I was fortunate enough to be around when the then Government had a focus on getting young people into farming.
This was driven by the broad understanding by both Government and the wider community that farming was underpinning the economy. Hence the use of subsidies and other incentives to try and ‘crank-up’ the agricultural sector to bail out the economy.
Hindsight has shown us that many of these steps had unintended consequences which did all sorts of harm to both the farming sector and the economy.
Anyway among the programs were schemes designed to help new farmers onto the land. Finance was provided by the government-owned Rural Bank which lent monies at a subsidised 7.5% rate, and we also had the Department of Lands and Survey which developed farm land from Crown owned land and other abandoned farms etc. These farms, once developed to a reasonable standard, were put into a ballot which aspiring young farmers could go into and hopefully win. They didn’t come free; deposits were required and the farmers were kept to very stringent budgets.
However, between these and the Rural Bank, reasonable numbers of young farmers got into farming.
Aspiring farmers were often able to gather together enough money for a deposit by working in such trades as shearing, fencing and in the meat processing works.
Since then with the structural adjustments policies bought by the 1984 Labour Gov’t, the Rural Bank was privatised, and through several ownership changes ended up in Rabobank (via Wrightson Finance). The Department of Lands and Survey (Now LandCorp or Pamu) was one of the few crown owned entities not sold off (think of Kiwi Rail, BNZ, MoW, State Power, etc, etc,) supposedly to provide a land bank to meet Treaty of Waitangi settlements. Pamu certainly wasn’t kept because it was a cash cow to government as the meagre returns since have shown. Readers can make their own minds up as to what purpose it is meant to achieve, even today.
The average age of farmers has reflected the changes of ease of access to farming. For the 1971-81 period showed as farmer numbers increased (the incentivised period described above), the average age decreased (44.3 to 41.9). However, from 1981 to 1986 there was a reversal in this trend and the average age in 1986 rose to 42.5.
From 1986-91 the average age went up again to 43.4. Many young farmers were ‘pushed’ off the land during the restructures and there were few ‘new entrants’ with many farm sales being amalgamations by older ‘established’ farmers.
The trend has continued, with data from Statistics NZ showing the average age of farmers increased 2.6 years to 51.4 between the 2006 and 2013 censuses (beef farmers average age 56.1; deer 55.8; dairy 41.7; mixed cropping farmers 49.1).
In trying to find the latest information I have come up short. Stats NZ do not seem to keep it and I am waiting to see if Fed Farmers have similar updated information. It seems to be an area being overlooked within the census data. Having just downloaded the 2019 Farm Survey form farmer age is missing which does appear to be an oversight given, at least in my mind, the importance of such and easily collected information.
According to the FAO; In the UK, the average age of a farmer is 59. In Kenya, it is 60. And in Japan, with the highest average age for a farmer, it is 67.
While researching the topic I came across a somewhat romanticised video on where the farmers are and one of the comments posted which resonated is copied in below:
selso costa, 3 years ago
How did we get here?
1- First you spread the "news" that the population will grow wildly, that there is no more space and that we will starve in a few decades. Then farmers and researchers improve their techniques to increase productivity. Production grows much faster than the population, and then prices fall.
2- Second, you swear and scold and accuse the farmers of destroying the world, of polluting everything, of wanting to kill the people with monster foods that only benefit these damn rural capitalists.
That is..., in addition to the farmers do tiresome, uncertain, risky and stressful work, they are accused of all possible evils, of destroying the world, nature and the land itself.
What motivation do you expect these farmers' children have to keep working? In addition to enduring a difficult and hard work, you still have to listen - by who is fed by them - that are they the bad guys?
So ... here come some college kids full of organic-socialist beasts on their heads to make little gardens and films thinking they'll save the world ...
Certainly age of farmers is a problem, much of it I believe is due at least in New Zealand is due to the inability of young(er) farmers being able to access the funds to get onto the land.
Dairy farming has a lesser age problem at least in part due to the stepping stone approach made available through the share farming options which are not generally there for sheep and beef farming.
Equity partnerships are available as a means to invest and grow ownership in property. And leasing does provide another route while still farming.
However, with the size of the deposit required normally 20% plus and with the high cost of all farm types there looks to be no light on the horizon for seriously aspiring young farmers.
Despite this some do make the jump, often by making their money outside of the agricultural sector and others with family support. But the increasing age and lesser number of farms (which means they also cost more) indicates that the pathway to farming is not an easy one.
Currently technology has replaced some of what youthful bodies could bring to the industry but there is a limit to what can be expected on this front.
In the meantime aging farmers are switching away from the more labour intensive sheep to cattle and of course trees have a growing influence.