ACF Conference, 2009

ACF Conference 19th November 2009 – Stoneleigh
Biblical Reflection and Context by The Rev Mark Inman
‘You are old, Father William’ the young man said, ‘ and your hair has become very white.  And yet you incessantly stand on your head.  Do you think, at your age, it is right?’
‘In my youth’, Father William replied to his son, ‘I feared it might injure the brain.  But now I am perfectly sure I have none, why I do it again and again.’
The outstanding benefit of standing on your head is that you see the world the right way up.  Bending down and peering between one’s legs is a good substitute for the elderly.  It was said indignantly of St Paul and his fellow missionaries, ‘Those people who turn the world upside down are coming here too!’
The bible is not a series of regulations on how to hire or how to farm.  We have more than enough regulations from other sources.  The books of the bible give an account of God involving himself in human affairs in an increasingly intimate manner.  Instead of working from the centres of power outwards and from the top of society downwards, he always seems to do the reverse, working from the unimpressive and lowly upwards, and from the margins inwards.
‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’ wrote Hillaire Belloc.  He was not the first to think like that.  From Pharaoh Rameses II through Nebuchachnezzar, Antiochus Epiphanes and Caesar Augustus, all empires sought to integrate the Jews into grand imperial schemes and failed utterly to achieve it.  Always the personal God of the Jews intervened and prevented it.  Any overtures from the Jews to the great powers were disastrous.  The true prophets said so unwaveringly.
Unfortunately the Jews like the rest of humanity were and are flawed.  They found doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God unsustainable.  They sought to be like the other nations and result was subjection, economic chaos, forced migration, felling of forests and absentee landlords.
For four centuries the prophets were silent.  Two empires ruled over the Jews.  But the hope of God taking a firm and final grip on Jewish destiny never disappeared.
Then the Word of God was born a man to save the world.  Typically no one of importance in Israel noticed until too late.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he stood some cherished expectations on their heads.  He said: Small is great, last are first, he the Messiah himself came not to be served but to serve.  Enemies are to be included in our love, whatever they do to us.  He lived all this out to the bitter end.
But it was not the end, but the beginning.  By then the disciples were aware that they were in the hands of the upside-down God.  Standing on their heads, the disciples found their hearts above their brains.  The Holy Spirit demanded love in details, love working out in practice as communities of the unlike.  Instead of demanding conformity, the Spirit of God actually relished and encouraged diversity.  Major schemes for saving the planet have always hit the deck because they are like the dreaded bed of Procrustes.  His victims were stretched to fit the bed if too short and pruned if too long.
What hope have small communities of love in diversity got in those key matters; farming, continuity, land?  Another advantage of being upside down is that you cannot help looking up.  Our focus becomes heavenly, centred on the man Christ Jesus.  Our hope, our future, is in his pierced but capable hands.  Family is both under girded and expanded because God is for us, in us, among us.  Continuity is assured because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, forever.  He is Alpha and Omega.  Land and farming are sustained by Jesus the Wisdom of God.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is”.
I enjoy ‘Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat’ but there is a song in that musical that gets my goat.  They sing ‘Any dream will do’.  Any dream will definitely not do.  Most dreams purveyed by the powerful have turned out to be empty lies.  St John in his 1st letter ends with the injunction ‘Keep yourselves from Idols.’  These dreams are presently turning us away from the truth.
First, our cleverness has introduced a functionalistic view of the world; nature and the environment are reduced to merely that which satisfies our material needs.  Much destruction, some irrevocable, has resulted.
Secondly, scientific techniques involve bracketing out the personal.  This is very effective as an analytic method, but as a worldview it is lethal.  God is personal; he made us and all that is.  An accidental universe is diabolical.  Remember agriculture under communism.
Thirdly, media news and views give us the fantasy of being on a space ship watching the goings-on of planet earth.  Total objectivity.  Total poppycock.  There is no such thing as a view from nowhere.  We are being fed on reprocessed rubbish.
As a result there is a growing feeling of powerlessness, an ever-decreasing confidence, among people generally.  They are aware of a catastrophe looming, and desperately try to ignore it and forget it or to avert it.  The mother of Parliaments appears to be, in the words of my grandmother, no better than she ought to be.
We Church, we Christians, do not see a catastrophe, we see a crisis.  This word in Greek also equals judgement.  We need not fear judgment, it is our personal God hearing our stupidity and showing us a way ahead.  For those who follow him, Jesus promises, family, brothers and sisters, mothers, houses and lands.  And of course persecution.  We are not offered a lot of fathers; God himself will be there, welcoming his prodigals, to the discomfiture of the elder brother and all who have his mind-set.
