Geoff Birchnell - Growing financial literacy

Geoff Birchnell - Growing financial literacy

Geoff Birchnell is equipping agriculture’s next generation with the financial tools to enable them to thrive.

A career on the farm requires the mastery of many practical skills and these are usually the first to be learnt. Farm kids can often ride a horse as they start to walk. Educational courses teach others to ride a motorbike and strain a fence. Animal husbandry and mechanical skills come quickly. But to thrive in a farming enterprise, as in any business, a sound understanding of the financial world is imperative and Geoff Birchnell is determined to grow the financial literacy of agriculture’s youth.

Geoff describes himself as a first-generation farmer as his family moved from urban Newcastle to a property near Quirindi, New South Wales when he was nine. On Geoff’s urgings the family established the Avignon Hereford Stud and a career in agriculture was triggered. With a love of cattle realised Geoff was selected as a Young Farming Champion with Art4Agriculture’s signature professional development program, where he learnt the skills needed to add momentum to his blossoming agricultural career.

Geoff completed a Bachelor of Commerce and worked as a chartered accountant for ten years with agribusiness firm Williams Hall Chadwick. It was here, while liaising with agricultural clients, that Geoff came to realise there was an opportunity for young farmers to excel through advanced business acumen. “In 2016 I was selected to help develop a Young Farmer project in conjunction with the NSW State Government and NSW Farmers,” he says. “We conducted a survey, which identified the top three barriers to getting into the business of farming as finance, access to land and business knowledge. We then ran bank-ready workshops across the state in a pilot program. From these workshops we can then expand into business and cash flow management.”

1500 people went through the NSW Young Farmers Business Program in 2016 and it has continued to gain momentum in 2017, so much so that the NSW State Government recently announced a funding package of $6 million over four years to expand the project. Bank ready workshops are now being held across the state for young people wanting to get into, or expand, a farming business. The free workshops give insights to the world of banking and finance and help young people understand what will be required of them as they negotiate an often daunting aspect of business.

Geoff has also been instrumental in developing a software package called Farmecco in conjunction with Longreach grazier and businessman James Walker. Launched in May 2017 the online program allows businesses to assess performance, wealth position and personal goals. “Farmecco is a strategic tool that can provide a holistic understanding and overview of the farm business,” Geoff says. “By using the program the user also gains financial literacy and an increased awareness of the fundamental financial aspects of their business.”

Geoff met James through a company directors course and the pair understand the importance of collaboration and networking; an aspect of business Geoff believes is integral to young farmers starting out. “Young people need a team to call on; a team that understands their business and who can give the right advice,” he says. “That team would include an accountant or advisor and of course the bank. It is important to get the right advice at the start; it’s a waste of time guessing and there is no such thing as a silly question. No accountant is going to expect a young farmer to be all over the complexities of tax law for example.”

“It is also important to understand where they hope to be in 5-10 years and to get financial structures in place in the beginning. That may mean knowing the difference between tax structures such as partnerships, companies and family trusts. It is very empowering for young farmers to have financial literacy, and it allows them to make the most of their time with bankers or accountants who may be charging top dollar per hour.”

Another spoke in the financial literacy wheel is Grow Capital Finance, which Geoff has established in partnership with Williams Hall Chadwick. “Because of my background it was a natural move to combine accounting with the financial arena,” he says. The company provides solutions to financial requirements including property and asset acquisition, livestock funding and investing. “What I am particularly focused on is providing assistance for young farmers to enter the industry and grow their business. Often this will follow succession planning activities where the young farmer is quite quickly finding themselves in unfamiliar territory in a business with which they don’t feel completely comfortable.”

As the NSW Young Farmers Business Program survey showed finance and business knowledge are often perceived as barriers to entering the agricultural industry, and for many young people these barriers can take on nightmare proportions. Through financial advice and education Geoff is determined to allay these fears, making the required knowledge more accessible, and in doing so welcoming a new generation to agriculture. “These days being part of a farming enterprise means not only knowing how to strain a fence but also having the capacity to represent the business at the board room table.”

Image: Geoff Birchnell

This story was first published in Leading Agriculture Magazine – Issue 26.