A new share farming agreement in Cambridgeshire has provided a business opportunity for two first-generation farmers and an exciting venture for a charitable trust.

Share farming generally involves landowners joining forces with farmers seeking access to land, and splitting inputs and outputs on an agreed basis

Benefits include both parties having a say in the running of the holding and supporting each other through times of financial difficulty or increased workload, and advisers say such partnerships are becoming increasingly popular.

See also: Joint ventures compared and how they can aid succession

Finding the farmers

In autumn 2019, Nene Park Trust began seeking a farmer with livestock experience to join a new share farming agreement covering 200ha of its rural estate on the outskirts of Peterborough.

Brown & Co co-ordinated a rigorous, multi-stage selection process, with applicants required to attend an open day, submit tenders that included a three-year business plan, take part in an interview, and host the panel on their own holding.

Farm facts

  • 10-year share farming agreement
  • The Baxters run 360 ewes and farm 210ha on rented land
  • The partnership with Nene Park includes 93ha (increasing to 209ha by 2023), 250 Lleyns and 40 Hebrideans
  • 1,000+ lambs at foot across both flocks
  • In the process of starting a Red Ruby Devon suckler herd
  • Craig also plans to take on a livestock consultancy role at William Scott Abbot Trust’s nearby Sacrewell Farm
  • One apprentice joined the team in March 2021
  • Farming priorities: Low inputs; high welfare standards; data-driven decision making; identifying and removing problem animals

After some tough competition, with 35 enquiries and seven full applications, local first-generation farmers and brothers Craig and Ryan Baxter were announced as the successful candidates.

Craig, 29, graduated from the Royal Agricultural University in 2013 and the following year started a flock with Ryan, 27, a chartered accountant with Saffery Champness.

The pair built up to about 400 ewes, relying mainly on rented land and buildings on short-term seasonal agreements.

© Ryan Baxter

To increase their earnings, the decision was made to move to a low-input, grass-based system, feeding no cake and using the red clover in the environmental stewardship mixes to bring lambs through.

Changing Texels for Lleyns made lambing easier, and helped the system move to a fully outdoor setup for the first time in 2019.  

On spotting the advert for the share farming opportunity, the long-term certainty, sizeable acreage and support of the partnership appealed to the Baxters.

Craig’s livestock knowledge, Ryan’s accounting and reporting expertise, and their combined interest in public engagement and passion for the industry fit extremely well with what the trust was looking for.  

How the agreement works

The share farming agreement has been up and running since autumn 2020. Since then, the team has started the Nene Park flock of Lleyns and Hebrideans, renovated a general-purpose agriculture building that had fallen into disrepair, and started sharing farming life with visitors and on social media.

“Nene Park has far greater financial resources than we have and that shows the power of the partnership,” says Ryan.

“Alone, £40,000 for the sheep would have been a lot of cash to find, and the trust footed the £20,000 bill for the building project.”

As with a typical share-farming model, Craig and Ryan provide the labour, machinery and their livestock management expertise, while Nene Park provides the land and the buildings. The livestock are paid for and owned on a 50:50 basis.

Profits are paid to both parties by way of a first charge on a £/ha basis – proportionate to their respective inputs – with any surplus profits beyond this split 50:50.

“Having the money in a joint pot and splitting it this way means both parties are equally incentivised to make a profit,” says Ryan.

“With a share farming agreement, you can bring what you’re good at to the table and work together towards the same goal.”

Josh Crick, agricultural business consultant at Brown & Co, says he expects such partnerships to become more prevalent in the future, given the changing world of subsidy payments.

“The fact that the landlord is not demanding a fixed rate means that the agreement has an element of risk share, giving some support to the share farmer in difficult years, and allowing the landlord to share in the upside of a more profitable year,” says Mr Crick.

Engage with the public

With Nene Park welcoming about 1.9 million visitors annually, the farmers are keen to engage with the public by sharing their high-welfare, sustainable and environmentally sensitive livestock management methods.

“We’re proud of what we do and how we do it, so we’re not looking to farm behind closed doors and we’re looking forward to taking up these opportunities,” says Ryan.

“It’s a great platform to be able to connect with the local community and visitors and share our story. Once they buy into that, we’re hoping the natural progression is that they will buy into our products.”

The first Nene Park lambs were born in April and discussions are already taking place about the possibility of direct meat sales through the two on-site restaurants and new farm shop.

The team is also in the process of establishing a Red Ruby Devon suckler herd.

“Our next goals are to build up our livestock numbers, breed our own replacements, develop the direct selling, and start to run some public events onsite, perhaps in the style of Open Farm Sunday or shearing demos,” says Ryan.

Nene Park says…

Nene Park Trust knew it needed to achieve more from its rural landholding, which historically had delivered very little in achieving the trust’s wider charitable objectives. This land ultimately delivered the trust a financial return but not much else.

The trust is committed to ensuring all its land holdings not only deliver benefits for the people of Peterborough, but also nature and the environment. 

We also wanted to ensure that farming continued to play an important land management role, with an exciting opportunity to engage the public in a farm-to-fork-type approach.

Working with Craig and Ryan has already shown itself to be a hugely rewarding and exciting opportunity.

We are now joint owners of our first flock of sheep, which was an invoice our accounts team never thought they would be signing.

To see lambs in the fields this spring is really exciting. This excitement for what we are doing has been shared by our staff, volunteers and the public. 

It’s fantastic to have Craig and Ryan so committed to the vision of a sustainable farming business, where animal welfare is of the highest order, all centred around an extensive grazing system that can help the trust manage its land in a way which achieves huge benefits for wildlife.

With new farming subsidies also likely to support this kind of approach, it’s great to feel we are taking steps forward on this already.

Oliver Burke, head of operations at Nene Park Trust

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