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It's Not Easy Being a Young British Farmer

It's great that there's government initiatives encouraging young people to get into farming, but those already doing it believe energies should be geared towards them, rather than concentrating on shipping more in.
Image by alans1948 via Flickr

Earlier this month the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee reported to the government on the UK's food security. The findings weren't good. According to EFRA, a lack of sustainable food production is leaving "the UK's ability to feed itself threatened." Among the litany of reasons why—from climate change to a culture of import dependency—was a striking fact about farmers. The average age of a farmer in the UK? 60-years-old. Leading to the next question. Where have all the young farmers gone?


The report was clear. "We were told [by a series of farming experts] that to ensure a vibrant, forward-looking, agricultural sector for the future, we needed new farmers to enter the profession," it said. But Claire Worden, the National Chairman of Council for the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs (NFYFC—made up of 624 clubs in England and Wales) says young farmers aren't the problem. It's the older ones skewing the sample.

"Young people are taking up farming as a career," Worden tells me. "But very often they're part of the wider family. The older generations aren't letting go of the reins and are still on the books as the decision-maker of the business, even though the younger generation maybe actually doing the work on the farm. This is where the average age of a farmer gets pulled from."

As anyone who was raised within a family business will testify, getting a father or mother to step aside and let offspring take over isn't too likely.

To underline the point, Worden cites an increase in NFYFC members (aged between 10 and 26) over the last decade, from 20,000 in 2004 to 25,000 in 2014. It's by no means an astounding amount over ten years, but, for an industry supposedly running out of fresh meat, it makes for interesting reading.

However, as anyone who was raised within a family business will testify, getting a father or mother to step aside and let offspring take over isn't too likely. They cling to it, and it's only once the bell of emotional and physical exhaustion tolls—sometimes years past the (former) official retirement age of 65—that a decision is finally taken.


It's a situation that makes succession planning in the industry vital, and a conversation the NFYFC is certainly trying to have with its members. It needs to—a study from 2012 revealed that nearly half of UK farmers have no formal succession plan in place, suggesting there's still a lot to be done. With that in mind, NFYFC President Poul Christensen has made a point to lay out his own succession plan with his very own family.

If the NFYFC president is acting as a good example to his members, the government is leading by example with their own emphasis on succession (even if the Efra report did say they should step it up a bit) and getting as many young people in to the trade as possible.

Many believe the government should be spending its energies on helping young people, rather than shipping more in.

Government schemes to facilitate young people getting into the rural industry include funding of NFYFC training schemes, the Young Farmer Scheme to top up basic payment by 25 percent, and Get Mentoring in Farming, who will provide mentors for agricultural businesses with a particular focus on young people.

This is all well and good, but many believe the government should be spending its energies on helping the young people already in the business, rather than concentrating on shipping more in.

Georgina, a 17-year-old farmer's daughter from Shropshire, took over the day-to-day running of the family farm two years ago, after her parents divorced and her mother became ill. She feels like the government doesn't appreciate how challenging farming is for young people.


"The worst part is the uncertainty facing our industry. In my case, I never know what price I will get for my lamb. I have an idea, but there's no certainty for me and that's stressful," she says. "Initial costs and investment in land, stock, and machinery are extortionate these days. I feel that the government should channel some of their resources towards us, the future of British agriculture."

The fiscal side of farming is just one element. The other, far more serious issue, is mental health.

What kind of measures would need to be taken, though? Georgina suggests subsidizing trailer tests and spraying qualifications, as well as other such certificates, as a way of allowing young people to develop quicker and present their skills more effectively. Others, however, feel the import culture needs looking at.

"I would like to see the government pushing supermarkets to ensure they are pushing British produce instead of importing, which will in time help the small and large farmers," Ben, a 20-year-old arable worker from Cornwall, tells me. "Ensuring the government backs British will ensure the public are aware of the importance of the British farming industry and enable it to be sustainable and profitable."

The fiscal side of farming is just one element the government could lend a hand in. The other, far more serious issue, is mental health.

In 2012, the government launched an initiative to invest £1.5 million into researching a national suicide prevention strategy and, in particular, suicide among the farming community. The initiative was welcomed by The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, (R.A.B.I) who offer financial support to farmers.


For a largely male-dominated industry with obvious financial insecurity and isolation, it doesn't take a psychologist to see the warning signs.

In the wake of the initiative, R.A.B.I issued a report on suicide in farming communities. It cited financial reasons—dairy farmers have seen a 40 percent fall in incomes since 2011—as well as exposure to organophosphates that have been linked to depression, anxiety over loss of livestock due to animal disease, and, ultimately, rural isolation as contributing factors to stress. Being single and having no confiding relationships made farmers more vulnerable to suicide, too, it said. Access to a shotgun was cited as a more practical reason. (A 2003 Oxford study revealed 40 percent of farm suicides involved firearms.)

In 2011, the Office for National Statistics released general suicide statistics revealing three times as many men took their lives as women in that year. For a largely male-dominated industry such as farming, with obvious financial insecurity and isolation, it doesn't take a psychologist to see the warning signs. It's a sobering statistic that, for Claire Worden, is close to home.

"I have had personal experience with my dad attempting to take his life two years ago, after he let emotions bottle up over many years," she says. "He reached a point where he felt like he didn't want to continue living. Since his attempt failed, though, he has opened up more about his problems and realised that actually it is easier if you talk things through."

Worden has since set up Rural+, encouraging NFYFC members to seek out mental health organisations in their area and book talks from one of these organisations to be delivered at a club night. It might not be the best thing to listen to while you're swilling back some scrumpy at the end of a hard week spent toiling the fields, but it's a necessary initiative.

"Many members are talking more now about the topic in general but there are also conversations happening around personal circumstances too," says Worden. "My dad's generation are never going to change their mindset—they have been conditioned over many years to keep things to themselves and not worry others. I don't want this generation or the next to feel like that should be normal."

Government schemes, mental health awareness, and all the various organizations offering support and guidance will help farming weather rough times, but it's a wider, greater faith in youth at a governmental level which will ensure farming's future.