Douglas Chalmers: Overcoming loss of a generation in agriculture

The statistics make for grim reading. Some 14,000 farmers in England are 65 or over – accounting for almost 25 per cent of the total. A further 18,000 are aged between 55 and 65, meaning more than half of the country’s farmers are more than 55-years-old.

So it would seem that over the last two decades farming truly has lost a generation, becoming an old man’s occupation where some farms are now passing straight from grandfather to grandson or granddaughter.

You don’t have to look far to see some of the reasons for this. We’ve had diseases – old ones being acutely savage like foot and mouth or chronically crippling like Bovine TB and new ones such as Schmallenberg or Bluetongue. We’ve had floods, droughts and interfering politicians. Familiar institutions like the Milk Marketing Board have been abolished. Costs have risen relentlessly and margins have been eroded, or often transferred elsewhere in the supply chain.

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Farming has been battered. Farmers, their land, their stock, their buildings, their equipment and their bank balances have been exhausted. Depression in farming families has increased. Why would the next generation want to enter the industry?

Well, the good news is that we may well be turning a corner. With an ever-growing demand for food, agricultural colleges are filling again and other young people see entrepreneurial opportunities and rewarding long term careers in farming.

The youth of today must understand that agriculture is not just about checked shirts, wellies and pitchforks. It involves technology, innovation and business thinking. Think Lord Sugar as Dr Who – only younger.

Farming has been exciting before. Imagine the stir in a remote Scottish glen 150 years ago when the Duke of Sutherland yoked fourteen steam engines to ploughs. Combine harvesters meant that finally an operation that had once taken a whole village several months could now be completed by a handful of men in one operation. Plant breeders developed maize varieties that meant famers north of Watford could grow a valuable additional forage crop.

Our new agriculturists will need to know not just how to grow crops, rear animals and manage the environment, but will need even more “business savvy” to deal with suppliers and customers, perhaps directly with manufacturers and retailers. And buying will not be restricted to physical inputs.

As the industry’s high-tech increases, we will need support teams of specialists – nutritionists, agronomists, engineers and applied accountants, and no doubt roles that have yet to be invented.

Our challenge is to grow more food for more people using less land and fewer inputs, but this riddle is for real. The answer at least partly lies in governments allowing us to utilise bio-technology.

Helping plants and animals to evolve and become more productive and healthier has been going on for hundreds of years. In the past it took many, many years or we used fairly blunt techniques but modern techniques are much more precise and safe.

I’m not particularly old, but the technological and scientific improvements in agriculture in my time have been dramatic. It’s not so long ago that tractor driving was noisy, dirty, juddering work. Now we study digital read-outs in our air-conditioned, power-assisted sound-surround. Our modern combines have banks of on-board computers, satellite-controlled navigation, and pressurised cabins. I wonder if the only feature preventing them travelling to the Moon and back is their lack of forward speed.

Until recently, milking cows meant standing head to udder, two or three times a day, seven days a week. Now robotic milking frees skilled time for health and feeding management.

So we have the technology, but what we also need are new ways of becoming farmers. Those who will not inherit family farms face huge barriers. The selling off of county council farms and the trend of amalgamating units in an effort to spread fixed costs has left us with fewer, larger and more expensive farms.

With limited access to land and to credit, and facing high establishment costs, the traditional avenues into agriculture are more restricted than ever. The CLA’s recent reinvigoration of share farming has come at just the right time, allowing our older farmers a way to retire while they help the next generation to get a start.

A number of factors are coming together to emphasise the importance of bringing in a new generation of energetic and enthusiastic agriculturalists. They will bring the skills, and our scientists and engineers will continue to develop the tools.

Of course, the challenge of feeding a growing population with dwindling resources, increasing environmental considerations and political interference is daunting. But worth taking on? Definitely.

• Douglas Chalmers is director of policy and public affairs at CLA North.