Jim McCarthy, 1996 Nuffield Ireland Scholar.

Image: Jim McCarthy, 1996 Nuffield Ireland Scholar, at the 2022 Nuffield Ireland annual conference.

Jim McCarthy, together with the late Padraig Walshe, became one of the first two Nuffield Ireland Scholars in 1996. Here, Jim gives us an update on his international farm business career, started largely because of his own Scholarship, and an insight into how his Nuffield journey informed his life and business philosophy.

I am the managing partner of Southern Harvest Romania, which I started in 2014. Today the business employs 140 people. We farm over 20,000 hectares, 50% owned, and 50% rented. We are in Botosani northeast Romania. This is a poor region, so we have had to develop internal skills and competences by recruiting our own internal accountants, lawyers, etc. We grow mainly maize, sunflowers, soyabean, wheat, oil seed rape, and we are Romania’s biggest sugar beet growers – an activity we are reconsidering because soil damage – and spelt.

We are planting forestry, and will plant 600 hectares of trees, including 100 hectares of oak forests. We are re-gen farmers. The first thing we did here was to sell the ploughs and put a min-till ‘no till’ system in place. We were organic farming on one of the farms (nearly 5000 acres), but had to stop because hoeing in the summer was losing us huge amounts of top soil in the summer thunder storms. What we understand about soils has changed, linked to studies of the human biome. Organic farming depends on cultivation, which destroys soil microbial activity. Our fertiliser use has plummeted, and we have improved the quality of our soil biology by gathering data to extract the information that allows us to farm regeneratively.

I have key roles in the business:

  • Strategy – thinking and understanding and consulting my fellow shareholders as to where we want to bring the business and communicating the vision to everyone else so that they come with us.
  • Set standards that are acceptable, laying them out clearly and mentoring and supporting people to reach those standards.
  • I spend a vast majority of my time developing people. A high point of my career was when we sold the business in Argentina – the new owners retained the team of people that I had spent time growing and developing to believe in themselves.

I laugh when people say that they can’t get help – help will get your car out of a ditch. When you hire people, you have a team. You have to set up the business so it can run without you.

I am in Romania because I did a Nuffield scholarship. I felt I was old when I got it (38) – it plucked me out of my comfort zone and sent me off around the world. My belief is that the scholarship is more about the Scholar’s journey of self-discovery than about their topic.

The remit of Nuffield is to develop leadership, which is the one thing you have to learn about if you want to scale up your business. I studied scale in farming, how it is achieved and the people who achieve it. It becomes more relevant as time passes. The rate of change now is picking up, momentum is starting to gather. We have a young team who are digitalising agriculture. We invest in it every year.

Looking back over my Nuffield experience, the high points were: I met amazing farmers around the world. It changed the course of my life. I was farming on a large scale in Ireland, after Nuffield, I realised that I was a big fish in a very small pond. I consciously made the decision that I would be a small fish in a bigger pond.

I met people who had experienced setbacks, who had the strength to pick themselves up and move on. I was able to develop my own resilience and a network of people who I could draw strength from.

I realised that we need to focus on our thinking skills. A.C. Grayling professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College London talks about the ability to think clearly for yourself. The culture of any business is actually the thinking of the people, because our thinking shapes our actions.
Carl Jung said “Thinking is difficult, that is why most people judge”. We have to protect our thinking and think independently for ourselves – which comes from continuous learning. I would say to anyone in their career, if you have stopped learning, for God’s sake move on.

We are crop farmers. Like all other businesses, we have inputs and market risks. In agriculture, we are “under the sky”. At best, only 50% of our decisions will be correct because of all the variables. What separates people is the ability to see that a decision is incorrect and to correct it quickly.

Nuffield has given me a worldwide group of friends and colleagues who I can turn to. Staying involved is important so that you can continue to learn. I make a point of coming to the conference every year because I really enjoy it.

Nuffield Ireland is undoubtedly the most dynamic Nuffield organisation in the world. It has the youngest scholar profile who in turn are so incredibly capable. Nuffield has historically been an utterly male dominated organisation. Not Nuffield Ireland which has a powerhouse of incredibly capable young women. So smart, so well educated and so driven. I can cannot express enough how privileged I feel to be part of this organisation.