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COLUMNIST: Farming industry’s unstoppable sea of change

A fifth of English farms have disappeared in the past 10 years
A fifth of English farms have disappeared in the past 10 years
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Many of you, I expect, will have caught sight of the more than slightly alarming report on the state of England’s smaller farms.

It does make for somewhat depressing reading, particularly for any of us who have spent our entire working lives in the farming sector,

The picture it paints is of a massive, unstoppable sea change overtaking the whole industry: a fifth of English farms have disappeared in the past 10 years, but the rate of loss is greatest amongst the smallest farms. Almost a third of those under 50 hectares disappeared between 2005 and 2015. And now there are calls for special funding arrangements to be put in place to stem that decline.

I can just hear the public’s reaction to that: here are the farmers holding out their hands for more money yet again.

But of course it’s not the farmers who are behind this report or the attendant plea for help. Because the document has been produced by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a pressure group which on numerous occasions in the past has stood nose to nose with farmers rattling sabres on the battleground of conservation and the environment.

The CPRE, in other words, has not been seen traditionally as one of the farming industry’s greatest allies, yet here it is pleading for special help for smaller farms – and, consequentially, the diversity they provide - warning that unless something is done farms under 50 hectares could all but disappear by the middle of the century.

It is easy to see what is happening. Smaller farms no longer fit into the pattern of food production that has been established over the last 40 years. Everything has been scaled up from the size of supermarkets to the size of food factories, abattoirs and, indeed the size of the average farm – because most of those smaller enterprises which have disappeared have been absorbed into larger units. The thinking goes that bigger farms can produce food more efficiently and at lower cost – low enough to make it possible to achieve some sort of profit on the brutally low prices supermarkets are willing to pay.

It’s easy to see that in such a situation there is little room for the 50-hectare farm unless it’s a specialist unit selling at high value into niche markets.

Add to which the fact that under the CAP it’s the smaller farmers which have done proportionately far less well than the big ones and it is easy to understand the pressures crowding in on this particular area of the industry.

Not that much brighter prospects lie ahead. Because the same imbalance threatens to apply if the Government directs its support policies towards the delivery of so-called environmental goods: sprawling estates with more environment to offer are inevitably going to come off better than small ones where every last square inch has to be cultivated to help make ends meet.

It doesn’t look a particularly cheerful picture or one that offers much hope that the juggernaut of change can be turned round but I am grateful that at least the CPRE is calling for a Government study into the health of small farmers and to look at ways of skewing any new funding models to their benefit.

The real questions of course, are why it is only now that the decline in small farms is being flagged up as a matter of national concern when the rate of loss has been accelerating for so many years; and why it has taken the CPRE rather than the NFU to thrust the issue into the public eye.

The single, indisputable answer – as every small farmer in the country will testify – that the NFU, its council table traditionally dominated by prairie farmers, is not and never has been interested in small farms and (I am willing to bet) never will be.