Should all farmers retire at 60? Yes, says Matthew Naylor

This year’s Oxford Farming Conference will debate the motion “This House believes that all farmers should retire at 60”. Matthew Naylor explains why he is in favour of the motion.

You must have met an old farmer who expressed the hope of “dying in their harness.” This is a phrase derived from horse ploughing which means to die while working. This sounds fine, noble even, until you meet them driving a combine on an A-road. Farming is not like it once was and we need to behave accordingly.

Agriculture requires a good balance of age groups and orderly succession between the generations. In the UK we have allowed a void to form – these days a young person at an NFU branch meeting stands out like an organist who has arrived to entertain a care home. It is a privilege to farm a corner of Great Britain and we should all recognise when it is time to make space for our replacement and to pass on our knowledge.

I know that it can sound disrespectful when youngsters call for retirement schemes. I’ve heard people who seem to be suggesting that farmers should be frogmarched from their beds by a DEFRA vet and shot in the crew yard the moment that their hair turns grey and their ears get hairy. That is a little extreme for my tastes but I am convinced that we all have a duty to plan for old age. When my number is called I would much rather be holding a gin and tonic than a muck shovel.

Most farmers fear retirement. They sense that the perfect year is around the corner; a year of greater yields, better weather, straighter ploughing, higher prices. They don’t want to miss out on it. Farmers, despite what people say, are optimists and not realists.

Many may claim it is impossible to save a big enough pot of gold to retire but this is a problem which we have largely created ourselves – when prices drop, we always produce more to maintain our turnover. A farmer who was honest to himself about the need to save for his retirement would never subsidise his customer in that way – he would focus on profit not expansion.

Farmers are not the type to lust after caravans or golf clubs, usually their work is also their primary recreational activity. How many do you know that have a hobby which can’t be done in wellies? But this can lead to a very one-dimensional view of life. Farming is one of the most rewarding professions but life offers a wealth of experiences beyond it. Farmers deserve the opportunity to discover these and should allow time to share their experience of life with others.

My suggestion is that all farmers of my generation should aim to be financially independent of their business by the age of 60. They should hold in their heart an ambition to fulfil outside of agriculture.

New entrants, whether family or not, can help things along by expecting to pay a fair valuation to their predecessor. Most importantly, we should all appoint our own successor – at the very least you will then have someone to moan at when you’re old and grumpy.

Matthew Naylor is a Farmers Weekly columnist and farms in Lincolnshire in partnership with his father. Matthew is also a Nuffield Scholar