Farm Succession and Retirement across Continents and Cultures: A Focus on Ireland and Iowa

By Shane Francis Conway, Maura Farrell, John McDonagh, Anne Kinsella, and John R. Baker


Overcoming the farming community’s stalwart persistent adherence to traditional succession and retirement practices, which effectively obstructs farmland transfer to the next generation, is a pressing matter for contemporary generational renewal in agriculture policy (Dwyer et al. 2019). Extensive research from the Republic of Ireland by Conway et al. (2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020; 2021) highlights an excessive preoccupation with financial incentives encouraging the process, however, with limited value placed on how painful it is for older farmers ‘let go’ of their farms and their ingrained productivist self-image in later life. US research finds that in many cases, older farmers’ sense of place and purpose attached to family farms supersedes economic imperatives stimulating farm transfer to the next generation, which indicates the overwhelming significance of lifestyle over profit (Kirkpatrick 2012; 2013). However, such sentiments have gone unnoticed over the past four decades as there has been little focus on the needs and requirements of older farmers within policy/academic discussion, even though this cohort ultimately have the power and resources to decide whether intergenerational farm transition takes place (Commins 1973; Conway et al. 2017; Leonard et al. 2017).

This study draws on a baseline analysis of International FARMTRANSFERS Survey data obtained from the Republic of Ireland and the US state of Iowa to identify and compare rates and patterns of succession and older farmers’ similarities and/or differences in attitudes and intentions towards retirement. The FARMTRANSFERS project is an international collaborative effort around a common research instrument that “yields a range of (largely quantitative) data relating to the pattern, process and speed of succession and retirement which provides a firm base for future inquiries utilizing different methodologies” (Lobley and Baker 2012, p. 15). The survey, based on an original design by Errington and Tranter (1991), has now been replicated in 12 countries (see figure 1) and eight US states (see figure 2) and completed by almost 17,000 farmers worldwide.


Figure 1. FARMTRANSFERS Project participant countries (Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States).


Figure 2. FARMTRANSFERS Project participant states (California, Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Virginia).


Research methodology

The Rural Studies Centre at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) first distributed questions derived from the International FARMTRANSFERS Survey to a stratified random sample of 496 farmers included in Teagasc’s Land Use/Mobility Farm Survey and Choice Experiment 2014, representing over 80,000 nationally. Such an expansive sample is important due to Ireland’s different farming regions. For the Iowa data, from July to October 2019, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Beginning Farmer Center surveyed 739 farmers from a stratified random sample of 3,000 farmers.

Combining International FARMTRANSFERS datasets from Ireland and Iowa provides a unique international perspective on farm succession and retirement across a broad spectrum of cultures, farming operations, typologies, geographical locations, and scale—the average farm size in Ireland is 32.4 hectares (CSO 2016), compared to 145.3 hectares in Iowa (USDA 2020). This would not be possible using other existing datasets. Using the FARMTRANSFERS project also ensures the internationalization of research findings, particularly to key stakeholders outside of academia. In terms of quantitative data analysis for this study, we coded and analyzed questionnaire data using frequency distribution tables and a series of cross-tabulations performed in Statistical Packages for Social Sciences (SPSS) version 23.

Results and discussion

FARMTRANSFERS survey findings comparing Irish farmer’s attitudes and intentions towards succession and retirement combined with Iowa data reveal the international scope and complexity of this ‘twin’ process in the farming community. Findings from Ireland highlight a significant cohort of farmers that do not plan to retire from farming in the future—only 25% indicated that they fully intend on doing so, 29% declared that they will never retire, and 46% plan to semi-retire. Conway et al. (2016) identify, of those who are open to the idea of retirement, a “divergence of opinion and uncertainty between retirement expectations and retirement realizations, resulting in the decision to retire being difficult to execute and follow through” (p. 170). The farming community’s powerful, somewhat territorial drive to hold on to their farm at all costs while working hard, taking risks, and enduring hardship and pain, can be conceptualized by Rosmonn’s (2010) notion of the “agrarian imperative.” This construct also provides an explanation for the widely reported “greying” of the farming workforce. In Ireland for example, almost one-third of farmers are older than 65 (CSO 2018), while 34% of US farmers are aged 65 and older (USDA-NASS 2019). In Iowa, 56.45% of respondents indicated that they will semi-retire, 20.25% declared they will never retire from farming, and 23% indicated that they will retire in the future (see figure 3).


Figure 3. Farmers’ retirement intentions.


The older generation’s reluctance to retire results in intractable challenges for younger farmers who want to establish a career in farming; and, under such conditions, it could take 20 to 30 years for them to integrate and evolve into a more formidable role in the family farm business (Conway et al. 2017). Keating (1996) notes that such a long period of family apprenticeship is “analogous to that of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne” (p. 414). His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is still in control. By the time Prince Charles succeeds to the throne, his own son will be ready to assume the role; and, somewhat ironically, his son, Prince William, may also find himself spending most of his adult life as an apprentice in the family business (ibid). Ironically, 26 years after Keating (1996) first used this novel way to describe the succession situation on many family farms, Prince Charles is still in the same situation in 2022. This “Prince Charles Syndrome” predicament also appears to be the case for many “younger” farmers worldwide. Such sociocultural barriers for younger farmers are particularly concerning as survey findings illustrate that 52% of Irish farmers and 40% of Iowa farmers (40%) have identified a successor (see figure 4), which signifies a resurgence in demand from the younger generation for a career in farming, leading to an anticipated renaissance in agriculture, and, by extension, a rejuvenation of rural life (Chiswell 2014; Farrell et al. 2022), provided they can take over the farm in a timely manner.


