A new study has found striking similarities between farmers in Ireland and the United States (US) when it comes to retirement and succession.

The research comparing the attitudes of farmers in Ireland and the US state of Iowa, was published in Iowa State University’s Agricultural Policy Review.

The study was funded by the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway and led by Dr. Shane Conway, a postdoctoral researcher at the university’s Rural Studies Centre.

The academic has been researching generational renewal in agricultural policy since 2013.

Retirement and succession

Dr. Conway told Agriland that there is a wide range of social, cultural and economic variations and farming systems across the world.

He said that Iowa is the “heartland of agriculture” in the US and comparing data from the state to Ireland provides “a unique perspective”.

The average farm size in Ireland is 32.4ha, compared to 145.3ha in Iowa.

“It’s a huge difference in scale. So you would envisage that there would be quite significant differences in the attitudes of farmers towards succession and retirements.

“But very interestingly from this study, there’s so many commonalities,” Dr. Conway said.

The study drew on analysis from the international FARMTRANSFER survey which has gathered the views and opinions of 17,000 farmers to date.

The findings from 496 Irish farmers found that only 25% indicated that they intend to fully retire, 29% declared that they will never do so, and 46% plan to semi-retire.

In Iowa, 56% of 739 respondents indicated that they will semi-retire, 20% declared they will never retire from farming and 23% indicated that they will fully retire in the future .

Image Source: Iowa State University

Almost one third of Irish farmers are older than 65, while 34% of US farmers are aged 65 and older.

“We talk about generation renewal at an EU level, but this is a global issue,” Conway said.

52% of Irish farmers and 40% of Iowa farmers have identified a successor.

However, 77% of the Irish farmers and 66% of respondents in Iowa did not have a succession plan in place.

“So they’ve identified a successor, but they don’t have a succession plan in place, and they don’t intend to retire.

“It’s a real conundrum for the younger generation who wants to get established in farming,” Conway noted.

The academic cited the so-called ‘Prince Charles syndrome’ – by the time Prince Charles succeeds the throne in Britain his own son, William, will be ready.

Older farmers

This study concludes that the findings reaffirm farmers’ reluctance to ‘step aside’ and retire from farming, and that this is not confined to one country, but rather has a global dimension.

The academics call on agricultural policymakers and practitioners to re-examine their existing predominant focus on addressing needs and requirements of the younger farming generation and place a greater or equal emphasis on maintaining the quality of life of those most affected by the process, namely the older farmer.

“They’ve been farming all their lives so this prospect of succession or retirement is very difficult for them to process. They have to revise their self perceptions and way of life to step aside,” Conway said.

The academic pointed to the benefits of pursuing collaboration as opposed to previous retirement schemes which called for all agricultural activity to cease entirely.

He acknowledged that the Irish farm partnership model was “quite good”.

The study states that future policy, which aims to stimulate generational renewal in agriculture, must be aligned to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) age-friendly environments concept.

The paper also reiterates the recommendation for a dedicated social organisation for older farmers called ‘Farmer’s Yards‘.

A pilot study under the agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) is being considered as a way to begin such a movement in Ireland.