By Jenny Armstrong
In a year that marks two decades since the Foot and Mouth crisis, Andrew Robinson, Armstrong Watson’s Head of Agriculture, looks back at how his family said goodbye to their farm after two generations and how his career unfolded following a decision he made at the age of 17. He also shares an insight into his other passions in life.
When Andrew Robinson is not helping his agricultural clients with solutions to their problems, he is either working among a herd of pedigree Luing cows or tending to his prize-winning dahlias - not to mention spending time with his family and enjoying a pint in his local pub (pre-covid).
The 48-year-old, who often shares snippets of both his day job and life on the farm on Twitter using the hastag #farmingaccountant, has a passion for the industry like no other. Born and bred on a large hill farm in a corner of north-east Cumbria, farming is in Andrew’s blood. During World War Two, his grandfather took on the tenancy of the 1,350-acre Askerton Castle Farm, seven miles north of Brampton, which was later taken over by his dad Ian.
As a child, Andrew and his younger sister Gillian had the freedom to explore. “It was fantastic, you just had this giant playground. You could either be playing on it or helping dad as you grew up,” says Andrew. “You experience so many practical things growing up on a farm. Even if you aren’t going to be a farmer, you still learn how to mend things and make things.”
Andrew’s parents Ian and June, who now live in Brampton, farmed until Foot and Mouth devastated the industry in 2001. Having worked on the land at Askerton Castle for two generations, it was a bitter end, particularly for Ian who, like many farmers, was robbed of the opportunity to sell his life’s work.
With the outbreak linked to a farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, near Hexham, where Andrew is based, he stopped his usual routine of going home to Cumbria to help for fear of spreading the highly infectious disease. Sadly, his caution was to no avail as Foot and Mouth hit his family farm on 15 April 2001.
“It’s one of those dates that stays with you for life,” says Andrew. “It was a line in the sand. It was either restart and restock, to put another 10 years ahead of you, or retire, so dad took the decision to retire.
“The hardest bit for all of us, but especially my dad, was that he’d probably always envisaged retiring and having a farm sale to disperse his Swaledale sheep and the cattle that were all quality stock. He definitely didn’t envisage them going away in a wagon after being slaughtered on the farm. It was the emotional bit around that that was hard.
“At work, I could empathise with clients because we had all the same worries at home, and we got it. We all were on the same wavelength. It was grim but it was what it was. It was rewarding being able to help them in a tough situation, but I would far rather have been helping them in a positive situation.”
After Foot and Mouth, Andrew got to know Geoff Roddam, a beef farmer based near Hadrian’s Wall. He spent his first summer there in 2002 and has returned every Saturday and many other days since (unless he’s out of the country or attending a family occasion).
Geoff’s farm quickly became a second home and Andrew can come and go as he pleases. He says: “I consider him a bit like the big brother I never had. I’ve worked for and helped him for 19 years now and I just love it.”
In 2016, Andrew was inspired to buy some cattle of his own. His two pedigree Luing heifers are now a herd of 32 and are mixed among Geoff’s stock. The pair have a mutual agreement with Geoff looking after them during the week and Andrew helping on evenings and weekends.
“I spend many of my holidays up there working. It’s the same industry but it’s the hands-on, practical side, which is just a great relaxation for me. I don’t do sitting still,” he says. “I don’t think I will ever own a farm, but I sometimes have a pipe dream of owning a little bit of land somewhere.”
While he was born into farming, Andrew decided not to make it his life’s work. “I didn’t like sheep enough,” he says. “We had 1,200 or more sheep; they were a big part of the farm, but I didn’t enjoy that part of it. I always have and still love cattle. I was ambitious and impatient. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I probably knew sheep farming wasn’t my long-term career.”
On completing his A levels, he saw a job advert in The Cumberland News with Armstrong Watson. He got a conditional offer of a chartered training position and embarked on a year-long foundation course in Accountancy at Newcastle Polytechnic, before returning to Cumbria to work towards his ACA qualification.
Little did he know, that decision he made at the age of 17, would lead to a successful career with one of the top financial services firms in the country.
“I’ve never regretted it,” he says. “There are odd days where I’d love to be out on the farm, without any hassle, but it was a great decision and has worked absolutely brilliantly for me.
“I had always hoped I might come back into agricultural accounts but over the first four years, I think I worked in every department there was as part of my training, which probably convinced me I wanted to work in agricultural accounts, but gave me a huge, wide-ranging experience which has always been useful.”
He became a Chartered Accountant in 1995 and worked on non-agri businesses before a managerial opportunity came up at Rosehill, specialising in agricultural accounts and he’s done nothing else since.
Andrew moved to Hexham when Armstrong Watson expanded in 1998, buying Brian Clubley’s practice in October of that year. Since then, the number of farming clients across the North East and Yorkshire who’ve turned to Armstrong Watson has dramatically increased and the size of the wider firm in Hexham has grown massively. Following further acquisitions of Brian Cordiner’s practice in 2006 and, most recently, Patricia J Arnold and Co this spring, turnover has increased from £300,000 to £1.8m.
Andrew’s expertise and gravitas of his farming background led to him becoming the sector leader within the firm. As Head of Agriculture, he leads and supports colleagues, and champions his team’s specialism. He still deals with clients every day, looking after the biggest client load of farmers firm-wide. He also has good relationships with national farming publications, including Farmers Weekly.
“I love the industry. I live and breathe farming and agriculture. I like being able to help clients, finding a solution to their problems, and supporting them. There’s no better feeling than that. That’s what we’re here for,” says Andrew.
He explained that while Covid hasn’t largely affected farming, Brexit was a major concern. "The trade deal was a great relief to a lot of farmers, and so they haven’t been greatly affected as yet. What will affect them is all the changes to support payments, the basic payment reducing and changes to the agri-environment scheme. There is a lot of change to come which is where we can help. If there had been no trade deal, initially, it could have been a right mess,” he says.
Aside from accounting and farming, Andrew’s favourite hobby gives him a whole different guise.
Growing dahlias is a passion he inherited from his maternal grandfather. He helped in the garden from the age of three and first got sight of dahlias in his grandfather’s decorative flowerbed. In 1990 he attended Gateshead Garden Festival with his mum June and was inspired to start growing his own.
“It became an obsession,” he said. “If I’m not farming, I’m in the greenhouses or down at the allotments. It’s the attention to detail, growing lots of them and putting huge amounts of time into them, there’s no mysterious science.”
Every year he takes the cream of his crop to shows across the country and in 2018 he was crowned the National Dahlia Society Individual Champion at the RHS Garden Wisley.
Andrew loves anything outdoors but most of all enjoys time spent with his family. He met his wife Alison when she worked in Armstrong Watson’s Wigton office, while he was based in Carlisle. They married in 1999 and when they moved to Hexham Alison changed jobs. They went on to have two daughters, Kate, 15, and Beth, 12.
He says: “I’m farming, dahlias and family. If I didn’t have such a supportive family, I couldn’t do any of it. I’m incredibly lucky. Alison is a farmer’s daughter. She understands my passion for farming and wanting to get up and disappear early on a Saturday morning in my wellies.”
While Foot and Mouth is 20 years behind us, Andrew says the future of farming will be shaped by how successfully some farm businesses manage to diversify, and for others, their success will lie in employing practices to make their farms more sustainable and efficient, whilst continuing to produce quality food products for the UK market.