Smaller farms are vital to the rural economy

The death of the small farm worldwide has been widely predicted, but has never quite happened.

Even in England, a country with a highly concentrated pattern of agricultural landholding, more than 15% of holdings are under 30 hectares, and the corresponding figures for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are over 50%. Still, there’s no doubt that the general trend in British farming has been towards increasing scale and diminishing labour. Are there any reasons to reverse it?

I’d say yes, for several different reasons. One is the crisis of recruitment and succession. The average age of farm-holders is rising, currently standing at 59. Encouraging new entrants must be a concern, but farming can be something of a ‘closed shop’ to people not born into it. Family succession on large holdings is often troublesome, and experimenting on smaller starter farms can be a good way for new entrants to cut their teeth and perhaps develop innovative practices. So a more fluid and diversely scaled farm estate could help the sector deal better with human resourcing issues.

Another issue is the wellbeing of rural communities. Farming remains probably the key rural industry, but as farm employment dwindles this has knock-on effects for the rural economy and the fabric of rural life – the shops, schools, transport services and so on that service a diverse working countryside. On average, people living in rural areas earn more than those in towns, whereas those working in rural areas earn less, essentially because the countryside is increasingly populated by those with urban wealth.

Good reasons to support small farms

Since small farms provide more employment acre for acre than larger ones there are good reasons for supporting the development of small-scale farming in order to boost rural employment and social capital.

A case for small farms can also be made around future uncertainties in global labour markets and trade. Large-scale farming in Britain has concentrated on highly mechanised and low-margin sectors like cereal cropping, with more labour-intensive sectors like horticulture increasingly reliant on migrant labour or outsourcing abroad. But the relative ratios of labour to energy costs between the UK and its import partners may diminish in the future, incentivising smaller-scale, more labour intensive import substitution farming and helping to diversify rural food production.

Uncertainties over agricultural subsidies in the context of Brexit may push in the same direction, so supporting small farms in the rural economy may be prudent as a food security measure. It may also be a step towards climate change mitigation, since green economists have argued for the need to develop a more labour intensive rather than capital or energy intensive economy.

Local farm economy

Peering into the murky glass of the future, perhaps one other reason suggests itself. When consumers and producers are wholly separated, the brake on consumption comes off. Farm communities know the productive limits of their landscapes, whereas consumers are limited only by the prices governing global flows of produce.

But that produce always has to come from somewhere – another rural place, with a future of its own that needs safeguarding. So there’s a case for linking local consumers more strongly with local producers, which lends itself to a more diverse and locally scaled farm economy.

Chris Smaje is author of The opinions expressed in this blog article are those of the author and not those of NFU Mutual or its partners.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by NFU Mutual.