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Matt O'Keeffe

From generation to generation

The Irish Farmers’ Association’s succession seminars last month confirmed the very real challenges facing Irish family farming in ensuring that our farms pass through the natural generational transfer process. The challenges were always there, often exacerbated by an unwillingness by some farmers to let go of ownership because they themselves received the farm late in life, or through fears that they could be left to live out their older years in poverty. The challenges have changed but the process is still difficult, made even more so by the fact that there are fewer obvious or interested inheritors. 

The mechanics of inheritance and succession among farm families have become increasingly complex and problematic. Many farm owners are discovering that the traditional inheritance process no longer operates, either because there is no obvious successor or those family members who would be seen as likely inheritors and future farmers have no interest. While it has often been noted that young people should not be rushed into a farming role and should be given time to experience life outside of the farmgate, that can sometimes result in a person disengaging or realising that life as a farmer is not for them. With the extraordinary expansion in educational opportunities which can deliver dependable incomes and good work/life balance there is increasing pressure on farming to match competing career choices. Even where the farm is viable, potential inheritors are walking away. Sometimes, farmers’ own attitudes can be an unintended obstacle to a potential inheritor. A negative attitude to the life they have devoted themselves to, allied to working all hours, can dissuade a new generation from taking on the mantle. Long gone are the days when an eldest child, usually a male, was obliged to take over the farm, whether they were interested or suited, or not. There are many examples of square pegs in round holes – it can and has led to lives less well-lived. 

Mobilising land 

Macra’s ‘one in 16 under 35’ statistic is frightening. Farming is a seriously age-imbalanced profession. No other career is even remotely comparable. One of the key issues that led to Macra’s recent march from Athy to Dublin was the need to improve the pathways towards farm management and ownership. In circumstances where there are no obvious successors, more enlightened and imaginative avenues must be explored. Macra’s Land Mobility Service was set up to promote those alternative approaches to land transfer. Retiring farmers can opt for long-term leases or partnership structures involving younger, dynamic farmers with reassurances that their farms will be well managed and maintained and that they can have a degree of involvement, should they wish. In addition, there is reassurance that their financial needs in older life will be secured without necessarily having to dispose of the farm, carefully built up and maintained over a lifetime of work and interest. The Land Mobility Service puts great store on ensuring that arrangements are viable in the long term, are mutually beneficial to the owner and the operator, and that potential problems can be resolved by reference to written agreements entered into by the participants. 

Our farm structure has long been recognised as a stable model for Irish food production. There should be no place in government policy for definitions such as ‘average’ and ‘typical’ farms. Succession supports are needed more than ever if we are not to see our farm structure collapse in the coming decades.