Generational renewal is now a priority for farm-policy makers in Northern Ireland (NI), according to according to Land Mobility Programme manager, John McCallister, who believes this to be a very positive development.
A discussion document, recently published by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) as part of the ongoing public consultation on future farm policy options for the north, provides in-depth analysis on the ways in which greater numbers of young people can commit to a future within agriculture.
“The current policy review gives farming, as a whole, a unique opportunity to establish new support measures that will allow it to grow and develop on a sustainable basis for many years to come,” the land-mobility manager said.
“And generational renewal will be an important part of the plans set in place for the future. Young people bring with them tremendous enthusiasm, energy and new ideas.
“It goes without saying that the farming industry must do whatever is needed to encourage the brightest and best young minds into the industry.”
Meanwhile, the current Land Mobility Programme will continue in its present form, at least until September 2022.
Looking back on 2021, McCallister characterises the year as one that had a very stop-start nature.
“The Covid-19 restrictions, particularly those re-introduced post Christmas 2020, hampered the hosting of face-to-face meetings.
“It’s only possible to build relationships to a certain extent courtesy of Zoom meetings. Final arrangements can only be brokered on the back of actual farm visits and physical meetings.
“That said, the number of agreements reached between older landowners wishing to establish long-term working relationships with younger people coming into the industry increased at a steady rate throughout 2021.”
And, he added, the Land Mobility Programme has encouraged significant numbers of farming families to start discussing the issue of succession at a much earlier stage than would have previously been the case.
“This is reflected in the number of inquiries I am now receiving,” he said.
“It’s also evident that the vast majority of farmers coming to the end of their active careers want to see their businesses passed on to the next generation and maintained as active concerns.
“If this cannot be achieved within a family group, then land mobility can act to help find young people with the right skill sets and attitude that can take on the running of the business in full compliance with the owners’ wishes.
“I am also available to sit down with any farm family and advise on all aspects of succession within their business.”
Looking ahead, he said he hopes to, again, host one-to-one land mobility advisory clinics in Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) offices across NI.
“These have worked tremendously well in the past. Obviously, any future meetings can only be held once the current Covid threat recedes sufficiently.”
The purpose of the land mobility service is to facilitate collaborative arrangements tailored to suit any specific farm business situation.
These arrangements may be as simple or as complex as desired. They must be workable for all parties involved and can be within or outside the family or a combination of both.
In many cases it is envisaged that the arrangements will evolve overtime, to help develop dynamic, progressive and profitable farm businesses.
Last September, the NI land mobility initiative reached a landmark stage in its development when the number of young people wishing to avail of the scheme was greater than that of older farmers offering land or wanting to develop new partnership, long-term leasing or other business arrangements.
Commenting, McCallister said:
“This development reflects the real demand that exists among younger people to develop careers in production agriculture.
“The average farmer age in Northern Ireland is still too high. The good news is that the Land Mobility Programme is making a genuine difference when it comes to offering younger people an opportunity to develop sustainable careers within the various farming sectors.”
But he believes that the Stormont Executive can do more to facilitate enhanced generational change within farming.
“One obvious way forward is the introduction of tax changes that will encourage the establishment of new working relationships between farmers who want to retire and younger people seeking long term leasing, or other business relationships with older landowners.
“Taxation is not a devolved matter, so it will require decisions being taken by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – the HMRC – in London to give the Land Mobility Programme the boost it needs.
“If we had a scenario within which land rental incomes could be availed of on a tax-free basis by an older landowner who have entered into a long-term leasing arrangement with a younger farmer, this could transform the means through which large areas of land can be kept in productive use.
“Such an arrangement could provide the older person with a very valuable pension pot, while allowing the younger person to develop a sustainable, long-term business venture.”
“Substantial tax changes have been introduced in the Republic of Ireland, all designed to encourage younger people to develop careers within the various farming sectors.
“To say that we need a similar approach to be taken in Northern Ireland is obvious.”