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Farms must be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster, says rural business leader

PUBLISHED: 16:41 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:41 11 October 2019

Evolving farm businesses must be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster, says CLA East director Ben Underwood. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images

Evolving farm businesses must be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster, says CLA East director Ben Underwood. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images

PA Archive/PA Images

During a period of unprecedented change, farm businesses must evolve to stay ahead of the curve says BEN UNDERWOOD, East regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA East).

Country Land and Business Association’s eastern regional director Ben Underwood.Country Land and Business Association’s eastern regional director Ben Underwood.

In 2000, the young founder of a fledgling tech company proposed a partnership to the board of film rental giant Blockbuster.

His idea was for his start-up business to run Blockbuster's online brand, selling film and TV rentals via the internet in real time. The young entrepreneur was laughed out of the room.

His business was called Netflix - now worth £130bn. Blockbuster ceased trading in 2013.

The lesson is clear. Whatever fortunes we enjoy today will not exist tomorrow unless we find ways to change, collaborate and strive for the next big thing.

Innovation, of course, is not necessary for every business. It's entirely possible to find your niche and excel at it for a long period of time. But for many it is a fundamental part of any successful business model. It's why we invest in new technology, convert old stables into business units, modernise old cottages for holiday lets, explore new opportunities in energy production, discover new crops to grow and different animals to rear.

Sometimes change is driven by market forces, other times it is forced upon us by political circumstance. At this extraordinary period in history - where Brexit, climate change and a global economic downturn have all come at once - perhaps both are in play.

It is why our forthcoming Rural Business Conference entitled "Unlocking Tomorrow's Markets" could not be more timely. The event takes place in London on 28 November and there are still tickets available.

Defra's secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, will address the event - but so too will experts in international trade, consumer trends, financial services and diversification. It will be a day for us all to give and receive advice, explore best practice and consider new ideas, network with friends and colleagues and look forward with a degree of confidence and ambition.

It is vital we do so. While many business groups such as ourselves have warned of the negative impacts of the current political maelstrom, we must never succumb to miserabilism. Whatever happens in the months ahead, the sun will still rise each morning and with it will come new business prospects to explore and a fresh crop of dynamic young land managers eager to prosper.

It is, at very least, comforting that the government is doing more to prepare for the UK's departure from the European Union. It has released a number of "process maps" describing clearly what farmers need to do to aid their own preparations, and have developed a new e-alerts system to provide information directly. You can find out more about these initiatives on the CLA website.

This work will help, but it is designed simply to get us through the next few months rather than expand our existing offer. It is for us as a community to explore and build a successful future. For all our traditions, we must be more like Netflix and less like Blockbuster.

In other news, this will be my last column for these pages as I am soon to move to the new role of programme director for the CLA based in London. The new regional director for the CLA in the east of England will be Cath Crowther.

Cath is currently a partner at property consultancy firm Bidwells and is a qualified chartered surveyor and a fellow of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers. She grew up on an arable and sheep farm in South Wales and moved to Cambridgeshire in 2009, to join Bidwells.

Her focus over the last few years has been on rural development, diversification projects and renewable energy, identifying and implementing alternative uses to generate new income streams and capital value.

It has been a pleasure to be have involved with rural industries in the east of England - a region that has some of the most forward thinking and innovative landowners, farmers and rural businesses in the country.

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