Belfast Telegraph

Pass on family business earlier, farmers are told

By Linda Stewart

For most of us, a looming 60th birthday means a very big cake and vague thoughts of retirement.

If you're a farmer in Northern Ireland, however, you may well still be waiting for the family business to be signed over to you.

The Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster (YFCU) is now trying to change that tradition of leaving it as late as possible to hand over to the next generation.

It believes the uncertainty over a farm's future could be damaging the family businesses.

One young farmer at the Balmoral Show told how one man had passed away before the farm was handed over.

"My dad had a cousin who was 65 when he died – and he still didn't have his name on the cheque book. It's a common practice," he said.

YFCU president Martyn Blair said the organisation, which represents nearly 3,000 members across Northern Ireland, has been strongly promoting the need for young farmers to take on responsibility at an earlier stage.

"The average age of a farmer in Northern Ireland is 58, which is pretty staggering," he says. "It's a longstanding cultural thing where an older farmer hangs on to the business, probably because his father did. It's a taboo subject – no-one wants to talk about it.

"But we're encouraging young farmers to go and say, 'Look, we need to talk about having a long-term future on this farm'.

"It's a major, major issue. If agriculture is to have any future as an industry, the industry needs successors coming in to carry the business on for the next generation. If the average farmer is 58, that is a problem. For the long-term future of the industry, we need to pull this age down."

At the Balmoral Show, young farmers were only willing to talk about their experiences anonymously, worried about causing offence within the family.

One said her parents were in their 60s and her three brothers, who are farming part-time, still don't know what is going to happen.

"It's worrying for their wives and families because nothing firm has been put in place," she said.

"One of my brothers has built a business on the farm, there is still no plan in place and it's something I've been trying to get them to focus on."

Meanwhile, James Speers, who farms a beef and sheep enterprise in Armagh, said there was a danger that those who weren't given responsibility early enough may eventually run the farm into the ground from lack of experience.

"I'm fortunate that my dad sent me off to university and was willing to lead me into the farm and slowly but surely let me take over the running, but there would be some farms where there hasn't been anything put in place to carry on," he said.

"They wouldn't necessarily be getting frustrated with it, but they wouldn't be up to speed with what's going on." YFCU has been running a series of seminars on succession planning, bringing in legal experts, accountants and good examples of farms where a succession plan was put in place. But it admits it is probably preaching to the converted, or at least those who are willing to take the next step.

"They have been very well-attended, but there are so many young ones out there who don't come to them and we need to target them," Martyn says.

"It does affect the business if there isn't a successor.

"Banks are very keen, before they lend you money, to see a successor in place."

He added: "If a loan has 20 years' payback, they will be asking if that man is going to be able to pay them back the money in 20 years' time."

And with the Agriculture Minister's announcement that she will be setting the Young Farmers Top-Up at the full level of 25% – a support programme estimated at €84 per hectare – there's even more reason to think ahead and make a plan.

Belfast Telegraph