Ambitious first-time farmers frustrated by tenancy challenges
- Credit: Nicola Jenkins
A first-generation sheep farming couple whose flock grew during lockdown have formed an online group to highlight the difficulties of securing tenancies for expanding young businesses.
Matt and Floss Styles started their enterprise from scratch two years ago at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire.
Although their first lambing coincided with the first Covid lockdown, the couple have built up their Micklewaite Flock to almost 100 sheep including 60 breeding ewes on 76 acres of rented land, and are selling meat boxes to a growing customer base.
They are keen to keep expanding towards their ultimate goal to make full-time incomes by running their own farm, as both currently still have jobs with other employers.
But they are finding it difficult to take the "next big step" of winning a farm tenancy.
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The couple said the highly-competitive process is "really hard going" - but they are eager to share their experience to help others and shed light on the difficulty newcomers face getting into the industry.
Mrs Styles set up the First Generation Farmers page on Facebook to share ideas and give people in a similar situation a community to ask advice from. It has so far gathered 900 members from across the country, as well as in the USA and Canada.
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"I am surprised how the group took off," she said. "It is really heartening to know it is not just you. A lot of other people seem to be struggling with exactly the same problems about how to get started.
"The key struggles of first generation farmers are getting people to take you seriously, getting the land you need and then juggling working full-time to build up what everyone else calls your 'hobby farm'.
"Applying for a tenancy is so hard and very daunting. The one thing no-one wants to talk about in farming is the money side of things, but you have got to present a five-year cashflow on the basis of having walked around a farm on one day, and then come up with an entire business plan of how you are going to make money from it, and what you want to pay as rent.
"There are so many unknowns, and trying to put everything down on paper and sell yourself when you couldn't feel less confident is very difficult."
Mrs Styles said the Facebook group also offered a supportive sounding board for questions.
"It sounds odd, but you feel so stupid - especially being new to farming," she said. "We are in Fenland, so people around here don't really have sheep, so it felt like all the questions we had were stupid.
"We were just trying to figure it out. That is the only downside of social media, you ask a stupid question and you might get a couple of sympathetic answers but you will also get a load of abuse, saying: Why do you have animals if you don't know this?
"I can see both sides of the coin, but it is really disheartening to hear people saying if you don't know what you are doing, then you shouldn't be doing it. How is anyone supposed to learn?
"On the Facebook group, it is nice to see some success stories of people who are on tenant farms and are open to give advice. It is very competitive, so tenant farmers usually keep their cards close to their chest. So it is good to see people on there proving it can be done."
Mrs Styles, 30, currently works as a grower services coordinator for British Sugar, while her husband Matt works for a local arable farmer. He is from a farming family but was new to the sheep sector until two years ago.
Mr Styles, 27, said the couple were currently making a fourth tenancy application, a process which can often see 15-20 tenders competing for each farm.
"I have got big plans of what I want to achieve in farming, including developing better relationships between the consumer and where their food comes from, which we are already doing, but we want to scale it up so we can have more of an impact and reach a wider audience," he said.
"I also want to be able to farm in my own right, rather than having to work for other people, because that is a limiting factor in what we are doing at the moment. We cannot expand much more than we have because we both have full-time jobs.
"We need the security of a tenancy and we need to expand to keep the momentum going of what we have built already.
"I have all this enthusiasm and ideas and I am already running a successful small business. I just need somebody to open the door."