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How can we save small farms?

How can we save small farms? Dave_S. / Flickr

With the number of farms under 50 hectares falling fast across England, we asked the experts what could be done to preserve them.


We ought to be paying more for our food

Simon Fairlie is co-editor of The Land magazine and runs a microdairy in Dorset

To tackle the decline of small farms at root, we ought to be paying more for our food. This means reducing the excessive value of development land, so that housing does not take up such a high proportion of people’s budgets – paying less to landowners and more to land workers. However, the chances of this happening in the near future are remote, even under a Corbyn government, since too many people have invested their savings in property.

There are plenty of other measures that could be taken, such as replacing existing agricultural subsidies, which are allocated according to the area of land owned, with payments made according to the work done.

Public procurement policies could also be altered, so that institutions could make contracts for the direct provision of food such as vegetables, meat and dairy from their local farms. For example, primary and secondary schools could be ‘twinned’ with farms in their area.

Imposing VAT on meat could also benefit smaller farms with a turnover of less than £85,000, since they could be exempted. This would give small-scale, local meat production a better chance of competing with factory farms.

And, finally, planning policies for Green Belts around cities could be adjusted, so as to encourage local food production.


More must be done to support diverse income streams

NFU vice president Guy Smith has a mixed family farm in north-east Essex

The idea of ‘mega-dairies’ and giant agri-corporations dominating the UK farming landscape is still really wide of the mark. For example, the average UK dairy herd in 2016 was approximately 143 cows, while over 90% of farms in England are sole traders or family farming partnerships. The average size of our 50,000 members is around the 80ha mark, and I firmly expect UK agriculture to be made up of tens of thousands of relatively small businesses for a long time yet.

Farms of all sizes need support in adjusting to the increasing levels of market volatility impacting the industry. Small farmers, in particular, lack the scale to access risk-management solutions such as futures markets, and therefore more must be done to support such farmers to access diverse income streams. We will continue to help small farms by providing business services and support with farm diversification, such as the introduction of renewable energy to help reduce costs on farms. We also lobby on issues that can impact more heavily on small farms, such as broadband and mobile coverage, and rural crime.

It is important that we can help our members hand down a thriving farming business to the next generation. After all, it is the family-based structure of many farms that gives English agriculture its unique character. 


Britain needs a real food revolution

Graham Harvey is the agricultural story editor for The Archers and the author of several food and farming titles

The countryside of west Somerset, where I now live, once supported a huge number of highly productive small farms. The rural writer H J Massingham wrote of a wartime visit to the area, in which he met many of them. To him, they were all heroes. At a time of national crisis, they were producing copious amounts of healthy, nutrient rich food without agrochemicals or any significant public subsidy. Much of the food was sold locally.

Today, whenever we get a spell of heavy rain, the streams and ditches run red. This is precious topsoil eroding away; the result of growing large-scale commodity crops, such as wheat and oilseeds, on fragile soils and steep slopes. The processed foods made from these crops lack nutrients, and are often contaminated with pesticide residues.

How we need those small, wildlife-rich farms back, especially around our towns and cities. Recently, I visited just such a farm near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. It was like a sunny, green island in a dreary ocean of arable land. It produced a huge variety of top-quality foods, from grass-fed beef to nuts and orchard fruits. All were sold locally in the farm shop, the village pub and through food boxes. It’s a model that could be replicated across the length and breadth of the country. Britain needs a real food revolution. Small farms can make it happen.


The Government must make it easier for new entrants

Market gardener Rebecca Laughton is campaigns researcher at the Landworkers’ Alliance

Small farms can be as productive as large ones, and have even more potential to help connect people to the realities of food production and enhance the ecological management of the countryside. To help save them, we must remove the five-hectare threshold below which farmers can’t currently apply for subsidies.

Any new system of support payments must reflect the social and environmental benefits of small farms, which tend to be labour- rather than energy-intensive. Small-scale (below 20ha) growers can support the equivalent of three jobs per hectare, compared to the horticultural average of 0.23 annual work units per hectare, and are less reliant on carbon-intensive pesticides, fertilisers and machinery.

The Government must also make it easier for new entrants to access grants and training to take on small farms, or parts of larger ones. Encouraging big farms to create small horticultural units could improve diversification and mean more farm shops selling local veg.

Policymakers could also help by backing community-supported agriculture. These members’ schemes enable customers to share the risks of production with farmers, by committing to buy a ‘share’ of the harvest, and maybe helping out on the farm. By participating in the celebrations and challenges of farm life, they can gain a sense of connection with their food and local countryside.

Britain needs a real food revolution. Small farms can make it happen.

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