Alex was brought up on a County Down mixed farm where he developed a love of farming. He was employed by DARD for 37 years in a range of roles. His career started as an Agricultural Adviser in Co Armagh and progressed to Senior Adviser in Co Fermanagh. While here he was also the Farm Director and led the adult education programmes at Enniskillen College of Agriculture. Alex was then part of the Rural Enterprise team who helped to deliver the various Rural Development Programmes to the farming communities.
In retiring from the department Alex’s interests, after his family, include Fermanagh Grassland Club, Ulster Grassland Society, Enniskillen Rugby Club and a number of voluntary organisations, some of which help to highlight mental health issues.
Why did you decide to get involved with Rural Support & what does your role as a mentor entail?
‘The last Rural Development Programme had a project called Farm Family Options. I was a mentor to farm families who wanted to consider their unique situation and review future options for the family and the farm business. Each farm family was different, from education and training, to enterprises of differing profitability and longer term inheritance issues. The programme finished and Rural Support was launching its Financial Mentoring Programme which expanded the work into farm finance. This is an area in which I have a particular interest to assist the farming community.’
What sort of situations have you encountered during your time as a mentor so far? What are the main issues and barriers facing your clients?
‘No two farms are the same – age of farmer, married or single, sons /daughters and their ages. Is there on farm/off farm employment, is their spouse working on or off the farm? Another major factor is the size of the farm, scale of enterprises, their profitability and of course succession planning. When combined all together the mental health and wellbeing of the farmer is a vital cog in the business. The main issues are communication between family members and having up to date information available to make management decisions.’
‘Farming is no longer a tradition but a business.’
For anyone considering contacting Rural Support to avail of mentoring can you tell me about the mentoring process and what is involved?
‘To avail of support the farmer or family member simply makes a telephone call to the Rural Support helpline. Then the farmer will be assigned to a mentor, who in turn will contact the farmer and make an appointment. Your mentor is really a listener to your situation. We will look at the main issues and the possible options or solutions which may be available. The situation very rarely will have arisen overnight and will be an opportunity to provide a timeline of activities, actions and incidents which, when combined have brought the farmer to the present position.’
‘All contact is confidential and the support provided by the mentor is free of charge.’
How do you feel the mentoring process is helping individuals?
‘The mentoring process is an opportunity for the farmer and family members for the first time to talk about the business or look at particular issues or share problems and thoughts with someone who has no vested interest in the business. The mentor is impartial, listens and has some Agricultural industry experience. The mentor looks beyond the farm gate and brings forward thoughts and ideas which may offer a way forward.’
What would you say to someone who is experiencing farm finance or debt worries?
‘Farm finance worries will have a history behind them. They may arise from different finance sources such as banks for loans and overdrafts, credit companies, machinery hire purchase and farm suppliers. The whole story needs to be on the table for discussion. Seek help as soon as possible. The flow of cash needs to be managed and help is available through banks, accountants, consultants, solicitors, and agencies such as Citizens Advice. Communication again can be a problem.’
What issues do you think farming families will face in the future? What can be done to minimise financial problems?
‘There are many issues to be faced in the future. In farming a business approach is needed. What is the present financial position, money in, money out? Where is the money coming from and where is it going? In each enterprise how efficient is your cost of production and what systems suit your land? Financial returns need to be investigated before money is spent.’
‘The market for our products is no longer at the farm gate, but is all over the world and it is changing fast. Big challenges lie ahead. We need to be prepared for these changes.’
‘Looking forward, do we require the Management of Change or do we have a Change in Management?’
Sincere thanks to Alex Cromie for this interview.
If you or someone you know could benefit from talking with someone from Rural Support or if you would like to avail of the financial mentoring currently being offered please contact Rural Support’s helpline (0800 138 1678, 9am-9pm, Monday to Friday). All calls are confidential.