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Down on the farm: The rural economy is booming - unless you're a farmer's child

There's no boom for the sons and daughters who hope to take over from their parents one day
  • @Jamie_Merrill

David Rogers isn’t ready to retire just yet. Making ends meet is tough on his sheep farm in the Radnorshire countryside in Powys, but the 54-year-old says he’s still proving himself.

Sadly, for his 23-year-old son Will, discussing exactly how the 160-acre farm will pass down the generations isn’t a high priority. And, according to a new report, this reticence on the delicate issue of “succession” is just one of the problems faced by young farmers trying to break into what they are told is a recovering industry with an “optimistic and positive” outlook.

Thankfully, Will’s relationship with his father is “good, most of the time”, but many other sons (and increasingly daughters) aren’t so lucky and some are suffering from depression amid fears that they may never follow in the agricultural footsteps of their parents. This bleak picture of young people worried about the future, poor pay and access to land is painted by the  latest report from National Federation of Young Farmer’s Clubs (NFYFC), one of the largest youth organisations in the country. Half of young farmers questioned are reportedly so worried that they seriously doubt their chances of forging a career in farming.

One of the biggest issues for tenant and landowning farmers is succession, with the age of the average British farmer at older than 50. There is little sign, though, that many of them are willing to hand over the keys to the combine harvester just yet.

Will admits that he is still young, but says the survey “rings true”. And despite the National Farmers Union trumpeting economic growth in the sector of 54 per cent between 2008 and 2012, he is still worried about the future.

“It’s always been my ambition to take over the family farm,” he says. “And I went to Aberystwyth University to study agriculture, but it can be hard to bring up the subject with dad. Life on a family farm is non-stop, struggling to make it work, so it can be hard to find time. I’ve studied new methods in sheep genetics and seen them in practice, but dad doesn’t seem to want to let me put them into practice.”

Will and his father have gone as far as discussing a partnership (during shouting matches in the sheep shed) but, as David explains, it is an emotionally charged issue, and planning what to do with the arable lamb and beef farm near Presteigne isn’t easy.

“I still have things I want to do to prove myself and the day-to-day is blimmin’  tough enough in an era of cheap supermarket food and tight margins,” he says, “but I do feel for Will because opportunities for him to have an enterprise of his own on the farm are hard to come by.”

Like most farmers’ children, Will doesn’t earn a salary, but rather something David describes as “more than pocket money”. He pays no rent and like his father “loves the life”, but doesn’t want to be living at home when he’s 30.

There is no easy way ahead, though, because the price of farmland is at a record high after rising 11 per cent to £6,882 per acre in 2013, according to the Knight Frank farmland index. And, as David explains, “the recession meant people put their money in farmland and sent rent for farmers soaring”. The farm still has debts and Will can’t even get a credit card, so a deposit on a home is out of the question.

Interestingly though, there’s no shortage of young farmers trying to join the industry, with applications to the Royal Agricultural University in Gloucestershire up 40 per cent compared with 2012, while other colleges and Young Farmers Clubs are reporting a similar boom. This doesn’t surprise Poul Christensen, president of the NFYFC. “For a long time there’s been a plaintive cry that there are not enough youngsters wanting to come into farming,” he says. “I’ve never believed that, rather there’s not enough old buggers who want to get out of it. I’ve been to farms where 50-year-old sons are still working for their fathers, but have never even signed a business cheque.”

Christensen also points out that the  recent farming boom that the NFU has talked up “hasn’t filtered through to many smaller, traditional farmers”.

That was the case for James Hosking’s  family, who had to sell their dairy herd three years ago, amid plummeting milk prices and  a series of family tragedies that left the  21-year-old suffering from depression and even contemplating suicide.

“When everyone else was studying for their GCSE exams,” James says, “I was spreading slurry on the field, milking cows and driving tractors. But the farm was losing money hand over fist. We had to sell.”

At one stage, it was so bad, with the third generation Cornish farm sitting empty of cattle for the first time, that James parked on the edge of a cliff and considered driving off. After support from other farmers online and his local Young Farmers Club in Land’s End, James is now working at a nearby farm and rebuilding his life.

The biggest tragedy, he says, is that he knows in his “heart of hearts” that he will “probably never work” his family farm again.

Back in Radnorshire, David is hoping to bring his son on as a “partner “ in the business “soon”, but worries that the farm makes so little money that any future for “two families – one retired” on the farm will be tricky.

“People watch Countryfile and think rural life is all about niche organic farmers and lucrative rare breed cattle,” he says. “But that’s not the reality of most farmers struggling to make a living doing something they love.”