Partly Cloudy

Partly Cloudy

max temp: 16°C

min temp: 9°C

ESTD 1874 Search

NFU Comment: Matt Swain on how ‘soft’ skills can help a farm business survive

11:34 24 August 2014

NFU columnist Matt Swain.

NFU columnist Matt Swain.

When I lived “up north” there was an expression “gone soft”, and it was certainly not a compliment.


Boys would do anything to avoid such an accusation, as it struck right at the core of what we perceived manliness to be.

Working on farms from an early age re-enforced my notions of such; the ability to move heavy objects, work long hours and not show weakness were all held to be virtues.

Conversely, the ability to build relationships or to cope with feelings was not on the radar and, therefore, at best, our skills in this area lay dormant. This probably wouldn’t matter to a farming business if all we needed for profitability was to turn in 10 tonnes of wheat or 12,000 litres of milk.

Unfortunately today, due to diversification, we are becoming far more reliant on direct customer contact. I suspect that, for many farmers, the survival of the farm itself relies upon the added value that only customers can bring. But customers are savvy and demand excellent customer service, which relies on the very skills not developed, collectively referred to as, you guessed it, “soft skills”.

In 2003, I went around the world studying these things and found it far harder than I thought. Empathy, sensitivity and tact were words I’d heard my wife use at me (always in the negative) but what did they mean?

The more I learned the more complex it seemed but I stuck with it, if only to understand how Starbucks turned a 30p cup of coffee into a £3 experience. Ten years on and I run courses in these things for farmers who want more of the £3 and less the 30p.

It’s great fun, mainly because I’ve been there − trying to understand why acknowledging a feeling is not the same as admitting there’s a problem, or why customer feedback is always positive, or why failure is important for growth.

I confess that working with this “soft” stuff is equally rewarding because it spills over into farming in general. Succession planning, land disputes and family feuds all have a far better outcome when you understand human needs. I was running a course in Shropshire recently on customer relationships but most of the questions I was asked began with “My wife...” or “My son...”. And when I give presentations to farming groups is not unusual for the questions to go on for hours.

Of course we are farmers and we can’t directly talk about loneliness, uncertainty etc. but we hedge around long enough that we can get some resolution. And then the penny drops that this is precisely what pre-occupies our customer thoughts and feelings and just where Starbucks makes the extra £2.70 − by providing the significance, the variety, the connection and so on.

It’s no surprise that commerce in general is obsessed with human relations since it is seen as the new key to competitive advantage. It has also spawned another industry, coaching, and I spend more and more of my time doing this very thing. It seems a far cry from those early ideas of manliness. In fact it’s fair to say the lad’s gone soft.

: : NFU member Matt Swain farms in north east Essex and is a Nuffield Scholar. To contact him, email



Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other East Anglian Daily Times visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by East Anglian Daily Times staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique East Anglian Daily Times account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

The Golden Boar in Freckenham. Cyclists called 999 after the pub owners refused them tap water.

A tap water argument between pub staff and cyclists broke out in Freckenham after the group asked for a free water bottle fill-up for four.

Myriad by David Rickard and Germano Di Chello will grace the grounds of Snape Maltings

An exciting new contemporary sculpture will be built at Snape Maltings next year to give visitors a different way of looking at the landscape.

Avocet kneeling allowing chicks to find shelter under wing

The RSPB is celebrating a record-breaking year for its emblem bird the avocet across its nature reserves - including one of the Suffolk sites where the species made its famous British comeback almost 70 years ago.

Philip Heathcote.

The funeral of a Suffolk man gunned down in the massacre on a holiday beach in Tunisia is taking place today.

John McKno

A 70-year-old former maths teacher had denied 13 charges alleging he abused five children at Kesgrave Hall and two other schools.

Jack preparing his bake as part of Framlingham's Hitcham's Head Chefs competition.

Treacle tart with custard, black forest cupcakes, oaty chocolate chip cookies and apple crumble are among the dishes that impressed judges at a primary school cooking competition last week.

Colchester High Street bus lane

Motorists in Essex have paid more than £2million in fines for using four bus lanes in the county.

Sudbury silk will now be given special European protection from imitation thanks to laws championed this week by local Suffolk Euro MP Richard Howitt. The Suffolk Euro MP at Vanners Silk Weavers with chairman David Tooth.

It has graced the homes and bodies of celebrities ranging from Michelle Obama to members of the Royal family, but up until now ‘Sudbury silk’ has remained a relatively well-kept secret.

Ipswich Crown Court.

An Ipswich woman whose sex assault allegations led to the discovery a convicted paedophile deported 11 years ago was back in the UK and working with vulnerable teenagers has broken her silence.

Bristol Pier, Shotley is for sale, by auction

A rare opportunity to buy a Victorian pier at auction

Most read

Most commented

Topic pages