Next generation driving changes on family farm

23 June 2022

Poultry We Are Welsh Farming
Rob Powell on-farm with his family

Farming is a job like no other as many of the business decisions taken by a farmer today are done so with succession and the next generation in mind.

For Rob and Tracy Powell that has meant shedding some enterprises and introducing new ones – the beef store cattle have gone and the income gap filled by a new 100,000-bird broiler unit.

“Everything we are doing now we are doing for the next generation, it is not about us anymore,” says Rob.

The next generation

Waiting in the wings at Blaenbwch, the upland holding near Builth Wells farmed by the Powell family since 1962, are 16-year-old Alun and his eight-year-old brother, Aron.

Like his father before him, all Alun has ever wanted to do is farm – in September he will study agricultural engineering at Llysfasi College for two years before coming home to the farm.

Rob Blaenbwch _85085

“I always wanted to farm too, school isn’t everything,” says Rob, who joined his father and uncle, Glyn and Cyril, on the farm when he was 16.

The family expanded the business in 1967 when they bought 120 acres adjoining Blaenbwch to increase the acreage farmed to 270.

That expansion continued 12 years later when they purchased Gilfach Farm in Llanddeusant, and in 2001 when they bought another 60 acres adjoining Blaenbwch.

Major business decision

Another major business decision followed in 2008 when the farm at Llanddeusant was sold to fund the purchase of Rhosferig and Bryndynod, two holdings closer to the home farm.

The Powells are now farming 700 acres, land that rises to 1,250 feet at its highest point.

Rob was just 35 when his father died and he and his uncle continued to farm together until three years ago when Cyril passed away at the age of 90.

Rob Blaenbwch - poultry_85088

It’s a family business in more than name - everyone plays a role with Tracy also working off-farm as programme officer at the Royal Welsh Agriculture Society. The family are helped by Rob’s nephew, Gareth, and Mark Jones, who has worked for them for many years.

“Good staff are key to growing the business,” says Rob.

The land once supported 200 beef store cattle, but these have now been superseded by broilers and greater numbers of ewes.

Easier management

“You have got to do what you do best, it is hard running cattle here because you have to bring everything in for the winter and that is expensive and labour intensive,” says Rob.

“Since the cattle have gone it has made everything much easier to manage.”

Ewe numbers have expanded; the flock is now made up of 1,300 Epynt Hardy Speckle Face, 700 Welsh Mountains and 1,000 Aberfield-crosses.

“The Epynt Hardy is a good hardy ewe, local to the area, and we use it to breed hardy Aberfield cross ewes”, Rob explains.

Rob Blaenbwch - Aron_85089

Key to flock profitability is low-cost production from grazed grass with 60 acres of swedes, turnips and fodder beet grown as winter fodder.

85% of ewes lamb outdoors from 20th March. Lamb sales are mostly through Builth Wells market.

“The mart is very important, not just for trade but for sharing a laugh and a bacon roll with fellow farmers,” says Rob. “As farmers we don’t see many people, it is important to have that contact.”

Huge blow

It was a huge blow to the farming community and the town when the market closed in March 2020, but local farmers refused to let that situation endure.

“I put a couple of posts on Facebook about the market closing and how devastating that was for the local area and it was great to see all the farmers come together to demonstrate in the market car park,” Rob recalls.

Within weeks, auctioneer Sunderlands stepped in and took over the site, now trading as Builth Wells Market Auctioneers.

“The market has gone from strength to strength, they have invested in the site by upgrading all the pens,” says Rob.

Rob Blaenbwch sheep_85086

"If anything good came out of Covid-19 it was that, the mart is buzzing.”

An important outlet for his lambs is the ethnic market as many of his crossbred lambs supply that sector. “The lambs are cheap to produce, mainly off grass with a little bit of creep, and that allows us to keep more ewes. It suits our system.”

What the UK’s trade deals with Australia and New Zealand will mean for UK sheep producers like the Powells is a source of concern.

Very disappointing

Rob describes the deals as ‘very disappointing’.

“The Prime Minister and his team made lots of promises but kept none in my opinion,” he suggests.

“You have got to look after your own, Australia and New Zealand got everything and we got nothing.

“Our governments are all for planting trees here while importing food from nations that are cutting down trees to produce that food. It is an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policy, wanting us to be greener than green while buying

from anywhere.”

He is not hopeful that future trade deals will be any different. “We need some wins in the next round of negotiations but once the precedent has been set it is hard to row back from that.”

Broiler unit

In 2020 the Powells diversified into broiler production, producing 7.5 crops of 100,000 chickens a year.

“We were looking to future proof the business for our two sons, to help keep the two boys on the farm. It was a really positive business decision,” Rob says.

The broilers arrive as day-old chickens and are sold at 37 days to Maelor Foods at Wrexham.

The poultry unit has a 100kW solar array on its roof which has allowed the business to halve its energy costs, but it can only export up to 40% because the electricity infrastructure in the locality doesn’t allow for more.

Upgrading the power network

Rob says the government is failing farmers and other businesses by not upgrading the power network in regions that need it.

“They tell farmers that they need to diversify but they keep putting block walls in front of what we want to do.

“It is all very well sitting in Cardiff and having ideas, but the infrastructure isn’t there. We could have lots of hydro systems in Wales.

“I want to be green but the government is letting us down on that ambition. They have got to have a much bigger picture than just planting trees, they should be buying roof space for solar panels not buying farms.”

The business has a Glastir agreement but long before environmental schemes existed Rob’s father was planting trees and creating wildlife ponds.

Farming for the environment

“He was farming for the environment long before it became a buzzword in Cardiff,” says Rob.

“I would like to think that Dad’s good work has been continued on the farm by planting double hedgerows and individual trees.”

Rob is worried that the new Sustainable Farming Scheme will be too heavily weighted towards the environment with nothing it in to support production-based systems.

“The world is growing and we are in a good place to feed it, if we plant Wales with trees we won’t be able to do that.”

In his role as Vice County Chairman for NFU Cymru in Brecon & Radnor, he will be supporting the ambition of the Chair, Sharon Hammond, to grow NFU membership, in particular by encouraging the younger generation to get involved and to attend meetings.

Next generation group

Sian Davies, an NFU Cymru Student and Young Farmer Ambassador, has already set up a Next Generation Group in the county.

“It is always seen as ‘Dad’s job’ to go to meetings, but we need the younger generation there, it is their future, they need to be coming up with ideas for the future direction of NFU Cymru.”

Farming is an industry that has served Rob well and he loves the job as much today as he did on the day he left school. “It is the best office view in the world and the most rewarding thing is that Alun is coming home now that he is 16, to help us take the business forward.”

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