"Farms and rural businesses can work in partnership with nature and experience organic growth and profitability"
William Houstoun grew up in Scotland on the family farm in Glenisla. He did not enjoy school a great deal and spent a year recovering, working in a garage in Montreal and on a ranch in Alberta before completing an agriculture degree at the University of Edinburgh. Farm management jobs in the UK were thin on the ground when he graduated but there were exciting opportunities abroad so William travelled to Venezuela where he worked as relief/assistant manager on the Vestey Brothers’ 1,000,000-acre ranch on the Llanos floodplains, working with a 100,000-cow herd, 800 employees and piranhas in the floodwaters!
Venezuela was flying high economically at the time and the Vestey-owned Union International Company was one of the largest meat companies in the world, yet William witnessed poor decisions which eventually brought the country and the company to their knees.
It was his first lesson on the terrible effects of bad decision-making and one which had a profound impact.
William returned to Scotland where he helped establish FMC in Perth before marrying Sarah and returning to the family farm in 1982. He worked in partnership with his brother and father as he raised his family, but when his back protested about working with sheep he restructured the farm to bring it down to a manageable size and embarked upon an MBA in International agribusiness at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester and Utah State University.
His thesis examined farmers’ attitude to change – including succession - and while he commuted through Cumbria to Cirencester William observed one of the greatest recent upheavals to UK agriculture, namely the Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001. The Cooperative Group and Business in the Community had been persuaded by the chairman of the Cumbrian NFU to help farmers get the best out of the regeneration fund which had been awarded to the county. William was employed as a project manager, working with Christine Tacon, former managing director of the Co-op farms and latterly UK Grocery Code Adjudicator. He facilitated the formation of farmer groups, including a meat-cutting plant and initiatives with Herdwick sheep farmers to help them find routes to market for meat and wool.
William kept the farm ticking over during this time and heard that Angus Growers, an 18-member soft-fruit producer organisation were looking for a manager. William arrived just as the business lost its EU support payments, leaving its viability in the balance. In addition to his day-to-day duties as general manager and company secretary William helped the company prove that Defra had misinterpreted the EU regulations and the funding should not have been withdrawn, leading to a multi-million pound settlement in favour of Angus Growers.
During his time in Cumbria William became increasingly interested in the environmental side of things; this interest grew with his involvement in fruit farming and he decided that he wanted to end his career working along those lines so after leaving Angus Growers he took a busman’s holiday to Georgia for a gathering arranged by the Savory Institute where he became more drawn to the philosophy that it is more profitable to farm in partnership with nature. Whereas environmentally-friendly farming is often associated with lower financial returns, William met Will Harris whose White Oak Pastures farm now employs more than 160 staff compared to the three when Will Harris took over.
All this has been achieved as organic growth of a farming business. One of the speakers at this gathering was Tre’ Cates, the former CEO of the Savory Institute, who created his business nRhythm to bring the Savory decision-making process to a wider audience, including business and government organisations. William realised this was the bit of the jigsaw he knew was missing from many businesses he had worked with but had not been able to identify and has taken every opportunity to learn with Tre’ and his team since then.
William Houstoun now lives with his wife Sarah at Cairnhall Farm where he grew up. He is a qualified Savory and nRhythm instructor and works with great zeal helping organisations of any kind work out how best to work in harmony with the natural systems to regenerate their people, land and its ecosystems, business and community.