OPINION: DEFRA’s plan to phase out us oldies

Nottinghamshire farmer Robert Sutton responds to the government’s Future of Farming review (News, 12 July). There is, he insists, life in the old dog yet…

So, another spiffing wheeze from DEFRA. How to remove the dead hand of farming’s wizened incumbents from the steering wheel of agriculture (aka encouraging older farmers to retire to make way for younger ones).

Agriculture is a modern, innovative industry that needs to embrace new technology, but it appears this is unlikely to happen with a bunch of old crumblies in charge. So the Department for the Elimination of Farmers with Rheumatism and Alzheimer’s has come up with a scheme to clear away the dead wood and allow a new generation to “bring in new ideas and drive the industry forward”.

Lead author David “Baby Face” Fursdon suggests that tenancy succession should be restricted to the age of 70. If Dad hasn’t handed over the reins by then, succession will be lost. He fails to mention that if the old curmudgeon is still calling the shots, he’s probably also still the one signing the cheques, and so our newly-empowered middle-aged “youngster” might well find himself the titular head of a business still controlled by the bank of Dad, with no real transfer of power.

DEFRA may not have noticed, but currently the most tax-efficient way to hand down the family farm is not by graciously stepping aside, but rather by soldiering on until you drop dead in the farmyard in the act of unblocking the muck-spreader, thus ascertaining your status as a working farmer. That is certainly the strategy that I and many of my peers are adopting, purely in the interests of our children, you understand.

One proposal is to remove the 100% agricultural property relief currently available to farmers who die at any age, replacing it with relief that runs out when they hit 70, in a bid to trigger an earlier hand-over.

But unless it simultaneously offers farmers younger than 70 the ability to hand down their business tax-free, our kids will literally be better off with us dead before we achieve the critical age. This creates a conflict of interest for our youngsters that might prove too tempting. Monster dual wheels might be leaned more precariously against the workshop walls. Grease guns may drip accidentally onto the combine’s top step. They may even allow us to use the chain saw again.

The wish to replace us oldsters with younger, less capable, managers is understandable, but highly ageist. It hardly sits comfortably beside recent legislation that prevents employers dismissing staff just because they are drawing a state pension.

It raises, too, the interesting possibility that, having finally expelled the family patriarch from the farm office, our new “young” farmer will go out to the workshop raring to introduce his new techniques and ideas, only to be confronted by a row of old fossils. With Dad right in the middle of them.

Do you have a view on this subject? Tell us by emailing fwfarmlife@rbi.co.uk

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