COVID-19 and the agricultural industry

Jul 29, 2020

Dr Michael Hayden provides the accounting practitioner with some food for thought.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings a realisation of the importance of certain sectors in our society. While many businesses cease operations, food producers and farm enterprises are acknowledged as essential services.

The economic significance of the Irish agricultural industry is well documented. However, in these unprecedented times, the focus has turned to its social importance. This provides an opportunity for the accounting profession to reflect on how it can best assist and support farming businesses, not only in the current circumstances but in the future.

A question worth considering is: does the agricultural community reap the full benefit of the extensive knowledge and skills the accountancy profession has to offer? While acknowledging that challenges exist for accountants in delivering their services to farm clients, there are significant opportunities for accountants and farmers to work more effectively together to develop sustainable farm enterprises.

Industry context

The agricultural industry is an integral part of our economy and society. After the economic crisis of 2008, the government primed the agricultural sector to stimulate economic growth and set out ambitious goals for it in the Food Harvest 2020 and subsequent Foodwise 2025 strategy documents. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s 2019 Annual Review and Outlook report outlines the importance of the industry. It claims that food produced in Ireland was exported to over 180 markets worldwide and was valued at €13.7 billion in 2018, which represents 10% of merchandise exports. Additionally, the sector contributed 7.5% of gross national income (GNI) and employed 173,000 people (7.7% of total employment) in 2018.

Despite the importance of the industry, when average farm size, farm incomes and dependency on farm subsidies are examined, as well as the average age and training levels of Irish farmers, a picture of economic vulnerability emerges. The National Farm Survey (NFS) is published annually by Teagasc and highlights this vulnerability. The 2019 NFS highlights that 34% of Irish farms were deemed viable, 33% sustainable, and 33% vulnerable. It also reports that the average family farm income (FFI) in Ireland was €23,933 in 2019, which varies significantly across farm types (for example, dairy generated €66,570, tillage generated €34,437 and beef generated €9,188). Furthermore, farming in Ireland remains reliant on subsidies which, on average, accounted for 77% of FFI in 2019.

Experts warn of another economic crisis post-COVID-19, and there is no doubt that our agricultural industry will attract renewed focus. Furthermore, Brexit represents a significant external risk for Irish agriculture with potentially far-reaching economic, social and cultural consequences. In this context, it is perhaps more important than ever that the accounting profession supports the agricultural community in developing sustainable farm enterprises by assisting farmers in making informed financial decisions based on sound financial management information.

Challenges in providing services to farm clients

Before exploring the opportunities for accountants to provide support to the agricultural community, it is important to acknowledge some challenges that exist in assisting farmers in managing their enterprise.

  • Despite the economic vulnerability of many farms, research shows that most farmers spend little time on financial management. A dislike of conducting financial management activities exists in the farming community. Indeed, they are often viewed as a necessary evil and do not always fit well with the identity of what farmers see as important farm management activities. There are other identity-related issues: many farmers are quite secretive about their financial affairs; some are naturally reluctant to seek farm management advice; many tend to rely on intuition and experience in managing their business as opposed to relying on financial information.
  • As a result of the lack of engagement by farmers with financial management in the day-to-day management of their business, book-keeping systems can be relatively unsophisticated. There is a tendency to monitor bank balances (cash flow), and only a minority maintain management accounting records.
  • The average age of a farmer in Ireland is 59 years. This high age profile is a well-documented concern for the industry. In terms of financial management, older farmers are less likely to invest in their farm and are less likely to strive for innovation and efficiencies.
  • Historically, farmers view accountants as providing a statutory and compliance role, such as filing annual tax returns, with little focus on value-added services. Also, the cost of such value-added services is a barrier as quite often, farmers are unwilling to pay for such services.

This profile of the farming community suggests that there are limited opportunities for accountants to provide value-added services to farmers. However, there are ‘green shoots’ that give cause for optimism.

Green shoots to explore

In recent years, there has been a considerable shift in the industry. This shift is transforming the Irish agricultural landscape and providing opportunities for accountants and farmers to work more effectively together to develop sustainable farm enterprises.

  • Policy changes have resulted in some fundamental structural reforms, which have provided opportunities for growth. For example, milk quota abolition under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has resulted in considerable investment and expansion in the dairy sector. 
  • While it is acknowledged that farmers tend not to engage extensively and/or dislike financial management, the mindset of many farmers in this respect is changing. In my research, I discovered that where farmers are making strategic farm expansion decisions, there is a considerable degree of engagement with their accountants.
  • Many traditional farm enterprises are diversifying and exploring new markets for their produce. For example, there is an increase in the production of artisan food products directly by farmers, alternative supply chains where farmers sell their produce directly from farm-to-market, and an increased focus on organic food production. These trends and the movement from the traditional farm production system often bring a renewed focus on profit margins, cost management and overall financial management.
  • Farm partnerships and the incorporation of farm enterprises are becoming more widespread in the industry. Such changes in legal structure provide additional opportunities for accountants who have expert knowledge in terms of tax, legal, and succession planning advice.
  • As a result of the above developments, younger farmers are being enticed into the industry. Agricultural courses in colleges and universities have seen strong demand in the past decade, which is very positive. Numerous policy measures have also been enacted to encourage generational renewal, including changes to land leasing arrangements, while tax reliefs/incentives have been developed to facilitate younger farmers entering the industry.
These transformations to the Irish agricultural landscape have encouraged farmers to be more open to engaging the value-added services of accountants. This provides opportunities for accountants to develop successful working relationships with farmers, whereby farmers could significantly benefit from the expert knowledge and skills that accountants have to offer.

Conclusion

There is vast potential for accountants and farmers to work more effectively together to develop sustainable farm enterprises. Navigating the financial challenges of COVID-19 and Brexit are just two reasons why each farmer should look to his or her trusted accountant for support and expertise as the farming community strives to meet the critical societal demands for a sustainable food supply.

Dr Michael Hayden FCA is Assistant Professor of Accounting at Maynooth University.