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Barriers to entering agriculture

James MacKessack-Leitch

Scottish Land Commission Policy Officer, James Mackessack-Leitch looks at barriers to entering agriculture:

As with any industry, sustaining a cohort of new entrants is crucial to the ongoing vitality, resilience and competitiveness of the agricultural sector and rural regions.

One of the perhaps lesser known workstreams the Scottish Land Commission is advancing is around reviewing the barriers to entry to agriculture, and how to overcome them. Although there’s a lot of uncertainty in the sector at the moment, there is one thing we do need to address regardless of what the future holds: getting more new talent into agriculture by ensuring that existing farmers have the tools and confidence to involve newcomers in their business, and ensuring that the energy, enthusiasm, and innovation new entrants bring to the industry isn’t lost.

At the Farm Advisory Service’s New Entrants Gathering in Perth earlier this year, I saw first-hand a room full of enthusiastic young people who – via a perhaps unscientific straw poll – indicated that the biggest barrier to their entering agriculture was a lack of access to land. Given the previous research in the area over at least the past decade has shown similar results that shouldn’t be a surprise – but it is a growing concern.

While there’s a lot of good work going on in agricultural education, and the creation of starter farms on public land – where the FONE group have done a power of work – there is more we can and should be doing. Which is why earlier this year the Land Commission engaged the James Hutton Institute to dig into this issue, and crucially, suggest some practical solutions to increase the availability of farmland for new entrants.

The report by McKee et al. which has just been published explores:

  • Current experience and understanding of joint venture options such as contract farming, partnerships, share farming, agricultural tenancies, and leasing/licensing
  • The potential for tax interventions, with a particular focus on income tax relief in relation to tenancy creation/length
  • English, Welsh, and Irish experience of land matching services
  • The development internationally of farm incubators for new businesses

So far the joint ventures and tax interventions have attracted the most attention, and will likely be the focus for the short term, but I think there’s definitely something in the development of a Scottish land matching service, and incubators too.

Following the setup of land matching services in the Republic of Ireland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland over the past few years, Scotland is now alone in not having a similar service available to landowners, farmers, and potential new entrants.

In essence a land matching service is like any other matchmaking (or dating!) service. A farmer or landowner registers their details, along with an indication of what they are offering in which sector (land, joint venture opportunity, etc.). Likewise, the potential new entrant registers their details including qualifications and experience, whether they bring any assets, and what their aspirations are.

The matching service then matches suitable candidates, and offers to facilitate the initial meetings. If things go well, both parties are then free to enter into a business relationship. Additionally the service may be able to support both parties in drafting agreements, and provide advice.

Incubators have a different focus, and generally provide training and mentorship as well as the opportunity to take risks. They may also provide some funding, and access to a network of supporters and previous users for advice – and even subsequent progression.

Crucially, incubators provide an environment for new entrants to experiment where the focus is on innovation, research, and development – not absolute profitability.

Given the high risk associated with incubators, international experience shows these are almost exclusively limited to public and third sector landowners. However, for some larger private landowners developing a small incubator unit could well lead to significant rewards with the right people and support in place.

In the current climate of uncertainty it may seem strange to be encouraging more people into agriculture, but the reality is that in many cases working with a new entrant can bring extra benefits and security. For starters, a new entrant with energy and enthusiasm can reinvigorate a farm business – taking on a share of the physical labour as well as the technical and computer based side of things.

In many joint venture situations a new entrant taking on some of the business risk can help stabilise a farm, and having two (or more) determined people supporting and encouraging each other can provide a stronger platform to weather future challenges – and exploit new opportunities.

The next step for the Land Commission is to take this message out to farmers, landowners and potential new entrants – and with our partners in the NFUS and Farm Advisory Service that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in a series of workshops later this year – keep an eye out for details coming soon!