After growing up on his family farm, Robert Venner chose to change career and followed his uncle’s footsteps to become an auctioneer at the South West’s largest auction market, Sedgemoor. Now a partner with Greenslade Taylor Hunt, Robert is a member of the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association and currently the Chair of Meat South West. In April this year, Robert joined the AHDB Beef & Lamb board as the only auctioneer and is keen to ensure his experiences impact the levy board’s strategy going forward.
You’re from a farming background, how did you become an auctioneer?
My parents were beef and sheep farmers, but as the holding is only 180 acres, it was going to struggle to produce enough income for two families. I had two uncles who were auctioneers at Taunton and Exeter markets and I used to go to market as a child with my dad when he was selling stock. I really enjoyed the buzz of the market and thought I’d train to become an auctioneer.
2. Sedgemoor market is the largest in the South West, what is the current market place looking like?
At Sedgemoor, we are very fortunate. We have a fantastic location at the gateway to the South West and right on J24 of the M5. This allows vendors to attend from the tip of Cornwall, and even areas like Carmarthenshire and West Sussex relatively easily. It also means we attract buyers from all over the country, which is so important for trade. We operate on the right days as well, Saturday for store stock and Monday for prime stock. Along with a good team of auctioneers, clerks and drovers, we look to provide the best service we can.
Consequently, throughput has grown by near 30% since we moved from Taunton and Highbridge markets in 2008.
3. As an auctioneer, what challenges do you face?
The most important role of an auctioneer is to ensure all transactions go through smoothly. As auctioneers, we guarantee payment and it is that guarantee that keeps this industry trading.
Apart from that, the six-day standstill rule and Bovine TB are major restrictions for us. I would like the six-day rule imposed upon the animal and farmers to have an in and out isolation unit. This would allow prime cattle and barreners to be sold at live weight when purchasers have bought stores or milkers in the same week. Bovine TB is the Achilles heel of livestock farming and it is good that Government policy is now addressing this long-ignored issue.
But I think one of the main challenges that we face is that we need our farmers to be getting their stock to hit specification. I do feel that farmers have made great improvements since area payments came into effect, as market price became more important. However, we still see some prime cattle which are too fat, barren cows which are not farm assured or lambs which are too light. The beauty of liveweight markets is that there is a buyer for everything, but some stock would make more for producers if they were hitting spec.
4. With Brexit around the corner, what challenges and opportunities do you think it will bring?
It will all depend on the deal we achieve with the EU. Encouraging noises are coming from Michael Gove and Phillip Hammond, but a deal still has to be struck. A hard Brexit which results in us following WTO trade rules will be disastrous for our sheep industry. Thirty per cent of lambs are exported to Europe and we have growing markets in the Netherlands and Germany in particular. If we are faced with 70 per cent tariffs on our lamb sales to Europe, trade will be very difficult. There are other markets around the world, but these won’t take anywhere near the volume of lamb we sell into Europe and are unlikely to do so for some while.
As farmers, we are all vulnerable post Brexit to trade deals with other agricultural nations around the world. I am pleased that Michael Gove, in his speech at the WWF conference, spoke of “Human Ecology” in terms of ongoing agricultural support. To me that means supporting family farms. I would like to see some sort of area payment going forward based around grass production. This would secure the marginal farms which can do nothing other than keep livestock and ensure families maintain the rural way of life.
5. You’re the only market auctioneer on the AHDB Beef & Lamb Board, what are you hoping to be able to bring to the levy board?
I am delighted to join the AHDB Beef & Lamb Board and as an auctioneer, my concerns are all about trade. When farmers pay their levy they want to see that money goes towards marketing their stock, be it for the home market or export.
As an auctioneer and farming in partnership with my mother, I see both sides of the coin. I see the challenges farmers face producing stock in variable weather, combating increasing disease challenges and of course the problem that no two animals are identical. I also meet butchers and abattoir owners and gain an understanding of their market requirements and issues. It is this balanced view that I hope will help the Board in future decisions. If I can also promote liveweight markets to the wider industry, I will also be serving my fellow auctioneers and the farming community well.
6. How do you think AHDB Beef & Lamb can assist in creating a sustainable industry?
AHDB has a vital role going forward, informing Government over Brexit-related issues and ensuring beef and lamb producers have viable markets for their stock. If we don’t have acceptable trading arrangements post Brexit and export markets to sell our stock into, the lamb industry in particular is going to face massive challenges.
As beef and lamb producers we are an exporting industry. The level of the Pound to the Euro has massively moved in our favour, but if we have to rely on the home market and as yet fairly undeveloped non-European markets, price and therefore income will be seriously affected. With any significant loss of income, sustainability comes into question.