Leaving the land - will it happen?

20 September 2021

One of the consequences of Covid and lockdowns is that, as professional advisers, we have had fewer informal opportunities to chat to our farming clients and gauge current opinions. DEFRA has recently stepped into the gap by publishing a report on 9th September, encompassing the results of a survey carried out in April – the third annual “Farmer opinion tracker”.

DEFRA received survey responses from some 1135 English farms, with a size limit that excluded smaller units, so sampled into about 55% of the nation’s farmers. Many of the questions were, unsurprisingly, angled towards DEFRA’s relationship with the farming community, and key findings included the following:

  • 67% of respondents said they either fully (5%) or roughly (62%) understood DEFRA’s vision for farming, (Up from 63% in 2020).
  • 60% of farmers indicated that they will need to make changes to their farm business in the next 3 to 5 years, (2020: 54%)
  • 88% of holdings said that DEFRA paying for environmental outcomes will be very (62%) or moderately (26%) important to their business in the future. Over half of farmers (53%) felt positive about the future of farming, an overall increase from 51% in 2020 and 48% in 2019.
  • There is a general increase in awareness of what will need to be done post Brexit, with some 59% feeling that they either have all or most of the information that they need to plan their businesses, or at least know where to find it. (Up from 57% in 2020 and 49% in 2019)

Looking further into detail, when asked what specific changes need to be made, 42% saw diversification as a way forward, with others looking to increase productivity, change core enterprises or optimise the farm size. On a regional basis, diversification was most popular in the East, Southeast and Southwest (over 50%); much less so in Yorkshire and the Northeast where only 26-27% say this as a way forward.

One particular question has thrown up a response which may have been unexpected: there has been some suspicion that there is a not particularly well hidden agenda behind the current subsidy reforms aimed at improving productivity, in part, by encouraging older and less progressive farmers to retire and make way for younger or more commercial successors. However, in response to the question about changes to business structure, only 10% of respondents are planning to retire or pass the farm on to family, with 6% planning to leave farming for other reasons. One assumes that a large proportion of these family successions would probably have taken place in the normal course of events anyway (albeit perhaps not quite as soon), so the current indications are not really pointing towards a huge exodus from the land – the promise of lump sums to help retirement notwithstanding.

Commenting on the report, MHA agricultural partner Sarah Dodds said

Since we have not been able to undertake our own face to face optimism surveys over the last couple of years the DEFRA figures make interesting reading. Of course, subsidy cuts have not yet started to bite, and the current strong commodity prices will be comforting, but it is still good to see that the majority of businesses are still optimistic and are now getting to grips with the changes that they will need to make. The low numbers looking to leave the industry give an indication of the resilience of the sector and perhaps demonstrate an unexpected determination to adapt and survive

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