For most people, farming represents an alien landscape of mud, early starts, low wages, rural isolation, bad smells, and a lack of opportunity for anyone outside of its traditional demographic. Even among those growing up in the countryside it’s rarely seen as an aspirational career choice. It might not surprise you to hear, then, that even in Wales – where 88 percent of the land area is in agricultural use and the industry has a comparatively high rate of regional employment – just 3 percent of farmers are under the age of 35.
The average British farmer is over 60, so there’s a clear concern over what will happen when the older generation retire. While some readers may have concerns about the way food is produced, the farming industry in the UK is critical to feeding the population, and farms play a vital role in maintaining the traditional British landscape. Britain produces 60 percent of the food it consumes. Although this figure is lower than it has been historically, it reflects the importance of homegrown food.
For years young people have been put off agricultural careers due to the long hours, lack of guaranteed income, and having seemingly better options in other industries. And yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that more farmers’ children are choosing to take up the trade, while those without land are looking for ways to break in to the industry. Since agriculture's a larger net employer in Wales than in the rest of the UK, millennials are moving back towards to an industry that has always been an integral part of Welsh life. Attitudes to agriculture are changing, and for some young people running their own farming business is an opportunity to have a profitable career and use a blend of traditional practices and new technology.
Marcus and Vicki Ferraro are both in their mid-twenties and run a dairy farm in Ceredigion in partnership with Marcus’s father. Marcus always knew he wanted an agricultural career. “Farming is in my blood and I always liked animals,” he says, “My grandmother said that I used to sit with the calves and share their feed. I started working on other farms when I was 13, and as soon as I passed my driving test I was relief milking. After ten days at university I quit and got a job as a herdsman. That didn’t work out but I found another job that drove me to succeed and to want more. When I went home I made the decision to change back to dairy farming.”
Vicki studied agriculture at a local college and is now a business partner. She hopes that one or both of their daughters will be interested in farming. Rhian, aged three, spends as much time as she can with the animals, while five-month-old Ffion has a little longer to decide on her career. “As it stands they’re at their happiest on the farm and as long as that continues then I’ll encourage it. They make bonds and connections that many children don’t get. Rhian will scream if we take her away from the cows.” The Ferraros are focussed on building the farm up to a level that supports their family. They say that consistent pricing would help with planning and enable them to employ people to lighten their workload and improve the business’s performance.
Farming is often perceived as a traditionally male profession, and although the proportion of women in the UK workforce has increased, it stands at just 28 percent. One of these women is Katy Davies, 26, a sheep farmer and contract shepherd who was given her first sheep as a Christmas present at 13. She thinks attitudes to female farmers are evolving. “When I started working I’d see men getting jobs even when they were less qualified,” she says, “Over the past few years I’ve seen a positive change in the way that women in agriculture are seen.”
Katy was the only student from her school to study agriculture, and saw its difficulties while on placement on a 4000-ewe hill farm. In a spring described by a lecturer as “the worst she’d ever seen” many lambs died in bitter weather and the experience was harrowing. “When I’m having a bad day, I take ten minutes and sit in a field watching the lambs racing each other,” she says, “That reminds me why I’m doing this and makes all of the struggles worthwhile.”
Unlike Katy and the Ferraros, Rhys Wilson, 26, didn’t grow up on a family farm, but he was surrounded by people working in the industry. And so chose to study at the Royal Agricultural College. “After university I worked as a head stockman in Northampton for three years to build capital, increase my experience, and play with some ideas. It was a chance to decide whether farming was definitely for me and how I wanted to go about it.” Rhys and his wife looked at contract farming opportunities before deciding that the best option for their budget would be to “buy the cheapest farm in Wales”. They now farm 70 ewes, five cows, some horses, and train sheepdogs on their 45 acres. Most of Rhys’s income derives from contract work for other farmers, shearing sheep, and shepherding.
Farm profit – especially in the beef and sheep sectors – is largely dependent on scale; overhead costs are lower as a percentage of profit when sales are higher due to additional animals. It can be difficult for small farms to generate a sustainable income, so younger people in the industry often take work off-farm until the main business is of a scale to support itself. This is especially true for newcomers to farming who have bought or rented smaller parcels of land and are looking to expand year-on-year. As Rhys tell me, “my aim is to double the operation every year for five years, or as best as I can manage.”
Farms can require a large amount of capital investment; in machinery, animal handling systems, farm tracks, fencing, pasture improvement, animal housing, and equipment such as milking parlours and product stores. While banks are usually happy to lend to businesses that can show they'll be able to cover the repayments, they do require security before offering a loan. This can be a cash deposit, existing land, or in some cases the security of a long-term tenancy. As a result, most farmers will have either inherited land, or worked very hard in or out of the industry to generate enough capital to launch their business.
Aled Jones*, 25, grew up on a dairy farm in South Wales. His sister has joined the family business while he lives in London – an unusual situation. Even now, daughters tend to leave the farm as sons take on the family business, but Aled says his parents’ experience was less than encouraging. “For as long as I can remember, not a year has gone by where my parents have not been angry, frustrated, worried, and generally unhappy due to the state of farming. During that time there was one year that was an exception, where milk prices were decent and they felt that what they were doing was worthwhile.”
A lack of guaranteed income typically deters people from farming careers. Alice Whittall, 25, grew up on a beef and sheep farm in Ceredigion, had her concerns. She served for six years in the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery before joining the ambulance service. “Farming has no regular, constant income. Prices are dictated by the market and so are never consistent,” she says. “I think the younger generations have been pushed towards achieving qualifications in other fields and having a career outside of the farm.”
While older farmers may see moving to Bristol or London as an incomprehensible change, younger people in rural areas have access to university courses across the UK (though, granted, university now isn't free), as well as careers in industries that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Farming is no longer the only – or most obvious – path for those from agricultural backgrounds. “Many people, especially from the older generation, are puzzled by my decision to not come home.” Aled adds, “My question to them is; would you?”
Agriculture is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, and the government has several initiatives for young farmers. The Venture programme links farmers with new entrants to start contract and share-farming agreements. These systems, common in New Zealand's dairy industry, see a contractor managing the farm in exchange for a fee, profit share, and a return on any capital introduced. The farmer keeps their agricultural interest, but they can take a step away from everyday farm tasks, while the contractor increases their own net worth. It's basically an agricultural version of investing in a company, where you're also paid by the company to run it, and are incentivised to do a good job because you have a share of the profit. These contracts work well for older farmers who aren’t ready to fully retire, and offer a route in for young people.
This summer Lesley Griffiths, the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning, and Rural Affairs, launched a Young People into Agriculture scheme, which offered 150 farmers under 40 a £40,000 grant awarded on merit.
The farming industry currently receives subsidies from the European Union, partly as direct payments based on land area, and partly as payments for environmental management. Post-Brexit, this system is likely to change. Some sectors – notably sheep enterprises in upland areas, where farms have to be extensive because the land is poor – rely heavily on these subsidies. Lamb is also mostly exported, meaning that the price received by farmers is very dependent on the deals made over the next couple of months. Leaving the EU will be a big change for the Welsh farming industry.
Speaking at the launch of the Young People into Agriculture scheme, Lesley Griffiths stressed that the grant would help young farmers navigate this new farming landscape. The Welsh Assembly are currently in a consultation about agriculture post-Brexit. The impact on different sectors is expected to vary, and the extent of that impact is difficult to tell without any deals being struck. It is clear that there is a new generation keen to take farming forward whatever happens, but they will need the support of policy makers and the rest of the supply chain to continue producing food to high standards in the Welsh countryside.