator sets the ball rolling – starting communications over what will happen to the farm when the incumbent dies,” he states.
“The fear of addressing succession is often worse than the reality of the process. Start the conversation: You will soon wonder what you were worrying about.
The fear of addressing succession is often worse than the reality of the process.
“And have this conversation pre-retirement to calculate future income demands: Is there a pension for income at retirement? How much income is required; for how long?
“It’s always better to hand over the reins when you and the business are fit and well, rather than die in harness,” he adds. “It’s not fair to expect the offspring to take on the emotional weight of death at the same time as learning the business ropes.”
So how does Antony reflect on the process, given the benefit of hindsight? “Now, I would like nothing more than to spend an afternoon with my grandparents showing them around the farm today,” he says. “I know they would be incredibly proud of what we have achieved over the years.”
SECURING A LONG-TERM FUTURE
Antony uses the farm office white board to demonstrate how a business can secure its long-term future.
“Imagine three circles which overlap each other. Within the top left one you should write down all your passions, the top right, any areas in which you are very good and the bottom center, enterprises which make money. You should focus on anything which overlaps in all three circles,” he explains.
At Moat Farm, the environment, turkeys, arable data and customer focus all feature in the overlap. Regenerative agriculture and technology are working in tandem to improve environmental and production efficiency which, in turn, is meeting consumer demand.
“We have significantly improved performance and efficiencies with John Deere’s GreenStar, which controls a variety of precision applications, machines and implements,” says Antony. “And the same goes for John Deere’s Operations Centre, which connects our whole fleet – bringing agronomic documentation into one system.”
In tandem, as Antony’s confidence grows and results speak for themselves, he is taking increasing increments of land into regenerative agriculture. Antony has focused on soil health to enable plant roots to access nutrients through microbial activity.