Extending working lives: what it means for farmers

Sally Shortall, Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy, considers the challenges facing older farmers.

Farming has always been a different type of occupation. It is not one for which you train and then enter the labour market in the usual way. To be a farmer you must have access to land, and this is usually acquired through inheritance, either of a farm or a tenancy. Farmers have never really acknowledged a retirement age in the same way as other occupations; in 2015, 34% of farmers in the UK were aged 65 or older.

Why do farmers continue working late in life? It is a trend that is sometimes seen as a structural problem for the industry, and it is also a highly physical occupation that makes heavy demands on older workers. New entrants are desirable, being seen as being more innovative and making the agricultural industry more productive and efficient. Many European countries have tried to tackle the age imbalance by promoting schemes for farm retirement and for encouraging new entrants.

Yet such approaches meet with limited success.  One reason that I and others have found in our research is that men, and it is mostly men, see farming as a key source of their identity. Being “a farmer” is of considerable social, as well as economic, significance. This is true for many occupations, and it is what makes retirement tricky, but it is particularly complex for farmers. Farming forms their identity amongst their peers and in the wider community. To be a farmer is an expression of masculinity. Men will have inherited the farm from their father and will want to pass it on to their son. Giving up the job can seem to threaten manhood.

Retirement from farming is also more complex because it is not just an occupation, it is also an asset. Passing on the farm means passing on the land and, potentially, the farm house. Will the retiring couple move from their home? Research I recently conducted in Scotland suggests that there is poor succession planning amongst intergenerational farm families. Some inheriting couples did not know how much of the asset would be theirs, and how much would be shared with the son’s siblings. There is a reluctance to discuss these issues for fear of seeming to be grabbing the parents’ asset. The British Isles are peculiar in Europe, in that it is possible to leave the entire asset to one child. The rest of Europe is governed by the Napoleonic Code of Law which makes this impossible. Different legal arrangements exist across Europe governing land transfer, but cultural norms and practices play an important role. In Denmark, for example the heir must buy the farm from the parents, and the assets of the parents are split amongst all siblings after death. It is more difficult in the UK, where the income of the retiring farmer after passing on the farm is not so clear. Farmers may have made pension provisions, but they do not necessarily have the same retirement assets as other retirees.

The situation is even more complex for tenant farmers. One farmer I interviewed in Scotland had no heir, so the tenancy would not be passed on. He said he wanted to stop farming but he could not, because he would lose his house. This man was in his early seventies and quite frail. How to ease the retirement process for tenant farms is a pressing social issue requiring attention from policymakers.

Farm safety is another, particularly stubborn problem that is difficult to resolve, one that I and colleagues in the James Hutton Institute in Scotland are currently researching.  Safety is a vital concern to the whole agricultural industry, and it raises particular issues for older farm men and women. Traditional practices on the farm, even he way the farm yard is laid out, has typically presumed strength and brawn. This raises obvious safety issues for women and also for older farmers.

From a policy and research perspective, it seems to me, there are three pressing questions that need attention if the issue of farmers with extended working lives is to be addressed. First, a robust campaign to promote and facilitate succession planning is badly needed. There is an awkward reluctance to discuss the transfer of assets within the family and this must be addressed to ensure a stress free transition to retirement. Second, the situation of tenant farmers who lose their homes on retirement needs attention.  There are people working in the industry who would like to retire but keep on working for fear of losing their house.  Third, the question of planning the farmyard needs consideration. I am interested in this question from a gender perspective too. It is no longer the case that physical strength and brawn are needed to manage the farmyard. I am keen to work with agricultural machinery producers to consider the type of equipment that would allow women and older farmers to farm in a safer way.

Brexit looms: what about rural policy?

