“I’m looking forward to GROW this year; it excites me to see something that could be the ‘next big thing’ in the industry, challenging the status quo,” says Robert Alston, MD of Silfield Ltd, Board Director at Anglia Farmers and Chair of AF Finance – an agricultural pooled collective investment scheme which provides cash flow management for farmers. On 19 June 2017, he will deliver expert insight on agri-tech investment at the final of Agri-Tech East’s GROW business plan competition.
The GROW final will feature pitches from early-stage agri-entrepreneurs looking for their first break into the industry. In addition to the judging panel, the audience of seasoned investors, potential partners, farmers and advisers will also have an opportunity to vote for the winner.
Family farming business ‘Silfield Ltd’ is based south of Norwich. Silfield produces wheat, barley, oilseed rape, peas and potatoes across 1700 acres. Silfield also has a Red Poll beef herd and has diversified into property management.
Experience in the City
“I worked in the City for 18 years, before coming home to the family business about three years ago,” says Rob. “It was good fun working in the City, but there was a lot of travelling involved. You come to a point where you say, am I going to do this for the rest of my career?
“We had a young family – two boys at the time – and we had the opportunity to bring them up on a farm in Norfolk, rather than in London. It was a no-brainer in that respect, for the quality of life for the family.”
Rob built up years of experience in corporate finance at the likes of Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan and NatWest before he managed the family farm ‘Silfield Ltd’ full-time. He is now a Board Director at Anglia Farmers and also the Chair of AF Finance, an agricultural pooled collective investment scheme.
With the final of the GROW business plan competition upcoming, Rob is set to present an investor’s point of view to proceedings.
“I began work as a Trainee at NatWest, after graduating from the University of Reading,” says Rob. “NatWest had a two-year graduate scheme, with four six-month placements in business. So you experienced all the different areas and I undertook six months in the Agricultural Office.
Rob then worked at the Head Office in the Treasury Department and Global Markets, before moving into transaction banking. JP Morgan soon offered Rob an opportunity, resulting in a move to their Treasury team. Over eight years he worked his way up to Vice President of Treasury Services, before moving on to a Director position in Private Banking at UBS and then Director of Capital Markets and Treasury Solutions at Deutsche Bank.
Issues in agri-tech investment
Well acquainted with farming, Rob has a strong understanding of the issues in agri-tech investment.
He says: “There is a lot of interest and a huge wall of money looking for investment. Agri-tech has a strong future, with the demand for resources that are finite on the planet.
“However, there are a few issues. Everyone understands agri-tech is essential, but no one quite knows where to put their money – it’s such a broad topic. Some of the technologies out there are still unproven and there is too much that is unknown at this stage.
“It might be to increase water efficiency, and everyone goes ‘yes, yes that makes sense’, but there needs to be a strong business model to attract investment.”
What does Rob look for in an investment?
“I am encouraged by people who really understand the industry, can get on with it and make it happen,” says Rob. “Often business plans and markets change, so have you got the right people that can make it work?
“You have to be able to adapt quickly in this market, and get something out there and prove it. It must be a problem that is there for farmers now – not one that is only becoming a problem, which we might see further down the line.”
Rob believes that the sector could benefit from further investment in crop development, to make arable farming more efficient. Whether this is through GM or improved breeding in the genetic development of crops, competition could be increased without losing quality.
“We are going to need more food, but we’ve got to get the costs down and keep food as cheap as it possibly can be,” says Rob. “I think that’s what investors are looking for, and ways to produce crops without using so much chemicals, time and energy.”
The final of GROW 2017 will take place at Agrii’s Throws Farm Technology Centre, Stebbing. To register, please click here.