Should all farmers retire at 60? No, says David Richardson

This year’s Oxford Farming Conference will debate the motion “This House believes that all farmers should retire at 60”. David Richardson explains why he is against the motion.

We’ve all heard stories of 90-year-old farmers refusing to allow their 65-year-old sons to sign cheques. Maybe there were a handful of such cases in the past. Maybe not. But I doubt there were many and certainly there won’t be today. And that is not what we, on this side of the argument, are advocating.

Nor are we seeking to inhibit young people from entering our industry. We were young once and realise only too well that youthful enthusiasm is a valuable commodity that can be harnessed and encouraged to achieve great things.

Furthermore we recognise we won’t be around for ever and that the young need to be trained to step into our shoes, eventually.

But these days the trend is for later retirement. There is legislation prohibiting discrimination because of age. Modern medicines and diets mean we are staying fit and living longer. And while age does not always bring wisdom, experience counts for a lot and can temper the impetuosity of youth if discretely applied to the benefit of both generations.

We live in volatile times. Those of us who have been round the course a few times can recognise the signs and stay calm while those witnessing such phenomena for the first time might panic and make rash, expensive and possibly terminal mistakes.

And then there’s the question of funding. An established farmer with a few tens of years under his belt should be better placed to weather economic storms than a callow youth who has just negotiated a big overdraft on which to run his business. Such a young person is highly vulnerable to changes in commodity prices, extremes of weather or political whim.

Don’t take my word for it. Talk to bank managers. I think you’ll find they are more comfortable lending to mature clients than young people straight out of college or university. And the increased interest rates they charge the young reflect that concern.

I can remember in my own youth seeing what these days we would call middle-aged farmers bent double by physical work and hobbling around the cattle market with walking sticks. Those days are gone. Today, if a joint goes wrong or if arthritis sets in you can get another and in a few months be almost as good as new.

In any case, most problems of that kind are more likely these days to have been caused by a skiing injury or similar rather than back-breaking work on the end of a muck fork or carrying four bushel corn sacks up stairs.

Arguably, 50 years ago it might have been appropriate to call for compulsory retirement at 60. But 80 is the new 60 and while I concede that I am well over the three score years I feel that mentally I am just coming up to my peak with the best still to come. And I’m ready to go on for a long while yet.

David Richardson is a Farmers Weekly columnist and farms near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with this wife.