Farm Business Survey: A lasting legacy

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Agricultural faculties in universities and colleges have been collating data for the Defra-funded Farm Business Survey (FBS) for the past 85 years – so what impact has it had on the industry?

Now in its 86th year, the FBS brings together invaluable data on the physical, economic and environmental performance of farm businesses in England. Built into anonymous data sets, the information has been used to inform government, policymakers, educators, researchers – and importantly, farmers.

Most recently it has been used to inform the Agriculture Act 2020, says Charles Scott, head of the FBS Unit at Newcastle University, which is part of the group that collates the data. “Very important areas of investigation have previously included the reliance on direct payments in various forms, as well as diversification and the extent to which it supports agricultural activities.”

Robin Jackson, director of Rural Business Research (RBR) at Duchy College, highlights that it’s not just government that benefits from this information. “Industry bodies – like the NFU and CLA – and multiple allied steering groups draw on information generated from the FBS – like the Enterprise reports and Defra’s Farm Business Income (FBI) report,” he says. “So do notable publications like Anderson’s John Nix Pocket Book.”

And information from the FBS reaches consultants, researchers, educators, veterinary professionals and farm businesses who use it in their services, research, teachings and advice. “It helps to refresh the teaching of future farmers and growers and those in associated industries,” says Mr Jackson.

Formed in 1936 as the Farm Management Survey by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF 1919 to 1955), the FBS has always been carried out by independent universities and colleges. Its lineage is expansive and intertwined with many British and global historic events, says Mr Jackson. “It was created to keep a finger on the pulse of agriculture at a time, post World War I and during the depression, when there was a concerted effort to pursue facts and figures in relation to different theories and methods to validate societal economics.”

Documents reveal a variety of reasons for maintaining the FBS over the decades, evidently to inform policy, but also because of its potential to be transformative for industry. Further justification was found in 1973 when the UK joined the European Union and data was needed to contribute to the European Farm Accountancy Data Network.

“It has informed government through wars and geopolitical turmoil – going into and out of the European Union – as well as through financial crises like recessions and other traumatic events like foot-and-mouth and the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Mr Jackson.

To date, the annual FBS remains commissioned by government and stands out as the largest research survey focused on farm and horticultural businesses in England. It has also continued to be undertaken independently by Rural Business Research (RBR), a non-profit partnership of six university and college research units, delivering for the past 18 years.

The FBS comprises a sample of farms that are representative of the population in terms of type, size and location – around 1,750 farms across England.

So what’s the draw for farmers? “It’s a stratified randomised approach,” says Mr Scott. “Farms are drawn from a list based on the June Census, sampling at about 2.5% of the farming population. The FBS data represents 90% of England’s farmed area and agricultural output.

“For most, the incentive to get involved is having a free management account with detailed benchmarking ability. Farmers are able to benchmark against their peers – similar local farm types and business models – and are then able to take that information and benchmark regionally and nationally.”

Any farmer – participating in the survey or not – can access benchmarking information for free, says Laura Black, vice principal at Askham Bryan College. “They can go to the FBS website and benchmark against similar business models; nation, farm type and tenure, by inputting their details – which won’t be stored or shared.”

A lot of farms participate in the FBS for a very long time, says Caroline Lambourne, head of the FBS Unit at Duchy College. “We used to run a 15-year cut off – which we don’t any more – but that shows just how long some farms remain and the value held by farm businesses.”

Farming is a difficult sector to get information from because of its sheer size, complexity and variety – but that’s exactly what the FBS has been doing since 1936, says Mr Jackson. “We don’t make decisions for government; it is for them to base decisions around the data we provide which is rigorous, statistically relevant, and – crucially – independent.”

Ben Lang, head of the FBS RBR Unit at Cambridge University, adds that the partnership of universities and colleges has helped facilitate the co-development of methodology which enhances the accuracy and reliability of information processed. And keeps track of the many changes underway in farming.

“Farmers are facing a multitude of operational and financial challenges. The survey turns that into hard data that demonstrates farmers’ experiences and can be reflected directly to government to explain what’s going on,” says Mr Lang.

The FBS collects over 2,000 variables and has documented the farmers’ experience through policy changes like the multiple crises of the Common Agricultural Policy, introduction of environmental schemes, and the challenges of Brexit.

Recently, Defra awarded the next FBS contract to Promar International, a leading provider of agricultural consultancy services. Paul Wilson, chief executive of RBR, and professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nottingham, who has led the FBS since 2006, says although this marks the end of the RBR’s involvement, their legacy will live on for many years to come.

“This includes through the skills and expertise of the university and college staff who transfer to work for Promar. The FBS sample continuity will be enhanced through farmers who choose to continue to take part in the survey.

“The methodologies in the FBS draw upon 86 years’ experience and intellectual input from our university and college institutions. This has played a key role in the rigorous data and analytical protocols that underpin delivery of the quality FBS data.

“We hope that our collective insight and experience will be retained within the FBS as it continues to serve the needs of Defra, farmers and growers, and the wider industry at this important time in our agricultural history and development.”

Editors’ Notes

What is the Farm Business Survey?

The Farm Business Survey provides information on the physical and economic performance of farm businesses in England and Wales, to inform policy decisions on matters affecting farm businesses. It is intended to serve the needs of government, government partners, farming and land management interest groups, and researchers.

The Farm Business Survey is an annual survey commissioned by the government under which a range of management accounting information on all aspects of farmer’s and grower’s businesses is collected. The survey uses a sample of farms that is representative of the national population of farms in terms of farm type, farm size and regional location.

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About Rural Business Research (RBR)

Rural Business Research combines the forces of some of Britain’s top researchers in the field of farming, the environment and rural business. We are valued suppliers to many organisations looking for rigorous fundamental and applied research and the powerful application of data.

RBR is totally independent, a consortium of leading academic units delivering projects for government, levy-funded research bodies, research councils, and commercial clients.

From our research teams around the country, RBR provides exceptional expertise with deep local knowledge, from specific regional studies, national data collection and analysis, economic and environmental modelling and assessments, to the largest survey of its kind in this country, the Farm Business Survey, carried out for Defra.

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