Empty-farm syndrome a big challenge

GATEKEEPERS: Donald Polson says older farmers are forced to keep working because their children don’t want to take over the farm.
GATEKEEPERS: Donald Polson says older farmers are forced to keep working because their children don’t want to take over the farm.

As more young people leave rural areas for the bright lights, some sheep and beef farmers are wondering who will take over the farm.

Whanganui farmer Donald Polson says the average age of sheep and beef farmers is 60, which is not only a huge concern but also a challenge for farmers to come up with a workable solution.

"As we get older we don't have the same enthusiasm for hard work as we once did," Polson said. "But we have to keep going because some of the younger generation are not really interested in taking over the family farm. I know a lot of people my age who are wondering how they can keep on going."

Increasingly, it appeared children from farming families did not see farming as a career and, instead, headed off to study and train in another profession, Polson said.

"There is a real lack of younger people choosing sheep and beef farming as a career.

"There is a perception that there is no money to be made in this industry and that, if you want to make a future for yourself, do something else. This is a perception which needs to change so more younger people can enter the industry.

"The biggest driver for hill-country farmers is the price we get for our lambs and this is what helps change this perception. When the price rises, the industry becomes more positive and this flows on.

"Traditionally, there was always the expectation your children would some day take over the family farm but this is no longer the case. Parents are now encouraging their children to take their own path."

Polson, who has an interest in three farms, including the original family farm which has been passed from generation to generation since the 1870s, said family businesses had worked extremely well in the past.

But, he said, people were now needed who were passionate about the industry rather than those taking over the farm because it was an expectation.

"I know of families in the Whanganui area who have farmed for generations but there was no-one in their family willing to take over. The reality is taking over the family farm takes capital and a family member who is willing to do so. "We need another pathway, where we can get outside investors working with key stakeholders to assist young people on the path to farm ownership."

While the industry was not very buoyant and the droughts of 2008, 2013 and again this year had a big impact, Polson said, he was encouraged by recent improvements.

"The season has been tricky but more forgiving than last year. The drought last year made things very difficult for many sheep and beef farmers but luckily, although still bad, this year it wasn't as severe - especially in the Hawke's Bay. So, as a result, prices haven't crashed as badly as in previous years."

Polson said that, while to a certain extent the industry was still playing catchup, prices were as strong as they had been in a long time.

"The lamb price peaked a few years ago and, while we are not back at that level, we are getting up there. We are getting a good price of around $6 per kilogram which is much better than the $4.50 we got last year. At $6, we can see a future for the industry, but there is always room for improvement."

With sheep confined to hill country and dairying taking the best land, farmers are working harder and smarter than previously.

"Ewe numbers in New Zealand have declined substantially but the weight of lamb we export is the same. "This indicates we are working efficiently and harder with the resources we have.

"We are weaning more and growing lambs faster so the potential is there for the industry to move forward."

Polson said he was optimistic about the industry and hoped for a normal season without a drought.

"I realise the meat companies have to make their margin but a good solid lamb price is the key and $8/kg would be marvellous, though not at the expense of a profitable meat industry." Fairfax NZ

Taranaki Daily News