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Smaller farms – going, going, gone?

Smaller farms – going, going, gone? Neil Howard / Flickr

Graeme Willis blogAs both the hard realities and potential opportunities of Brexit begin to crystallise, farming is making the headlines. We’re used to this happening when there are scandals or disease - think of bovine TB and badger culling, horsemeat, or  ‘mad cow disease’ -  but much less so with talk about policy, the environment or the future of farming. But, for all the recent media coverage and debate and for all the signs that the inequities and inefficiencies of the CAP might be put behind us, the raw loss of farms barely gets a mention, if at all. Generally speaking, it’s hard to think of another industry that has lost so many businesses and in which such change and its impacts aren’t discussed. Throw in the context of Brexit and the part the countryside plays in our national psyche, as well as our health and well-being, and this silence is a bit of mystery. What should be an important part of our national conversation, is hardly a whisper behind closed doors. 

CPRE’s new Food and Farming Foresight report published this week, Uncertain Harvest, aims to ignite a wider debate about the issue of diminishing small farms, and at a time of momentous change in politics, farm policy and funding. The report gives a range of reasons as to why farms are being lost, why this matters and suggests what we need to do about it. Its starting point is that we need to consider what a diverse mix of farm sizes and farmers managing the land means for the countryside. The natural environment is central to this but a living and thriving countryside also means the jobs and communities that are directly and indirectly connected to farming and affected by it. 

Could it be that changes to farm sizes and their diversity aren’t that severe or shocking? The data, on my reading, shows the opposite. It isn’t the easiest to analyse and make sense of but, taking academic research for England and Wales, we lost 128,000 farms of 296,000 from 1950 to 1980 - over 40%. More recent data from DEFRA, for England alone, shows that from 2005 to 2015 we lost a fifth of all farms and nearly a third of those under 50 hectares -  from a much lower base of 132,000 farms. The farms being lost aren’t all tiny - 50 hectares is at least the size of 60 or more football pitches – and it is farms both above and below this size that are falling away. However, if these trends continue – at a loss rate of over 2800 a year – we might lose most, if not all, smaller farms by the mid-2040s. This means we are losing key types and sizes of farms that create the rich mosaic of our landscapes, and with it put at risk the diversity that comes from different farmers doing different things for different reasons in different places. 

In truth, we don’t know the extent of what these changes really mean. Farms may be dropping from the figures as they become non-commercial and part-time or if they grow or shrink or are consolidated into another. What evidence we do have, especially from the important report from Mike Winter and Matt Lobley at Exeter University in 2016, shows that the potential impacts could affect a wealth of issues: rural jobs, rural services, the relations between farms and rural communities, the character of the countryside and the ‘conservation capital’–  the hedges, meadows and woods that are richly present on many small farms and important for nature. 

At the very least then, we need to find out what is happening across the country in different areas and sectors and what the impacts of these trends may be in the long run. Uncertain Harvest calls on the Government to act now to fill this evidence gap: publish better data and analysis so that the debate can begin and be properly informed. Such evidence should ultimately shape a new English farming policy that factors in farm diversity and a regeneration of farming as part of a funding model, which delivers greater environmental benefits. The market has a critical role to play too; we need a model for the future of farming that is economically and environmentally sustainable and resilient. Farms of all shapes and sizes need to have a place in that future, so we need to ensure they are efficiently supported.

Find out more

Read the press release: Smaller farms heading towards a cliff edge

Download the report: Uncertain Harvest

We need a model for the future of farming that is economically and environmentally sustainable and resilient

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