British arable farmer Tristan Ashby, 29, didn’t think he’d ever return to the family farm in Northamptonshire, England. He’d not felt there was opportunity in the business while growing up and had moved to Perth, Australia to pursue a finance career. But his father, Charles, had big expansion plans. With UK land prices so high, he spotted an ad for much cheaper land in Romania and decided to visit the eastern European country to find out more.
After several years, he found a 600ha block in Craiova, in the south of the country, west of Bucharest. He sold 60ha of his English farm, took a risk and bought it.
The Romanian business grew rapidly and Charles needed someone to manage the UK operation in his absence. Suddenly, the exciting, meaningful and challenging role that Tristan never thought he would find in farming, appeared. He packed his bags and went home.
Creating a challenging role
“[The expansion] has allowed me to come back to the business,” says Tristan. “I didn’t think I’d come back - I didn’t want to work as a tractor driver and wait for my old man to retire. At 24 years old I was running [the operation] from the UK with a phone call a day to Dad in Romania. The chance to run a business with total autonomy at such a young age, was great.”
It has all rested on Charles’ willingness to pass on responsibility, says Tristan. “In any other industry, you get responsibility early on and then you progress - farming isn’t always like that.”
The operation now
Tristan has been working on the farm for five or six years now, and Charles moved out to Romania permanently five years ago.
They now manage 10 farms across both countries, totaling 7,300ha in Romania and 1,200ha in the UK.
They employ more than 60 people full-time and 20 part-time and grow combinable crops including oil seed rape, wheat, soya and maize. They also produce sunflowers.
Logistically, it works surprising well, says Tristan. Harvests don’t always overlap and it only takes half a day to travel between the two countries.
There are challenges however: “The hardest thing is running a corporate farm in Romania,” says Tristan. “For example, there was only one John Deere dealership in the whole country when we started, so there was a lack of competition. This makes is hard to negotiate prices.”
The business also has 12,000 landlords because land ownership in Romania is divided between many people, commonly into plots of around 1ha.
Handing over the reins
Older farmers need to pass on responsibility to the next generation so they can develop as they would in any other industry or career, says Tristan.
“It’s all about opportunity. Young people need to see there is light at the end of the tunnel and that they are not going to be a tractor driver for 20 to 30 years until their parents retire,” he says.
Now Tristan and Charles have their eyes on a succession plan for the Romanian business as Charles approaches retirement. They will work towards managing the two operations as one, before the whole thing is passed over to Tristan.
“I wouldn’t have reached the level of personal and business development I’ve got now if I’d stayed in my old job,” concludes Tristan.