Sally Shortall is the Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy
Mark Shucksmith is the Director of the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal and a Centre for Rural Economy Associate

Brexit will have significant effects on rural areas of the UK – the loss of EU funds will not only require new thinking in relation to agricultural and environmental policy but also for broader rural businesses, communities and services. What national policies for each of the devolved territories should replace these after Brexit? Could this offer an opportunity to introduce better rural policies, suited to 21st Century rural potentials and challenges?
Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy recently launched its report ‘AfterBrexit: 10 key questions for rural policy’ in Westminster on April 27th, 2017. CRE’s research addresses many aspects of rural economies and societies; food, farming, housing, poverty, gender, employment, the environment, rural community development, rural businesses and services. Our staff seek to inform policy and practice relating to all aspects of rural life. So far, public debate about Brexit has tended to focus primarily on issues relating to agriculture and the environment, however, neglecting these other elements of rural economies and societies.
Rural policies in England have been ripe for reform for many years. Brexit could offer an unforeseen opportunity to rethink policy approaches.  The Common Agricultural Policy will no longer apply, the Single Farm Payment and rural development funding such as LEADER will be swept away.  Much is yet uncertain.  Questions must be posed about what should replace the CAP.  But these questions should extend beyond agriculture to consider how the needs of rural communities should be supported in order to give them the best chance of thriving and playing their full part in the future of the UK.  Here are some examples of the key questions we raise in our paper: 
  • How can we draw on our experience of European programmes and the successes of the Local Enterprise Partnerships and Rural Growth Networks,  and on the valuable evidence we already have (including evaluations of Defra’s Rural Development Programme for England) to inform immediate actions in the wake of Brexit?
  • Is it more beneficial to embed rural policymaking across all government departments or are rural interests met more effectively when a single department is tasked with leading on this?
  • Does Brexit offer an opportunity to be more experimental in supporting different, more wide-ranging partnerships that could drive rural development?
  • What part could neighbourhood plans play in identifying potential sites for affordable housing and should landowners be incentivised to release land for this purpose? 
At the event, an invited panel of people made short presentations, followed by a lively and informative debate with an extremely knowledgeable audience. The CRE’s Fran Rowe presented some aspects of our paper, emphasising the potential of the rural economy. Richard Quallington offered insights from ACRE’s perspective, focusing in particular on rural housing and the contribution of voluntary and community organisations. He proposed five priorities for post-Brexit rural policy: reinstatement of a rural housing target; recognition of a rural premium; investment in connectivity; support for rural businesses; and investment in VCSEs. Martin Worner spoke from his experience as a successful rural entrepreneur, highlighting issues of people, premises and training. John Varley also discussed business and give some examples from his work with Clinton Devon Estates of successful strategies for the rural economy to thrive. Tamara Hooper offered a RICS perspective on what should be priorities for negotiations around the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

The ensuing discussion was lively, well-informed and good humoured. People wondered about the governance of rural policy going forward at both national and local levels, and how these might be integrated vertically and horizontally. Who should be in charge of rural policy? Questions were asked too about what would replace LEADER and what should it look like. The argument was cogently made that some of the earlier LEADER programmes that focused on capacity building were very creative and in many countries helped all rural communities to take advantage of economic and social opportunities. Without this focus on capacity building, we run the risk of increasing inequalities between and within rural communities. Questions were also asked about the trade aspects of Brexit and, in the event of ‘no deal’ with the EU what would be the effects of tariffs not only on farms but on rural businesses in general?

The future is uncertain. Newcastle University and the Centre for Rural Economy take seriously our responsibility to inform public debate. We work closely with stakeholder groups, policy makers, and business, to provide independent analysis and always try to ensure that our research is accessible to those who need it. In this era of fake news and post truths, it is particularly important to remember our public responsibility as academics. We hope that with our short report and this event in Westminster we have helped to start an informed public debate about post-Brexit rural policy which others will now continue. As John Varley said, Brexit could be a disaster or an opportunity for rural areas: we must do our best to ensure it is an opportunity for rural economies and societies to thrive in these turbulent times.