Counting pigs and milking cows may have disappeared from Vicky Anderson’s farming artillery, but she and her team call the shots on a good deal more in today’s world of what used to be classed purely as the agricultural secretary, who was traditionally brought in to handle the ever-increasing mountain of office work on the farm.
Such has been the rise of the now highly professional and all-encompassing business services sector that, what used to be regarded as the woman (it was invariably a woman) brought in to sort the mess has been replaced by a woman (it still is a sector dominated by women) who not only clears the decks, but is also all hands on deck in bringing everything from company structure, office discipline, budgeting, cashflow, forecasting and training services to the farm business.
In October Vicky’s team of six ladies were among the nominees in two categories of the Yorkshire Post Rural Awards – Professional Services to the Community and Rural Business of the Year.
"There is such a diversity in farming now that you cannot simply say farming is doing well or that it isn’t because there are so many different types of farming and other newer businesses attached to form a farm’s income. There’s no set thing," says Vicky.
"I feel that we as a business and our farming clients, of which we work for over 160 from North Northumberland to South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and across to Cumbria, all have to be prepared. We have to look forward. In five years’ time there will be no farm subsidies.
"Farmers and farm businesses really need to be considering that and that’s where we can help them by preparing such as cashflow projections, help by offering our assistance regarding how their business growth plans may work. I’m a ‘proper preparation prevents poor performance’ person.
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"We will speak to the bank on behalf of our clients if that’s what they want us to do. We will go through figures, projections and look at whether there are things that can be done on the farm to mitigate if figures don’t look as though they are stacking up.
"As an industry farming, farmers and everyone involved can adapt to change and we are quite good at it. It is looking as though the next few years could be really difficult for hill farmers at the moment so we and others have got to lobby for them throughout the agricultural world to make sure somewhere along the line they are not forgotten about."
Vicky comes from the village of Over Dinsdale in North Yorkshire. Her business today is situated at her home on Beech Hill Farm near Ellerbeck where she lives with her husband, between Osmotherley and Northallerton. The Vicky Anderson office and training room is housed in a converted milking parlour.
"I lived next to a farm and I’ve spent all my life with the farming community whether with horses and ponies, attending agricultural college at Riseholme in Lincolnshire, being a willing member of the young farmers organisation and decided while still in my teens that I wanted to be an agricultural secretary.
"After completing my studies at Riseholme I took my first job as estate secretary with Lady Bell at Arncliffe Farms.
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"That’s where I undertook everything from wages to accounts and even counting the pigs. I then worked for an accountancy firm in Darlington for a very short while, soon recognising that the profession itself wasn’t for me.
"I’ve never been one for being sat in an office all day just crunching numbers. I prefer to be with clients speaking and working with them. I set up on my own picking up work by applying for part-time farm secretarial jobs. I would always tell whoever took me on that I would probably be going to other clients as well.
"That’s how it developed and I took on other clients such as a countryside store in Gainford and notably Sentry Farming.
"A lot of what we do today, thirty years on from when I started, isn’t necessarily just about the farm’s books. It’s also about offering them all the business support they need.
"We offer far more than purely your regular farm secretarial services and working out the VAT.
"What I always wanted was to be able to offer a complete service taking over the farm office in its entirety including everything from cattle passports to HR and the payroll. We now look after a wide spectrum of clients that range from huge potato stores, pig herds and milk production to the smaller family farm business in the dales."
Where Vicky and her team stand out is in understanding the farming businesses they serve.
"I’ve known what it is like to lose all your stock. We lost our sheep and cattle to foot and mouth disease restrictions. I know how that can affect farmers. One of my team was recently concerned about one of our farmers. We quickly worked out he must be under pressure. Often reactions that are out of the normal are simply a cry for help."
While Vicky’s business has largely grown on the back of what a typical agricultural secretary would have offered 30 years ago, looking after the books, her range of services now extends not just to the all-encompassing business services but also training services.
"I fell into it by pure fluke," says Vicky. "It was in the days of the agricultural training board. In this area we had someone giving up and one of my clients said ‘you could do that you know’ so I did.
"Since I took it on we have secured additional funding for training courses in everything from chainsaws to telehandlers and pesticides. It is now another important facet of our business.
"The one business area where I know many farmers need to be better equipped is in the digital world, basic skills of working with an Excel spreadsheet, accessing their accounts easily, but we’re working on it."