David Missen reviews Charlie Flindt's latest book.
Readers of 'Farmers Weekly' will be familiar with Charlie Flindt’s regular 'Flindt on Friday' column which takes an outspoken and sideways look at the industry. In addition to his agricultural writing, Flindt also does motoring reviews for 'The Field', plays keyboard in 'The old gits' (you can find them engaging on YouTube) and farms 920 acres of arable in Hampshire.
Following on from the successful publication of 'Sweet Home Hinton Ampner' (music aficionados of a certain age will recognise the referencing), a follow up book in the same diary format was published earlier this year detailing his activities on (and off) the farm between February 2020 and January 2021. For all sorts of reasons this book should be compulsory reading for those involved in pretty much any aspect of the service industries to the agricultural sector.
First and foremost, it is an engaging read and genuinely difficult to put down, the 'daily diary' format being particularly helpful in that respect. Admittedly, if one’s idea of a good book is a detailed analysis of the latest IFRS, then you might find it a bit heavy going, but for those with at least a passing interest in what is happening on the land, it is both entertaining and fascinating, covering everything from the overriding imperatives of weather and soils to the perils of puppyhood, via commentary on topical issues such as steel shot, the Agriculture Bill, landlords, builders, machinery breakdowns and rural crime.
Secondly, it gives a first-hand account of the impact on the sector of the two key events mentioned in the title. Contrary to expectations, the impact of Brexit was fairly minimal. Motorways did not turn into overflow car parks and there was no Brexit related emptying of supermarket shelves. One suspects that the original intention was to portray the impact of Brexit on a sample family farm, but in the words of the author 'The establishment’s predictions for the UK in general post-Brexit – 'Project Fear' – have failed to materialise.' So little to report in that respect except that the impact of the falling pound has meant that output prices have soared.
There has been a far greater impact nationally from the pandemic, but, again, for the farming sector the impact has been fairly muted, mainly reflected in the increased number of walkers on (or off) footpaths and minor problems in the supply chain. The largest impact was probably the personal one which affected all families, with children unable to travel or, once home, unable to return to university (although even that had a silver lining: as Flindt says of his son, 'it’s been fantastic having him home for the last few months – a bit of a bonus in these mad times' – a sentiment which was echoed by the Welsh farmer quoted in our 'on the frontline' webinar whose two children were sent home from agricultural college and who had 'the easiest lambing ever'.
The key reason why this book is worth every penny is, however, the fact that it gives a comprehensive insight into how our farming clients think and what is important to them, a knowledge which can otherwise take years for the accountant to develop. It is instructive that things which accountants think are important such as annual accounts, profitability and tax get very little mention here indeed, beyond an account of some frustrating days putting together the valuation and a shock result when the accounts turn up in December. The things that really matter are getting the drilling, spraying and fertiliser spreading done during the rare periods when the weather is 'right' or risking the process during a window which may be too short, too early or too late, and the frustrations of always having the machinery or seed trailer in the wrong barn with the associated and time-consuming hitching, unhitching and moving.
2020 was a patchy year for harvest across the country, but reading about Flindt as he tries to grab opportunities amidst changeable weather and with the risk of machinery downtime at a critical point makes one understand the phone call that practitioners sometimes take: 'It’s raining so can I came in for a meeting this morning? – I’ve nothing better to do'.
Finally, of course, there is the matter of small farm shoot and the level of effort and involvement which goes into it across the year, in the hope of a few days sport in the winter, which some will find surprising – perhaps one of the biggest disappointments this year was that a farmer’s main opportunity to socialise with friends and neighbours was heavily frustrated by the COVID-19 regulations.
We will all be aware that farmers sometime have a bad press from others who feel they have a right to roam anywhere, irrespective of footpaths and growing crops. It is clear that this can be even more of a problem on a National Trust owned farm, where the concept of public ownership and tenants’ rights can become blurred in the mind of the public. It is interesting to read how Flindt’s reaction to walkers can vary between a very understandable negative (for those blocking gateways or walking through a crop) to positive engagement with others who stick to the rules, on one occasion resulting in a round of applause for him on completing his harvest. There are numerous anecdotes here on this particular topic, again, well worth the read.
One way and another, 2020-21 was a difficult year for farmers and it is amazing that one of them, at least, has retained his good humour throughout. The situation is perhaps summed up in the alternative title for the book 'Ten thousand broken rules' – but of course, as it turned out, no rules were broken at Hinton Amper because, if there had been, it would have been in the book – which it clearly isn’t.
So, in the quiet days between the self-assessment filing deadline and the start of the new tax year, why not treat yourself to a copy of this book? Reading it should certainly count as CPE and, as a book for the office library, it should also be tax deductible. Joking aside, as an agricultural practitioner I would certainly also encourage my trainees to read it cover to cover.
Copies are available from the usual multinational online sources, or if you would rather that they had a little less profit and Charlie has a little more beer money, send him a cheque for £12.99 (payable to CH Flindt) to Manor Farm, Hinton Amper, Alresford, Hampshire SO24 0LE.*The views expressed are the author's and not ICAEW's.