Landlines: Media focus has been on young farmers

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YOUNG farmers have been in the news more than usual recently as the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs (SAYFC) celebrates its 75th anniversary and a five-part series on Channel 4 features three individual actual and hopeful young farmers on Friday nights.

There was also an excellent recent article in Scotland on Sunday by Anna Burnside on new young tenant farmers on Buccleuch Estates and Forestry Commission land.

For those of us of a certain age no matter how hard we try it becomes increasingly difficult to think ourselves into a 20-25 year old mindset, much as we’d like to, and look at today’s farming prospects from their point of view.

It’s also easy to be critical of how some of them behave until we force ourselves to remember some of the stupid things we did, on and off the farm, as young adults.

Predictably, a formal celebration of the SAYFC’s 75th anniversary meant a black-tie dinner for about 100. No doubt less formal events are planned for the rest of the year, but formal dos aren’t what most of us associate with young farmers.

I’d say the Channel 4 series gives a better idea of how they approach life and work. As with any “reality” show it’s possible to be critical, to see that there’s more money behind some of the youngsters than is admitted in the programme and to wonder if one or two are playing at it.

On the other hand, some genuine dilemmas have been covered, most to do with family relationships. Jobs for three brothers, even if the farm has been in the family for ten generations? Should a 22 year old be given more responsibility? Will the parents move out of the farmhouse to allow the 25 year old son to take over the tenancy, a move stipulated by the tenancy agreement? Will a youngster quit the family farm a second time to re-start his training as an auctioneer?

At least two of those featured were back on the farm after successfully working in a city. The lure of the land was too strong. One of last week’s trio had no farming background, but had been a tractor fanatic since he could talk.

He would love to eventually have a farm of his own, but prospects of that are slim. No matter how many hours you put in as a tractor driver the chances of accumulating enough capital to buy land, or get a tenancy, are slim.

With livestock there is more of a chance. It’s been said often enough, but here it comes again, that those established in farming have always told hopeful youngsters that prospects of farming on their own are poor; the veteran farmers on the Channel 4 series say it, AG Street was saying it in the 1950s and probably Arthur Young, who produced the first comprehensive study of English farming, was saying it in the late 1700s.

But the most determined have always managed it and the ones I know have usually done it by accumulating livestock of some kind – poultry, pigs, sheep or cattle – and keeping them where they could on rented land or in rented buildings until they could go full time on a permanent base.

It goes without saying that also meant living frugally and working ridiculous hours because their livestock work usually had to be done before and after whatever job they were in. That, too, has come through with some of those featured on Channel 4.

In short, it has been a surprisingly good series and the potted history of some of those involved has been encouraging. Enthusiasm, hard work and determination don’t always pay off, but without them you’re nowhere.

The same was true of those featured in Anna Burnside’s feature. Andrew Marchant is a new tenant on a 230 acre upland sheep farm on Buccleuch Estates in Dumfries-shire. He and his wife Aileen – and two young children – have a flock of 600 breeding ewes.

It’s obvious that won’t produce a living income, not least because as a new entrant he gets no subsidy. He also works as a shepherd on a neighbouring farm and she is a teacher. And until the European Union manages to change the rules so that retired farmers can no longer collect a subsidy and new entrants can get one, that’s the way it’s going to be.

But Andrew summed up what it means to have a farm of your own and why what sociologists call “delayed gratification” is worth it. He said: “Everything I do on the farm is an investment. We don’t have holidays, nights out, buy much or go places – but it’s so worth it we don’t even notice.”

He added: “Farming is my passion. It sounds a bit sad, but I don’t have any hobbies. All I do is farm … Doing it for yourself, you can see where you’re going, see that you’re building an asset for your family. It’s very rewarding and makes its manageable.”

That’s as well put as I’ve seen it put. The encouraging thing for the future of farming is that he’s not alone.