Belfast Telegraph

Half of Northern Ireland farmers have no one to take over family business when they retire, reveals study

By Chris McCullough

Nearly half of all farmers in Northern Ireland have no one to take over the family farm when they retire, new research has revealed.

A key survey of 442 Ulster Farmers' Union members has raised serious concerns over how the next generation of family farms will be run.

Of those polled, 48% of farm businesses contacted had no successor in mind, with one in five saying they had no reason or no good reason for doing so.

Farmers were contacted by the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) and the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster (YFCU) to assess the situation regarding succession.

Succession proves to be a difficult topic to discuss on family farms and is often overlooked by both older and younger generations. However, the lack of planning for the next generation of Northern Ireland's farmers presents risks to both the businesses and the industry as a whole.

The UFU and YFCU say they are continuing to work to establish a land mobility scheme to link young farmers with older ones keen to retire, but who have no succession plan.

Of the farmers who had not identified a successor, 61% had not sought advice or information - but over half (53%) said they would be interested in a succession/inheritance planning advisory service.

Evidence suggests that farmers often rely on familiar short-term mechanisms, such as the 'conacre' system of letting land, and largely overlook better options, such as partnership and long-term lease arrangements.

"This possibly reflects a lack of understanding and confidence," said UFU president Barclay Bell.

One in five who had identified a successor have planned for the transfer of the farm via a will.

Mr Bell said: "This does not come as a huge surprise but it does confirm that we are on the right track with our efforts to raise awareness about succession planning and a land mobility scheme that would link young farmers with older farmers seeking to retire."

Mr Bell added: "More education and awareness around options for land mobility and land consolidation are needed."

Northern Ireland has a rapidly ageing farming population with the proportion of farmers over 55 years old increasing from 52% in 1993 to 59% in 2013. Over the same period, the percentage aged under 44 fell from 26 to 17%.

YFCU president Roberta Simmons said this was "a startling trend" and that there is "little doubt" difficulty accessing land had played a role.

"Access to land or land mobility has long been an issue for young farmers," she said.

"The aim of the research was to get a better understanding of the thinking of those who had not yet identified a successor. That is the key to tackling the problem.

"Our agricultural colleges are full to capacity, so it is clear many young people want a career in farming - but land mobility remains a barrier.

"This needs to be addressed with urgency. If not, the consequences will be far-reaching for the entire agri-food industry."

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