So let us take to heart Jesus’ regular admonitions.
Do not be afraid.  Take courage.  Watch.  Pray.
 Report of talk by Howard Petch
 Howard began his talk by introducing himself as the youngest of 4 sons who are all in farming.  He left school at 16 to work on the farm and then went away to acquire some qualifications before returning to the farm.  He has not returned yet!  He was the Principal of Bishop Burton Agricultural College and is still involved in agricultural education.
Farming is substantially an inherited occupation.  The emotional impact of the link with land is not widely understood by the non-farming public.  The emotional baggage for a farmer who has to curtail the farm is very heavy to carry.  There is an aspiration to pass on the asset better than before and at the heart of Christian farmers a feeling of stewardship/custodianship towards the land.
There is a need to transfer farming skills and less tangible assets. There can be a tension between business liability and sibling equality.  A need for balance is required.  For the industry to be healthy there is also a need to encourage some first generation farmers.  New blood is essential.
Succession = retirement = tension, whether it be full, partial or in progress.  There has to be a transfer of strategic and operational responsibility as well as financial accountability.  A lack of clarity on responsibility for specific parts of the business especially in the period before full succession  is often the start of problems.
The position of farmers within the community hit a low in the mid to late 90’s but is now changing dramatically.  Farmers’ play a critical and important role in the community.  The levels of succession is basically the same today and not as the media projects.
There needs to be a full and in-depth understanding of the viability and full potential of a farm.  What are the options?  Sometimes exit, however painful is the best option.
The process of transition is of concern.  Care and support from the local church does not replace sound legal and financial advice. The preparation process re retirement and inheritance requires high quality advice and is worthwhile because the implications of bad decisions are very costly.  Emotional intelligence is needed and this boils down to communication.
Preparation is required for succession.  It is important to realise whether this is the real choice of the son/daughter or whether they are fulfilling the expectation of the parent.
The benefits of education must be noted.  Youngsters must have experience outside the farm gates.  There has to be scope for siblings, a facility to develop interests.  Howard is a strong supporter of higher education.  It widens horizons and develops lateral thinking.
It is hard on fathers, on the one hand wanting their offspring to succeed and on the other not ready to retire.  A need for balance is once again required.  Planning is important.  Need to learn hands on skills as well as how to manage knowledge.  The volume of knowledge is huge so there is a need to manage and understand when external expertise is needed.  The attitude within is more important than the circumstances without.  If you develop the person you develop the business.  Preparing for retirement shouldn’t come as a surprise – it should be planned.  Father finding interests off the farm can be a mutually helpful way of both parties continuing to find fulfilment.  A succession plan needs a realistic assessment of the skills, strengths and weaknesses of the potential successor and of the long-term viability of the farm.  Due note should be taken of the values and aspirations of family members especially where there may be differences between family members.  This can entail some painful decisions.
Traditionally some farms supported at least one and some times two retiring generations.  This is unlikely to be possible in many cases and therefore appropriate pension arrangements to ensure financial security of those retiring need to be in place at a very early stage.  Expecting a farm to provide too many livelihoods is a recipe for conflict.
Succession can be an exciting concept – the ability of one generation to find real fulfilment by passing the farm on – fulfilling God’s calling for sustainable stewardship.
Good communication between family members from an early stage with a clear understanding of personal aspirations and expectations will make the process so much easier and is far more likely to lead to long term success.
Interviews and Workshops
In between the particular and searching perceptions of Mark Inman and the godly practicality of Howard Petch, there were some remarkable vignettes of actual succession processes, conducted under God – often against heavy odds.  A number of people, including a father and son together, were interviewed about transition complete or in process.  One had reorganised his farm to release him for part-time Christian Ministry, whilst retaining it, in case the next generation became involved.  Another had taken over from his father and gone through the pain of abandoning dairy farming.  A father and son had transferred the farming from one to the other – but on another farm.  A third eventually handed on a farm, with   ancillary businesses, to a clutch of sons each inheriting an appropriate share of the overdraft!  Another had been through an extraordinary saga of inheriting and then starting to pass on, involving his father, an uncle, a brother, a departing wife and his children, plus a goodly collection of solicitors and bank managers.  An interviewee had a different story to tell of farming, a share farming agreement with an unrelated younger person.
They were interviewed together beforehand and appeared by DVD.
In all these stories there was a feeling of God’s presence.  It was a humbling session.
Subsequent discussion touched on the blend of family and business in farming relationships, needing both clarity and patience – often with forgiveness!  The difficulties created by the currently low returns from farming – the paradox of wealth on paper combined with poverty in practice.
The importance of a sound underlying philosophy of farming.
The importance of praying!