Challenges for those working in the agriculture sector

Nicola Neilson, partner and head of agricultural property at Jacksons Law Firm, with post-lockdown advice for businesses in farming and food production…

The last few months have been difficult for everyone. The uncertainty of lockdown and the ever-changing Government guidance about what can and cannot be done has not been easy. But through all of this those designated as ‘key workers’ have had to continue in their day to day roles as far as they possibly could.

One key group are those working in agriculture and food production. For weeks, there were shortages of some foods in the supermarkets. Thankfully, things have vastly improved compared to the situation we found ourselves in during March and April.

In order to ensure that we all had food on the table, those working in agriculture had to adapt and have continued working throughout the lockdown.

Unlike other key worker groups, it is common for those in farming to work with other members of their family, and so the impact of one family member catching the coronavirus could have been devastating to their businesses. With all members of the family self-isolating there may have been no-one left to carry out farming operations.

Whilst no-one could have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic, farming often faces other challenges. Before the pandemic, there were major concerns arising from Brexit; a potential shortage of workers coming from Europe to pick fruit and vegetables, the threat from imports which are subject to lower welfare standards than are imposed on our own farmers, the crops which were planted late or not at all due to the flooding that we saw over the winter. The list could go on.

Even when we are not adapting to life during a global pandemic there will always be difficulties for farmers to overcome. But what, can be done to try to safeguard your position and that of your farming business?

Jacksons have been working with the National Farmers Union (NFU) for over 30 years and we are one of only 16 firms in the country to have been appointed to the NFU Legal Panel. We have been working with the NFU and other panel firms to promote to farming families the benefits of conducting a review of their circumstances.

The Farm Resilience Plan is a ‘legal health check’ for the farming family and their business. It is an opportunity for the family to have experts look at their current position and to highlight any areas where they may wish to consider taking action to better protect themselves. By asking the family to complete a questionnaire about all aspects of their personal and business affairs we can assess their replies and identify any areas of potential concern: perhaps they don’t have Wills or a partnership agreement; they may have employees but no formal contracts; or it might be that the title to the farm is not registered and there is a potential risk from property fraud.

The current pandemic has highlighted the need to be prepared on a practical level, but it is important to be prepared from a legal perspective too. What if a family member had contracted coronavirus and the whole family had to shield for two weeks? Are there employees who could continue running operations in the meantime? If not, what would the impact be? What if the worst happened? What would happen to any partnership share of the deceased? Will there be an Inheritance Tax liability which might have been delayed or minimised if there had been some planning?

Following the review of the replies provided on the questionnaire a report is sent to the family with recommendations of next steps that they should consider in order to better protect their current position. The review and report are conducted free of charge and on a no obligation basis.

The family can then make an informed decision as to whether they wish to follow up any of the recommendations made. Whether that requires a simple Will to be drawn up or several more complex documents will very much depend upon each family’s circumstances.

NFU members who subscribe to the Legal Assistance Scheme can currently apply for financial assistance towards up to six sets of instructions generated as a result of the Farm Resilience Plan review, which is a great opportunity to get specialist advice at a fraction of the usual cost.

Of course, the benefits of the Farm Resilience Plan are not limited to NFU members and all farming families (or for that matter families who work together in other industries) should consider whether their legal affairs are in order. Even if there is a full set of legal documents in place it is worth checking that they are up to date and that they apply to the family’s current circumstances. It is important to keep the family’s affairs under constant review. The passing of time may require existing arrangements to be updated and it shouldn’t be assumed that work done years before will still achieve the family’s objectives.

The key is to act. A review of a family’s affairs may simply highlight that they have taken all the right precautions, but where that isn’t the case it gives an opportunity to ‘get your house in order’.

There will always be things that can’t be foreseen or are out of your control, but don’t put off dealing with things which are within your power.

Nicola Neilson
Partner and head of agricultural property, Jacksons Law Firm