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.