Debs Roberts – Farmton Farm, Perthshire
Farmton Farm is a traditional mixed farm of 500 acres, where Debs Roberts and her husband grow organic oats, organic barley and have 75 organic suckler cows. On top of that, they also manage an additional 500 acres of mixed woodland, have five properties that they let out, and, to top it off, a small firewood business.
In addition to all of that, Debs is also Policy Manager and a Director at SOPA.
SOPA: To whom does your business sell?
DR: We use most of our produce for home supply, but any surplus goes to organic grain merchants and other organic farmers. The firewood is sold locally and we have one or two unique buyers of specialized timber for hand-worked carpentry.
SOPA: Why did you take the plunge and convert to organic?
DR: There were good subsidies and we were fed up with the fearsome costs of sprays and fertilisers required for non-organic crops. We were also young and fearless with two young children and we wanted to do something different!
SOPA: What were you doing before you took the plunge?
DR: We went organic in 1998 and since then have tripled the number of cows while producing the same tonnage of cereals. We used to contract some land out for potatoes, but when we went organic and started looking at our soils, we realised that our ground is on the heavy side for potatoes and actually it was destroying our soil structure.
Being organic means we keep our system simple and the past two decades have proven to us in many ways that a balance can be achieved and it is sustainable.
SOPA: What was your biggest break?
DR: It’s difficult to say, but certainly one of our best business decisions was to change accountants. Several years ago, we suffered a major shock to the business that was, frankly, due to slack accounting advice. It became very apparent that there wasn’t actually a relationship that was worth salvaging with what should’ve been one of our key farm business advisers. We have now moved to a dynamic young firm, who have a great approach to their clients.
SOPA: What was your worst moment?
DR: The sudden death of my father-in-law, who had not shared any of his succession plans.
SOPA: What do you most enjoy about running the business?
DR: Hot summer days when the dust swirls through the close, calving, and making sure the office work is all up to date. Strangely enough, I do get satisfaction out of knowing all the accounts and farm records are in order!
SOPA: What do you least enjoy?
DR: Ironing. But I still HAVE to do it – why is that?
SOPA: What is your biggest bugbear?
DR: My biggest bugbear is people who go out on a walk in the countryside and leave their dog mess in a bag tied to the trees. Who do they think is going to clean that up?
I do worry about social integration between urban and countryside people, as it feels as if the gap is growing between understanding each other’s interests. As a landowner, there are many times I feel disrespected by some of the people who use the land for recreation.
SOPA: What are your ambitions for the firm?
DR: This Brexit situation is interesting. We are examining our business in order to devise ways to replace the subsidy. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in recent years recording and examining our farm data, and I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on our costs. There are lots of ideas we have for diversification, but farming is our top priority so everything else must work around the farm and the land that we manage.
SOPA: What are your five top priorities?
DR: Replacing subsidies in our farm cash flow, planting more trees, keeping work fun, fixing field drains, and getting the right pH across all the farm soils.
SOPA: What single thing would most help?
DR: More staff
SOPA: What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
DR: I’ve said this before, but it is a truism so will repeat it: Surround yourself with trustworthy people.
SOPA: How do you relax?
DR: I have a great circle of friends and we have a lot of fun. I also really enjoy working with my cocker spaniel, as well as reading and sleeping!