Figure 4. Percentage of Iowan and Irish farmers that have identified a successor.


However, findings from Irish farmers surveyed in FARMTRANSFERS identify that farmers are ill prepared for succession, with 77% not having a succession plan in place. Moreover, 52% of respondents were found to not even have a will in place. This finding is analogous with results obtained from Iowa, which reveal that 66% of respondents do not have a formal succession plan (see figure 5).


Figure 5. Farmers’ succession plans.


Such ambivalence towards the succession process is also evident in previous studies from the United States, such as Whitehead, Lobley, and Baker (2020) who highlight that programs encouraging farm transfer reported “approximately 20 beginning farmers for every existing farmer” (p. 216). In contrast to the situation in Ireland, however, there is a significant number of respondents who declare that they have a will—only 13% indicated that they do not have one. An analysis of aggregate data of the International FARMTRANSFERS survey from Ireland found that this lack of preparedness exists in spite of the fact that the inherent desire to keep the farm in the family is clearly evident in findings from the survey, which found that only 4% of respondent’s “desired succession and inheritance outcome” was to “sell the farm.”


Farmers resist "fading into the background" in later life.
Image Credit: Dr. Shane Francis Conway


Such findings indicate little headway has been made in bringing about regularized and accepted practices of intergenerational farm transfer within the farming community, despite an array of financial enticements encouraging the process over the past 40 years. Thus, the idea that tax exemptions, penalties, or a new form of early retirement scheme will be a catalyst to stimulate the process is disconcerting and shows a real lack of understanding of the mind set and ethos of older farmers. Such a disconnect between realities on the ground indicates that a cultural shift on the age-old problem of a “greying” farming population requires well-informed and creative policy interventions and strategies that recognize the “language of farming” in order to effect change, emulating Shucksmith and Hermann’s (2002) contention to respect “farmers’ own ways of seeing the world” (p.39).


This study’s exploration of Irish farmer’s succession and retirement plans, compared with those obtained from Iowa, reaffirms that farmers are reluctant to “step aside” and retire from farming, and that this is not confined to one country, but rather has a global dimension. Consequently, there is an urgent need for agricultural policymakers and practitioners to re-examine their existing predominant focus on addressing needs and requirements of the younger farming generation and place a greater or equal emphasis on maintaining the quality of life of those most affected by the process, namely the older farmer. This study recommends that future policy aimed at stimulating generational renewal in agriculture must be accompanied by a comprehensive set of interventions aligned to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) age-friendly environments concept, due to its association with and contribution to active and healthy aging in later life, echoing previous research by Conway et al. (2022). Although there is currently no universally accepted definition of an “age-friendly” environment, the WHO defines an age-friendly community as one in which “policies, services, settings and structures support and enable people to age actively” (WHO 2007, p. 5). Despite the growth of the age-friendly environments movement however, existing literature predominantly focuses on a model of urban aging, thereby failing to reflect the diversity of rural areas, particularly the farming community. Applying this concept in an agricultural setting will not only help ease the fear and anxiety associated with “stepping aside” and retirement from farming by addressing the personal and social loss that the senior generation of the farming community may experience upon transferring the farm, but will also begin a much broader international conversation on the place, views, concerns, and challenges of older farmers in the context of the future prosperity of the agricultural sector, and ultimately the future sustainability of farm families, rural communities, and natural environments on which we all depend.

This research is but a start however, and the insights documented and issues raised will hopefully stimulate further investigations along these lines in order to help protect the mental health and wellbeing of the older generation of the farming community. In future work, it would be particularly valuable to investigate how to transform farming into an age-friendly sector of society, with a particular focus on rolling out an innovative new social organization for older farmers called “Farmer’s Yards,” designed to fit their specific interests, needs, and values in later life.


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This study was funded by the NUI Galway College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies Illuminate Programme.


The Discipline of Geography’s Rural Studies Centre at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) is grateful to the International FARMTRANSFERS project’s co­directors, Professor Matt Lobley at the Centre for Rural Policy Research, University of Exeter, United Kingdom, and John R. Baker, Attorney at Law at Iowa Concern, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University, and former administrator at the Beginning Farmer Center, Iowa State University, for granting this study permission to become involved in this global research collaboration. The authors are also sincerely thankful to all the farmers in Ireland and Iowa who generously took time out from their busy schedules to provide inestimable data and information for this research. Finally, the authors would like to thank Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, for their assistance with this research.

Suggested citation:

Conway, S.F., M. Farrell, J. McDonagh, A. Kinsella, and J.R. Baker. 2022. "Farm Succession and Retirement across Continents and Cultures: A Focus on Ireland and Iowa." Agricultural Policy Review, Winter 2022. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University. Available at