I’m part of that farming generation that, no matter how old I get, I still feel like a wet behind the ears youngster at any gathering of farming colleagues.
This, of course, is due to the fact that the average age of farmers goes on and on rising (it is now more than 60). I’m now 57 but at this rate, even when I’m 97, I’ll still be able to look around the store cattle ring at Hailsham Market, the annual meeting of my local NFU branch or a farm deadstock dispersal sale and think “Gosh – look at all those really old farmers!”
Increasingly the old folks of farming are seen as a problem. A recent farming newspaper editorial even referred to older farmers having the “obstinacy to carry on.” Press coverage of Brexit also sometimes suggests that one good result of the UK leaving the European Union would be that the withdrawal of the basic payment scheme (BPS) would help clear out the older generation. These old farmers, the argument goes, are just hanging on to get their hands on EU direct payments. So cut this financial lifeline off, this line of reasoning continues, and a new generation of young go getters could at last go and get hold of some land.
I wish I could believe it was true that there is a teeming mass of frustrated youngsters out there just busting to get hold of farms, if only a generation of obstinate geriatrics hooked on their common agricultural policy handouts would just get out of their way. Such new entrants, we are told, are “ready to grab opportunities” and adapt to new business approaches and technologies which will help farming to innovate.
But where is the evidence for this? Only a few months ago a farmer proudly informed me that, as far as he was aware, he was the only farmer in the Ouse Valley between Newhaven and Lewes in East Sussex (a broad stretch of land about six miles long) who had a successor interested in taking over the farm. This section of the Ouse Valley takes in some of the best land in the county and boasts some lovely scenic farmsteads with much of it owner occupied.
This suggests that even when there are opportunities to take over good quality farms from parents who are running well established businesses there is a distinct dearth of volunteers.
I fear the truth of the matter is all rather different. The reason that a new generation is not coming forward in any numbers either to succeed their parents or take on farms in their own right is that the economics of farming do not encourage them to do so. Young people see the length of hours their parents work, the 365 day a year commitment, its solitary nature and the lack of much financial reward. If UK agriculture did not exist no one would be interested in starting it up, with farmgate commodity prices currently where they are.
DEFRA’s recent farm business income survey says it all – with the BPS removed every farm sector is losing large amounts of money except milk (and even the average dairy farm only showed a profit of £12,000 before any family labour or private drawings were made). Only a genuinely profitable agriculture will reduce the average age of farmers – not a lot of misguided talk about culling the older generation by withdrawing their subsidies.