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9 September 2015

No country for old men: meet the young farmers undaunted by Europe’s agriculture crisis

Despite land taxes, subsidies and falling dairy prices, Britain’s young farmers are looking on the bright side.

By India Bourke

“Tell me what you want, Jamie; what you really, really want,” 20-year-old Jake Ball calls out to his team-mate, squinting through the sunshine at a pile of wire and wooden fence posts. “I need you to strip off” [the top layer of wood], Jamie Holes shouts from their van. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve stripped together”, Jake teases back.

Together with Moss Tilley, Jamie and Jake are challenging for the title of Fence Erecting Champions at the National Federation of Young Farmers’ annual Farm Skills competition.

They have an hour and thirty minutes to construct a “stock-proof tree guard” (the fence around a young tree that keeps out nibbling mouths). And, if their fence is tougher, safer, and neater than the other ten teams competing, they’ll win.

Their Somerset banter may be flowing fast, but so is the fence building. At 25, Moss has the most experience in the competition and the wider industry – and knows just how tough both can be. He earns his living working for a local fencing contractor but still dreams of running his own farm:

“Ideally if I could go into farming fulltime I would”, he explains, “So I keep building up what I’ve got and rent bits and pieces. It’s slow but it’s the only option.”

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Jamie, age 20 and with a two-year apprenticeship already under his belt, agrees. He hopes to inherit his grandparents’ farm, even though, with other family members’ interests to consider, he knows it’s a long shot: “But I can’t see myself not doing farming. If you wanna get into it that bad you’ve gotta just keep trying”.

The lads’ determination is especially impressive considering the scale of the challenge they face. Over the summer the price of dairy and lamb fell so low that desperate farmers blockaded supermarkets and herded cows down the aisles.

An emergency meeting of EU ministers gathered this week to respond to calls for pricing interventions, tighter standards, and stronger national brands.

Their promise of a £355m aid package will go some way to restoring hope but the long-term plagues of declining incomes and rising land values are not going away fast. A farm that cost £64,000 in the 1970s is valued today at £1.6m, well out of the reach of most new entrants.

Moss, Jake and Jamie in the National Fence Erecting Finals

So why is agricultural land so expensive? George Dunn of the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) believes the answer has a lot to do with tax. At present, wealthy individuals who invest in land are able to roll over their capital gains liability and, after just two years of “farming” the estate (or paying a contractor to do so), are also able to claim inheritance tax relief on the purchase.

The result is more land being let on increasingly short contracts. This can scupper new farmers starting out in a volatile commodities market – a pressure the TFA suggests could be eased if tax relief was restricted to those landlords prepared to let their land for ten years or longer.

Moreover, when farms do come up for rent come up, they usually go to the highest bidder.

“Young people often don’t have a chance”, Jamie notes, with just 9 per cent of all lettings going to new entrants, and councils continuing to sell off their “starter farms”.

Caroline Morris inspecting stock at the NFYFC Farm Skills Weekend

The main competition for youngsters starting out currently comes from established owner-occupier farmers, hoping to spread their fixed costs (in machinery and staff etc) over a higher acreage. Unfortunately, this is a trend made all the more attractive by the distribution of EU subsidies based on a farm’s area, rather than its production.

The boys aren’t alone in their self-belief, however. There are more applicants to higher education agricultural courses than ever before, with Harper Adams University seeing a 25 per cent increase since 2011. And such confidence has some justification. As James Bickerton, lecturer at the land-based Reaseheath College, reasons: “It’s not the strongest who’ll survive but it’s those who are prepared to change.”

Rachel, a young farmer with a place on a veterinary course at Nottingham, worries that “people who are stuck in traditional ways are less interested in diversifying”. While fellow competitor, Stuart, a graduate of Harper Adams, thinks those who fail to modernise are already on the out. “The ones who shout loudest about the dairy prices are the ones who haven’t changed. But the farms who get on the more progressive contracts are the ones with young lads in charge,” he says.

As elected Chair and Vice-Chair of NFYFC’s National Council, Hannah Talbot and Chris Manley (above) also see a bright future for the UK’s young farmers. Not just in the related, technical, industries that are advertising for applicants, but on the farms as well. They point to a Welsh scheme where Young Farmers have come together to supply Sainsburys with Wales-YFC branded lamb. In return, the suppliers receive a premium price, some security against the unstable global market, and training days aimed at helping them build their businesses.

Moving British agriculture forward may involve more data farming, drones, and management speak but, from the perspective of these young farmers, it’s also about holding out for simple things. This includes better policies and relationships with industry, more cooperatives and farm-shares, RedBull and coffee – the strategic mix that Jamie, Jake and Moss have concocted to see them through 90 minutes of sawing and sanding in the mid-day sun.

They know that even as the industry moves towards ever greater efficiency, it will still be about choosing long hours, a much loved lifestyle and old-friends, over more mainstream ways of making a living; it will still be a little bit about love.

“What else did you do to prepare for the competition?” I ask. “Went out and got wasted”, Jake’s quick to quip with a cheeky smile. “Just for fun.”

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