One fifth of English farms have disappeared in past 10 years

England’s green and pleasant land: a patchwork quilt of green and gold fields with quaint little villages nestled in between and ancient farms run by families who have worked the land for generations. Is this a true perspective of the English countryside? You and I know that this rose-tinted view is not the reality, nor has it been for years, and romanticism and poor countryside education has smothered the country’s eyes and ears in cotton wool. We are unable to see past this make-believe construct. I have several issues with this view of rural areas, but among them is the phenomenon that we are sleep walking through significant change to the landscape and rural culture, without as much as raising an eye lid. The occasional article might be written by a concerned individual, a think tank or  academic, but the implications are brushed aside by many of us, if we are even aware of them.

This post is written in response to the publication of a report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England earlier this month, entitled Uncertain Harvest: Does the Loss of Farms Matter?  . There are hundreds of reports published on a host of issues to do with the countryside every year, especially now, in the context of Brexit; indeed more than one person with a reasonably busy life could ever be expected to read. However, this particular report drew my eye. Written by CPRE‘s senior rural policy campaigner Graeme Willis, the report suggests that the farmed landscape is rapidly and significantly changing, perhaps not on the surface, but on a deeper meaningful level.

Smaller farms are in decline, and in a significant way. The report suggests that one fifth of English farm units have disappeared in the past ten years, including as much as a third of farms under fifty hectares in size. This would certainly suggest that not all is well. Some would suggest that these small ‘inefficient’ farms hold no place in our countryside anyway, that farms should be about food production and those unable to produce enough food efficiently should make way for the larger units that are able to do this.

I disagree.

I fear a future countryside overly dominated by large units, employing fewer people and thus affecting the make up of rural communities. I believe that both large and small farm units can be badly and well run, and both have the ability to produce food efficiently and care for the environment. We need diversity in our farming culture as much as diversity in our wildlife.

Why does the loss of farms matter?

As the report suggests, we don’t really know the answer to this question as it is so little discussed. We know that farm numbers have declined substantially since the 1950s, and we now know they have also declined quite significantly since 2005, but we don’t know enough as to the impact this is having on a wider scale. It’s also difficult to define what a ‘lost farm’ is. The farmer might still be farming but on a part-time basis. The farm might be contracted to another farm but still involved in agriculture. There are other options that muddy the waters.

Some stats from the report

  • From 1950 – 1980 128,000 of 296,000 farm holdings – 43% – were lost.
  • From 2005 -2015 28,200 of 132,400 farm holdings – 21.3% – were lost
  • 2005-2015 farms of less than 20ha fell by 33.5%
  • 2005-2015 farms of 50-100ha fell by 11.6%
  • 2005-2015 farms of more than 200ha rose by 5.7%

Why are farms struggling?

The answer to this question could be incredibly long-winded and complicated, but in short, it can be subdivided into a few key categories:

  1. Declining profitability – no matter what you produce it has been a struggle in recent years to make money to invest back into your business. Smaller farms struggle even more, due to their smaller economies of scale. Meanwhile, costs, including fuel and fertiliser have risen. Farming seems to be struggling to keep up with the rest of the economy. This pressure has led farmers to expand their units, if they can, to spread their fixed costs (machinery etc) more efficiently.
  2. A cheap food culture – we desperately need to get out of the mindset that food is cheap and always will be; unless we don’t mind seeing the further decline of British small farms.
  3. The Basic Payment Scheme (subsidy payment) is linked to land area and so larger farm units receive more support.
  4. Lack of policy and political support – in short we need a better plan for supporting small farm businesses.
  5. Family succession – when it comes to handing the farm down to the next generation there are invariably a host of issues to deal with, and this can lead to the farm being carved up, or to selling the unit.

Brexit and the future

One good thing about Brexit is that it has (and will still further) allowed a renewed national discussion of the kind of food and farming sector we wish to have in this country. Do we care about supporting small farms and British, high quality, high welfare produce, or would we rather have cheap food from abroad?

Part of the discussion should be a full on acceptance of the situation regarding the trends in farm unit abundance and size. We need to improve our understanding of the impact this is having on rural communities, employment, biodiversity in the countryside, rural culture and the vibrancy of the food sector generally.

I predict we will see further losses in the numbers of small farm units, and farm size will continue to rise, on the average level. However, this does not mean that there cannot be a smaller number of effective businesses that are also small farms. These units will be innovative and market driven. Commodity products with small profit margins will become almost wholly the domain of the larger units, but that is not an issue for the small unit, which have the capacity to think outside the box more and truly innovate the industry from the bottom up.

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