Would I advise my kids to become farmers? Country Hour asks the question

Do farmers want their kids to be farmers? A Victorian parliamentary inquiry is looking at why young people don’t want to further their education in agricultural studies. Early submissions says farming parents are one of the greatest deterrents… Hear more on the Country Hour today, and tell us, would you advise your kids to get a career in farming?

In just a few minutes, ABC Radio’s Country Hour will ask the million-dollar question: if life is so good on the land, would you recommend farming to your children?

I would, so long as Zoe and Alex have a passion for animals and the land and don’t have expensive tastes. Farming is nothing if not exciting and challenging. On the other hand, it’s anything but lucrative, particularly if you’re still struggling with a large debt burden as many young farmers must.

Even if they decide to become farmers, I wouldn’t recommend ag studies. The tradition of many farming families is to “get another trade to fall back on first” and it’s wise, whether that trade is boiler making or journalism. It makes sense to learn from other workplaces, acquire fresh skills, make new circles of friends, establish an independent identity and to experience being an employee before you become a manager.

Perhaps even more importantly, second jobs for farmers are incredibly common and the average Australian dairy farming family makes about as much income off the farm as on it. Employment helps us survive the bad years and ride out cash flow droughts.

And, if the worst happens, there are always options.

The farmer is dead, long live the farmer: succession is rarely so easy

Dad with the dairy under construction

Dad missed out on his dairy

The royal wedding got me thinking about succession. Nobody maps it out more clearly than the Windsors. From the moment they are born, everyone knows exactly where they stand. Not so for many Australian farming families, including ours.

Dad and I loved each other but there just wasn’t enough room for both of us on the farm: financially, emotionally or in terms of management style. Although immensely proud of his university-trained daughter, I think he felt the farm was no place for a “girl” and, besides, this was his domain.

As Dad aged and grew more tired, it was great to have his daughter on hand to milk, feed calves, fix fences, drive tractors and so on but the subject of succession planning was taboo. He would tell anyone who cared to listen that he wanted to be “found dead in the dairy at 97”.

The dairy itself ended up being a rather poignant reminder of Dad’s determination and, ultimately, frustration. The dairy farmer who prided himself on always milking alone built a new 16-aside double-up herringbone in 2005/06. Sadly, he only milked in it a few times. Prostate cancer claimed Dad, aged “just” 77, in December 2006.

His last year was difficult. Dad did not want to admit defeat, so struggled on farming for many months despite being incredibly weak. Finally, the tipping point came when he fell off a tractor and had to be rushed into hospital unconscious.

In the weeks leading up to Dad’s death, the will was able to be discussed. He had remarried only five years earlier and the assumption was made that his wife would sell the farm. I was desperate to keep the farm and it became a bitter battle. In the last two or three weeks before his death, Dad decided that if he did die, I should be given the chance to pay her out and try my hand at farming.

It was almost too late and the indescribable stress was unfair on everyone. Tragically, this scenario is not unique and gets even more complicated when siblings are involved. Don’t let it happen to your family. Get everyone involved early and take advantage of all the resources and expert advice you can find.

Would love to hear how your family has approached this sometimes tricky topic.