Preparing to get started, Mac has been chatting about his frustration with Defra, his fears for the future of small family farms and optimism for the livestock sector as well as the need to keep bringing keen young people into the industry.
He farms 350ac of LFA land near Morpeth with his wife, Elaine – who also works for George F White – and his son Gregor, who is taking a more in-depth role in the business while pursuing off-farm contract work. His daughter, Charlotte, is in her final year of A levels.
The business revolves around livestock
The business revolves around the family’s livestock enterprise of 400 breeding ewes and 30-40 suckler cows. On the sheep side, Mac buys in about 50 Mule lambs a year, from which he breeds his own Suffolk and Texel-cross progeny with everything taken through to fat.
For his beef enterprise – a mix of Simmental/Luing cattle and home-bred Aberdeen Angus-cross – he finishes everything, selling some through Acklington Market and some through Scot Beef in Sterling.
Mac is involved with SRUC’s premium cattle health scheme and a local vet-led discussion group seeking to maximise production from spring-calving herds.
From an environmental perspective, the farm is in year four of a mid tier countryside stewardship agreement that has seen them plant and rejuvenate hedgerows, establish riparian strips and 90ac of low input grassland, plus a field of herbal ley and a number of uncultivated field corners. He has plans to explore SFI, but says he needs time to figure out what could work for his farm, preferring to understand the detail of the scheme himself rather than relying on outside advisers.
Although the NFU has achieved much in improving SFI since it was first proposed, he expressed his frustration with Defra and his sense that while staff on the ground are capable and helpful, at a more senior level there seems to be a lack of understanding and/or trust of farmers. The result, he says, is an environmental policy that is still failing to appeal to many.
Focus on costs
Running a business that Mac describes as a 'one-man operation', he says he is more focused than ever on controlling his costs and having a plan in terms of the returns he needs to make a profit. He has also invested in infrastructure such as a new cattle-handling system, complete with weigh boards, to provide more management information.
Concern for farm tenants
A key concern for the year ahead is the county’s extensive tenanted sector. He believes the government still does not understand the challenges facing tenants, especially those with short tenancies.
"This means a lot of tenants are really under pressure," he said, "something that could result in far fewer small family farms in the future.
"I do believe there is a positive outlook for livestock farmers, especially with new export markets, but to really kick start things, we also need to provide more opportunities for the next generation – giving them a chance to get stuck in, make mistakes, learn and get on their feet."