Case Study- Some Life Lessons

We have all learnt over the past 18 months that life can change in an instant. The thing with wisdom, and often with life lessons in general, is that they are learned in retrospect, long after we needed them.

The good news is that other people can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we have learnt. So, whether you are young and starting out in business, diversifying or applying for planning here are a few of my life lessons so far:

Lesson One – Not to be afraid to say no

As a farmer’s son growing up on 150 sow intensive pig unit, adversity struck the family with my father’s death in 1989, I was 9 years old, through pure courage and determination my mother continued the pig unit until 1998. My ambition was to gain A levels, an Agricultural Degree with the intention and desire to build a dairy farm on the 150 acre family farm my mother inherited at the same time of my father’s death. Having gained a BSc in Agriculture at Harper Adams University College, I realised dairy farming would not allow me the lifestyle I wished for me and a family one day! The best decision I have ever made was to look at the calculated risk of an enterprise and be brave enough to say no and walk away.

Lesson Two – An asset, not solely a farm

So, what does one do with 150 acres that became 190 acres in 2001? Having a blank canvas and no father figure left me the opportunity to look at all possibilities – the dream was to have a farming business but how and what, at a young age, weighed heavy on my shoulders. Surely there was something that could be done with such an asset that would mean the farm would not end up a liability. My mother and I took the farm back in hand in 2003 when I graduated and with the help of family members, I started this journey as an arable farmer. It took me over 10 years of working the soil to understand the land I was trying to farm and to realise why everyone else around me was mainly grass and eventually in 2014 the farm was grassed down. I now farm 125 Lleyn ewes, lambing outside and sell the remaining grassland as grass keep.

In terms of the farm, I have spent the last 20 years looking down most avenues, including relocating, trying to expand, you name it I have probably given it some thought if not researched it to death.

During the years mentioned above I qualified as an accountant in 2007 and in 2010 I embarked on an opportunity to have a solar development which was finally built on 30 acres in 2015, after the option and grid connection changing hands several times. I started to approach the fortunate position of having land as an asset rather than believing I had to farm it and to this day I would rather do anything than farm the land due to too many variables out of my control and not enough acres under my control.

Lesson Three – Go with gut instinct

The year of inception: 2018, Location: the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference, it was the right time and I was in the right place. It was here that Project Cluck was set in motion – Broiler Breeders, a niche within the poultry sector that I had previous experience with as an accountant, the thought of managing such an enterprise made me smile. The wheels were set in motion and the research began.

I set off doing all the preliminary planning reports starting with a pre planning application, which gave the opinion that, due to fact and policy, there was no reason why this venture should not be possible. So, I set off gaining all the reports required, in fact, more than minimum because I knew with a residential property within less than 400m of a poultry unit and the negative pre planning meeting with my local parish council, I would have to go above and beyond to prove the minimal impact this site would have on the surrounding area. Along with supply chain experts in ventilation, we submitted plans being innovative treating of the emissions from the shed to reduce dust, ammonia, and odour – the concept of a bark biofilter was borne instead of chemical acid scrubbers.

Lesson Four – Do not be bullied

As soon as the plans were submitted, I was already being leaned on by an unsupportive Parish Council, Ward Member and neighbouring Parish Councillor to withdraw the plans before any statutory consultees had passed comment. This was the point my planning consultant was worth every penny, reminding me that, due to fact and policy, there was nothing wrong with the site and to stand up to the bully boy tactics of electorates.

Lesson Five – Do not underestimate the impact on mental health and family

Soon the neighbouring parish Facebook page started to comment on the site negatively, it was at this point I felt that this was a personal attack on me. I found this time mentally tough and had to dig deep knowing I had the support of the local farming community, friends and most of all my family. With the comments of my planning consultant ring in my ear to “grow a pair”, anyone that called me and made the mistake of asking “how was planning going?” I was off - a chance to release the pent-up aggression and thoughts towards what I perceived to be, at the time, the most negative process I have ever been involved with – very much guilty unless you prove otherwise and left up to me to prove it rather than others disprove me – hardly any collaboration or communication was the toughest thing for me.

