Shirley Hidderley and her team arrive on the farm bright and early.
It’s, of course, well-known that morning starts are part and parcel of agricultural work. But this troupe aren’t firing up mowers and combine harvesters at daybreak. They’ve come equipped with laptops, printers and their award-winning knowledge of finance for farms.
“I’m from a farming family, so agriculture is in my blood,” explains Hidderley, founder of Hidderley’s Farm Bookkeeping, a mobile bookkeeping service for farm and agriculture businesses. “Agriculture bookkeeping is very specialised, and you need a good working knowledge of the industry to be able to do it well.”
Hidderley knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in the administrative side of farming. Her ‘eureka’ moment came when she attended an open day at a local agricultural college in Staffordshire at the age of 11. A specialised secretarial course for farms caught her eye that day, and she vowed to take up the pursuit in later life.
After qualifying as a farm secretary in 1982, Hidderley was hired to run the office of a family farm in Newport, Shropshire. It was here that she began to understand just how important a bookkeeper’s insight can be.
“It’s a very privileged position to be able to work for a business and a family,” she says. “Sometimes it can be a great leap of faith for them to take somebody into their business because we see and know a lot about what’s going on in their lives.”
After 13 years spent balancing the books on one farm, Hidderley realised she could provide more farmers with financial help by going solo – and mobile. The decision to start her own bookkeeping enterprise was spurred in part by being named National Farm Secretary of the Year in 1996 by the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators. The award gave her the confidence she needed to strike out on her own, not to mention a healthy dose of publicity to help get things started.
Travelling across Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire, Hidderley refers to her bookkeeping service as a “one stop shop”. She visits her clients once a month to complete a wide range of tasks, from reclaiming VAT to producing management reports. When her work is done, the only trace of her presence is a discreet stack of financial documents on her client’s desk. “We leave the farmer to get on with the other parts of his business that he’s obviously very good at, and he leaves the paperwork to us,” she explains.
It goes without saying that farming is an intensive occupation, demanding a combination of manpower and constant attention. But this means that Hidderley and her team often find farm offices in varying states of disarray. After 30 years in the industry, she’s learned to work with all sorts of chaos.
“When you arrive at a farm, there can be all manner of things to do besides the bookkeeping,” she says. “You’ve just got to be prepared to have a go at anything. It might just be sending an email or ringing somebody up, but it can sometimes mean looking after the grandchildren, or sitting with a smelly dog under the desk while you work!”
Hidderley still finds new surprises when sorting through farm ledgers, especially as machinery has grown more advanced. “The biggest piece of equipment I’ve seen purchased was a new potato harvester about two or three years ago,” she says. “The invoice was half a million pounds. So that made me blink twice!”
At its core, Hidderley’s work is about taking responsibility for a farmer’s financial well being, leaving their hands free to ensure the smooth running of day-to-day agricultural operations. There are few industries in which bookkeepers can watch their clients’ businesses thrive across multiple generations, and this is part of why Hidderley finds agriculture so rewarding.
“It’s very special to be involved with businesses like these, and to help them succeed and become more profitable,” she says. “I started off working with fathers when I launched my own business two decades ago. I’m working with their sons now, and can already see grandsons coming into the business.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem that much of the work on a farm can be carried out by heavy-duty machinery. But Hidderley’s Farm Bookkeeping sports the slogan “every farm needs a Shirley” – and her clients are likely to agree.
Lauren Razavi is an award-winning writer and content strategist, and managing director of communications consultancy Flibl. She has worked on projects for leading global brands such as NatWest, Google and Facebook, and her writing focuses on technology, finance, entrepreneurship and innovation. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.