Sunday, September 23, 2018

Keeping it in the family

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Simon Wragg examines how a Herefordshire farming family is making a success of succession.

Succession can be a vexed issue for farm businesses – and the challenge has not been lessened for the Roper family with four daughters returning home to Priory Farm, near Goodrich, Herefordshire.

The 1010ha largely arable unit is diverse in itself – and straddles the English/Welsh border, explains Becky – the eldest of Nigel and Isabel Roper’s foursome. “We farm across two counties and two countries,” she says.

A graduate of Reading University having studied economics, Becky undertook a post-graduate scheme spending six-month stints in a range of businesses in the vegetable and fruit sectors. It culminated with the appointment as an assistant buyer with multiple retailer Asda.

“It was a lot of learning in a short space of time. I got to look at how businesses operated from the self-sufficient grower to a big multi-national. I think it certainly helped me gain in confidence.”

Speaking of her decision to leave the retail giant and return home, Becky adds: “The the one thing Asda couldn’t offer was Herefordshire – I’ve always liked helping dad right back to when we had dairy cows in the 1990s.”

Even while away, Becky kept up with the economics and introduced technology to the administrative side of the farm. “For dad it’s not the best way to spend half a day sat in front of a computer – he’d sooner be out on the farm – but you cannot go against the rest of the world.”

Mr Roper echoes this sentiment. “Certainly, Becky’s involvement in the office has allowed me to get back to managing the farm which is what I enjoy but had possibly started to slip.”

Farm enterprises

NW & I Roper is one of the furthest suppliers of beet to British Sugar’s Newark processing plant some 160 miles away. Backloads of by-product animal feed handled by the farm’s fleet of HGVs  – along with other goods including grain and produce – help balance the books.

“We also grow winter wheat, borage for oil used in pharmaceuticals, herbage seeds, and stubble turnips for both seed and to be grazed by livestock here on tack over winter,” explains Becky. Herbage seed aftermaths will also be let out this season for grazing or cutting.

The arable business encompasses 263ha (650ac) of owned ground as well as FBTs and annual lets. So where do Becky’s sisters fit in? “We’ve all got our own roles but in diversifications rather than hands-on farming,” she explains.

Sarah, 25, runs a tipi holiday venture utilising riverside pasture populated by ancient oak trees. Dorrie, 22, runs self-catering holiday lets in the family’s Grade 1-listed Flanesford Priory while developing it as a wedding venue. Ellie, 20, and at Reading University, has opened a pop-up café and shop this summer.

Each enterprise has utilised social media and web-based marketing to attract custom. “We have our own roles but back each other up when things get busy,” says Becky.

Sarah’s business – along with a long-standing catering business operated by Mrs Roper – are stand-alone enterprises. Other diversification income helps support cash-flow for the farm.

“That’s the thing with arable farming; most costs are up front before the crop’s sold unlike self-catering (accommodation) which is cash positive – the money’s in before the guests arrive.”

Becky’s application of economic principles has seen the family business become more formal when looking at budgets, targets for growth and reviewing performance. “In future we’d like Flanesford to become a hub for retail and business rather than just a place to come and stay,” she explains.

Striking a balance

But a balance is being struck. Despite the splendour of the surroundings, weddings are kept to a dozen a year. “We’ve our self-catering customers to think of and the local community,” she says, benevolently.

There’s also the issue of staffing to consider. It’s not just the sisters who roll up their sleeves as four full-time farm staff are adept at ensuring ‘things happen’ when circumstances dictate, adds Mr Roper.

There are sibling differences to deal with, certainly, admit the family. But there’s also a sense of pride in the next generation helping develop a future for the farm-based businesses.

Formal succession has started to be addressed through involvement in the Prince’s Countryside Fund 2020 Vision for Herefordshire’s Family Farms, as delivered by Herefordshire Rural Hub. Mr Roper reflects: “It’s quite a challenge when there’s four children to consider.

“If we divided up 1000ha it would be a loss-maker. I see it more as an egg that has to be protected – possibly held in trust – but from which they can all benefit.”

Other factors will also come into play, suggests Becky, such as being mindful of each other. “I think I came home and expected change straight away. But it has to be more organic. There was a business here already that was working. To be a success you have to bring people with you.”

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