Lesson Six – It’s a tick box exercise

The innovative design for improving air quality was the next point of frustration. Due to the lack of specific data for this concept in the poultry industry however a well-known principle in other sectors and industries, it simply did not tick the box. Returning to a more conventional design of high velocity fans did not make sense and certainly not the best way to deal with the shed emissions by dilution. It struck me to be resonant of the high chimney stacks of the industrial revolution which we are now trying to avoid. However, it allowed the application to progress and what was more important to me was to gain planning, not be innovative. This is disappointing as I feel this hinders progress if we do not have a mechanism where we can be innovative to make commercial gains towards air and water quality. This delay probably did cause the application to get caught up in the rising phosphate issues of the Somerset Levels.

Lesson Seven – Common sense, pragmatism, clarity, and consistency

Just as I thought the application was progressing and would be put forward by the planning officer with approval to the planning board, the issue of rising phosphate on the Somerset Levels put paid to all development that produced phosphate within its catchment. Natural England, in their wisdom, had put a halt on any applications that could not demonstrate phosphate neutrality. My waste management plan was to export all manures and waste off farm, therefore under current Red Tractor, Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and Cross Compliance regulations, so you would have thought there were enough regulatory bodies to regulate and implement the safe spreading of poultry manure. This pragmatic approach was something that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Firstly, the councils were more concerned with trying to resolve the issues around residential development instead of picking the low hanging fruit, in my opinion! With no framework for the non-residential planning applications, time seemed to stand still. I am very thankful for the pragmatic approach from Mendip Council for recognising the ability to export the poultry soil improver outside of the Somerset Levels catchment area as a planning condition.

I appreciate that I have friends in other authorities that have not been allowed to take the same approach. This demonstrates the lack of clarity and consistency in the planning system.

Lesson Eight – Impact of delay, cash is king!

Firstly, my cashflow! Having started a sabbatical from accountancy to make this project work, cashflow dictated I needed to become an advisor again sooner than envisaged, hence you find me writing in this Evolution ABS newsletter. As you will all know, Agflation has but only gone one way with labour hard to find and costs ever increasing, the capital expenditure of the project will have risen by 30% or more and now interest rates are on the move. Inevitable integrated supply chain discussions are going to have to happen – compromise all round between project price delivery, profitability and cashflow.

Lesson Nine - Out of Adversity there is always opportunity, nothing ever goes to plan.

When times were tough and not necessarily going my way, I would look at each situation to try and discover the opportunity that adversity might present. There has been no major alteration of course on my route map other than myself having to earn a wage again due to delays – but I listened to a podcast by Jonny Wilkinson which changed my mindset. He was asked what would he tell a young Jonny Wilkinson today, to which his response was “It would be to step on the pitch with no game plan, but to have the tools available to deal with most situations, because if the gameplan goes wrong heads drop and your momentarily out of the game, whereas with no game plan you play with what is presented to you and keep exploring the options with the tools available from your tool box”.

With this very much in mind making it from A to B on this part of my life journey, the route has changed several times and no doubt there are a few more twists and turns to come, what matters to me is that I get there not how!

Lesson Ten – The relationship

Within all the above lessons, twists, and turns the overarching common theme for me was having a solid relationship with experts in the supply chain, consultants, advisors, and family. Various issues have been presented on the route map of life but the foundation from which relationships have been built, it did not matter what the obstacle was, it was the relationship with the various people on the pathway of life which have enabled me to navigate the way.

The relationship is the constant, not the product or service, which I value the most throughout my life journey.

To Conclude

I do believe if you have passion, interest, and an exploratory mindset you end up with growth and fulfilment from your business. In turn allowing yourself to be your best with a flexible perspective on life you will feel liberated.

Mark Seager FCCA


Written by Mark Seager FCCA

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