THIS year marks 85 years of one of the most authoritative annual financial analyses of farmers in Scotland – the Scottish Farm Business Survey.

As much as farmers and landowners sometimes don’t like to admit it, economics and data are a massive part of a farming business, and the SFBS is an integral part of this.

The SFBS, which is run by SAC Consulting, actually started in response to the Great Depression, when food security was a major issue and the country needed to look at economic information. The original survey had 550 participants, but numbers have fallen slightly over the years.

“This is down to many factors," explained survey project manager, Sascha Grierson. “For one, farms are bigger now. These days, we get 400 and 450 participants each year, which is great.”

Widely recognised as one of the key data sources for important national statistics about the financial position of farms, the survey has value for all Scottish agriculture. Alongside these shared benefits, there are also major advantages for those who provide data for use in the SFBS. As the political and economic circumstances of the time test all those in agriculture, having a robust and detailed analysis of your business if of huge value.

If you take part in the Survey, you are allocated to one of 15 farm business analysts, many of whom are vastly experienced in analysing farm accounts. One of these analysts, Elaine Agnew, has been working for the FBS since 1979, and is as passionate about the project now as she was when she first started. Elaine explained: “Traditionally, the Survey was quite static, but now it’s adapting to the modern world. It’s looking more and more at current issues.”

Farmers who decide to take part are required to submit their most recent set of annual accounts – in either digital format, by email, or the original paper documents. This is then followed up with in-depth discussions.

The Farm Business Report that follows is a set of detailed management accounts, which can help famers truly understand their business finances and, as they progress from year to year in the survey, will allow them to track their performance over the last three years.

Sascha explained: “A farm business analyst will do a detailed balance sheet analysis with a farmer and get the last year’s accounts and invoices. It’s very granular data.”

Elaine said: “We do a full audit, it’s very detailed. This can mean that sometimes, people do struggle with the results, but often it gives them a benchmark, and real food for thought. Lots of farmers make comparisons and maybe see where they could make changes.

“Some people take part for three, four, five years, but I’ve also worked with businesses for decades. In some cases, I’m now working with farmers that were wee boys when I first started visiting.”

The Survey results also provide Whole Farm Benchmarks, a business planning tool that allows farms to compare their business with other similar businesses, and to track progress year on year.

A new feature of the survey is a whole-farm carbon audit – helping farmers and landowners better understand their business in the round and providing information that could potentially help with grant applications. Sascha added: “We try to look to the future. The Survey captures a snapshot of what is really happening in traditional Scottish farming businesses.”

When it comes to who takes part, Elaine explained: “We use a database provided by the Scottish Government, from farmers that have returned census forms. We approach these farmers and explain the SFBS to them and ask if they would like to take part.

“We do occasionally get volunteers, but we’re always conscious that we don’t want to skew results – we need to a have a spread of sizes and types of farms.”

Sascha explained that there are actually some farm businesses that have taken part since the very beginning of the survey: “Obviously the faces have changed over the years, but the Survey as a piece of work has great longevity. The data it collects is massively important. As well as the Scottish Government, the EU Farm Accounts Data Network (FADN) get sent the data as well.”

Elaine added: “The survey has changed since I started, and things like computerisation have had an effect – things have become more technical. In the very beginning, things were pretty basic.

“We still do the same things, but in a much more detailed way. A lot more is taken into consideration. We do require a lot of information from our farmers, but we always find them forthcoming and pleased to see use. The Survey is quite a personal thing – no two are identical.”

Looking to the future, she said: “I think the Survey will continue to be successful, as it always has been."

Sascha backed this sentiment, explaining that although they’re in something of a ‘transition phase’, the roots and values of the Survey will always remain: “Things like the development of digital data recording change things for us, but we work with it. At the end of the day though, businesses need to be profitable, and to do that, they need to look at all aspects of their set up, and the feedback reports that our farmer co-operators get from participation in the survey can help inform their business practice."

As with everything, the last year has been challenging for the FBS, but farming has not stopped, and neither has the Survey.

“Farming is a very purposeful profession,” concluded Sascha, “and that’s been highlighted more than ever during Covid, where farmers and the agricultural industry in general has never faltered. Yes, doing the survey has been a challenge, but a global pandemic hasn’t stopped us.”

  • This year the SCFB are looking to hear from smaller sized beef and sheep farms, with a turnover of £30,000 to £100,000. If you think the survey outputs can help your business, please get in touch at