Advice on making life more cheerful down on the farm

A BANKER happy in public? There's a novelty. Almost as much of one, come to think of it, as a happy farmer - although we know the misery's usually an act and that, deep down, bankers and farmers are happy optimists who see all their eggs as double-yolkers.

David Douglas, who recently succeeded the long-serving Henry Graham as head of rural business - changing times, changing titles - with the Clydesdale Bank, has let a little of that hidden face of banking cheer peep out.

Not only in full-page adverts in farming magazines, but in a hearty state-of-the industry exhortation at the end of last week that farmers and managers should enjoy their work whatever challenges they face.

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He believes that many feel that way now, saying: "It's especially true where living on top of the job comes with the territory. I meet and work with a large number of farming and rural business people in the course of a year, and enjoying their work, job satisfaction, is a common factor among those who manage to stay at the top.

"The same people also make time to get away regularly from day-to-day pressures and their businesses benefit as a result."

That message might not have gone down well with a previous generation when farmers never - what, never? well hardly ever - took a holiday and the ethos was "Six o'clock on a Monday morning, only two days to the middle of the week and not a lick of work done yet."

That, at least, was the image they liked to foster, with days at the mart, shooting, curling and an occasional outing to London for Smithfield show excluded from the calculations.

Douglas's message is a determinedly cheerful "make the most of what you've got", with what he calls his formula for sanity: "Enjoy what you do."

Tempting to say it will never catch on, but it just might be the time for a new and cheerful voice, because there must be more to life and farming than a progression of greeting meetings about subsidies stretching into an endless future.

As a generation of grumpy old farmers head for the sidelines - voluntarily, retired hurt or red-carded - and a fresh-faced bunch of youngsters gallop on, full of ideas and enthusiasm, the Douglas theme could catch on.

Among his rules for farming sanity: set targets, keep it simple, monitor progress, don't worry about things you can't influence and speak to someone you trust.

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That could include, and I'm only guessing here, your friendly Clydesdale banker. Or Royal Bank, Bank of Scotland or TSB, although naturally he couldn't say that.

What he could say was that staying positive during the past 15 years in UK farming - the mid-1990s golden years presumably excepted - has not been easy, with the industry caught in a severe cost-price squeeze.

In 1988, for example, typical prices were wheat at 95 a tonne, milk 17.7p per litre, beef 215p per kg deadweight, lamb 220p ditto, and pigs 90p ditto again.

Douglas said : "With the exception of wheat," - which is about 20 a tonne lower than in 1988 - "we're more or less where we started. Add to that the fact that diesel cost 10p a litre 15 years ago and the squeeze on the industry is clear."

Only low interest rates for much of the time since then have helped. So, as well as being cheerful and enjoying what they do, is it important for farmers to keep a firm grip on their business?

Oh yes. Douglas says: "Ask: where are you now? Where do you want to be? How do you plan to get there? These are all key questions which I believe businesses need to address if progress is to be made on a secure and sustainable basis.

"Each question is complex in its own way and never easy to answer. But it's difficult to move forward without a satisfactory response to each one."

Advancing from making plans - the most enjoyable part according to some of the world's great thinkers, and me - to putting them into practice inevitably raises the need for financial commitment, he said.

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That is the stage at which farmers - I think you might be ahead of me here - "often seek input from their bank". Indeed we do and, as Douglas says, a useful starting point is one more question: "Do you just 'want' this investment or do you really 'need' it?"

Financial adviser Alvin Hall puts it in much the same way. When thinking of buying anything always ask: "Do I need it? Can I afford it? Can I get it cheaper somewhere else?"

Amazing how that can concentrate the mind, no matter who you bank with. Amazing, too, how often we go ahead and buy it anyway.

Or as Douglas says: "A project or purchase which removes hassle from the business, creates a better lifestyle and improves the all-round 'feel-good' factor could be absolutely right, even when a degree of 'want' is involved in the final choice.

"At the same time, keeping everything low cost and simple, while admirable in theory, can sometimes result in a make do and mend approach, which succeeds only in taking valuable management time away from the business.

"Clearly, keeping things simple is definitely good if it works for the business. But there's nothing wrong with lifestyle investments, provided they deliver something in return. Just be honest with yourself when choosing."

He went on: "Increasingly, the background against which all farm and rural business developments take place seems to become that bit more challenging as each year passes.

"Budgeting, for example, must take account of price volatility. It's also vital to recognise that UK agriculture in 2006 operates in a shrinking world, is subject to changing political pressures and has to accommodate often costly and time-consuming environmental and compliance demands." This is where his fourth rule of business sanity comes in: "Don't worry about things you can't influence."

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That does not mean ignoring them, because they need to be understood and addressed. (Common agricultural policy, single farm payments, World Trade Organisation negotiations?) But don't brood about them at the expense of more positive and progressive ideas.

That is why, he says, stepping back from day-to-day pressures can be valuable and refreshing and a day at the Highland show - as the old timers also knew - might be a good idea this week.

"Being exposed to what others are thinking and the opportunities which still exist within UK agriculture can only be good for the whole industry," he said.

Just get there early.

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