IT CAN’T be easy being a middle-ranking banker in one of the surviving rural offices. No, don’t laugh, it can’t be easy to be caught between head office insisting on tough rules and no quarter given, and passing on that bad news to a business having a tough time.
Which this year, as no-one in the industry needs reminding, includes almost every farming enterprise involving crops or animals. The weather has ensured that returns from diversification projects such as B&B, holiday cottages and farm shops haven’t been clever, either.
And the general state of the economy has meant some redundancies among the off-farm jobs of farmers’ spouses, partners and family. In short, most farmers, except the exceptionally financially well-cushioned, are feeling the pinch and some are looking down the bankers’ shotgun barrel at insolvency.
That’s why there was such a rapid response by more than 460 farmers in Scotland to an NFU Scotland questionnaire on how 2012 had affected their businesses. In turn, that led to a meeting between NFU officials and bank representatives.
As well as pointing to the parlous state of affairs caused by wet weather and one of the worst harvests in half a century, union officials pointed out the probable knock-on effects into 2013. That includes only about 75 per cent of this year’s planned wheat crop sown at the beginning of December; a potato crop of dubious storage quality down by about 25 per cent; the less said about vegetables the better; a probable shortage of straw and fodder as we go through the winter; and a recent slump in lamb prices.
Bank representatives at the meeting said they have confidence in farming. Referring to the industry as a whole, that is probably true, because the massive value of owned land makes the industry’s total £1.4billion or so debt a safe bet compared to most sectors of the economy. But that comforting national figure does nothing for an individual farmer in financial trouble, especially if he’s a tenant, face to face with the bank’s representative.
The advice, as always, is to monitor costs and income closely and if trouble is looming, tell your bank. Don Corleone in the The Godfather isn’t the only one who insists on hearing bad news immediately, although I must point out that a reference to bankers and The Godfather in the same paragraph is purely coincidental.
As for a horse’s head in the bed or an offer that can’t be refused, bank representatives told the NFU that if a farmer’s request for a bigger overdraft is refused, they can appeal. Aye, right.
Sorry, mustn’t be too cynical. We all know there are bankers we can talk to and the advice to keep them fully informed of bad, and occasionally good, news is correct. But when head office is pulling the strings in spite of the NFU advising farmers not to suffer in silence, don’t expect miracles.
Landowners come in because of an interesting juxtaposition in last week’s Scottish Farmer. On one page, a letter from Douglas McAdam, chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, sadly disappointed that the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association were “mudslinging” by accusing landowners and their agents of frightening tenants into paying extortionate rent increases.
Mr McAdam wrote on behalf of his members: “I would reiterate that no farmer should agree to a rent they regard as unreasonable and to suggest people are in fear of speaking out is just nonsense. This is a business relationship and there are dispute resolution processes available where agreement cannot be reached.”
Very good. Flick back a page or two and we find “Islay rent row”. Tenant farmers on the island have accused their landlord of “trickery and bullying” as they got rent rise demands in the mail less than a week before the end of their present agreement.
The demand letter apparently warned that if the tenant didn’t agree immediately to the increase then the Scottish Land Court was the alternative, where an even higher increase would be asked for. I look forward to this week’s letter from Mr McAdam unless, of course, Islay Estates is not a member of his organisation.
He concluded the letter by writing: “This biannual slanging match around the time of rent reviews is really not productive or helpful and we should reflect on why the vast majority of rent reviews are agreed amicably ... the vast majority of tenants and landlords understand that this is a business relationship and act accordingly.”
He’s right about the slanging not being helpful, but for at least the tenant farmers on Islay it is understandable, and I can think of a few more who live elsewhere. As with the banks having confidence in a whole industry, but not necessarily every individual farmer so perhaps the majority – let’s forget “vast” – of tenants and landlords reach agreement without bloodshed.
But life for the tenants facing tough demands at short notice is not easy.