Could the small, family farm all but die out in the next 30 years? Provided things stay as they are, that may be the direction we’re heading in.
The small UK family farm has been on the decline post-WWII, with the number of holdings of 20 hectares or less vanishing from 158,000 in 1950 to 38,500 in 2015. While these farms may be tiny on a commercial scale, the trend follows through to those of 40, 50, and 60 hectares too. According to a Defra report released last year, farms of these sizes have more than halved in number in the past 60 years.
Where have our small farms gone?
A few months ago, The Campaign to Protect Rural England reported on this issue. One of their biggest worries? Tumbleweed. The government’s kept shtum about it, and the NFU have abstained from addressing the matter (their press office also failed to respond to my calls). For some reason, the powers that be aren’t willing to face up to – or even comment on – the problem. Pippa Woods (CBE), founder of the Family Farms Association, bluntly suggests why. ‘The government knows food is cheaper from the bigger farms,’ she tells me. ‘So why should they bother with the smaller ones?’
Without any official comment, we can at least deduce possible answers from the facts. For one thing, could it be these farms are simply getting bigger, outgrowing their ‘small’ status? Not quite. Defra’s report shows that total hectarage is regressing in every category except the largest – collectively, farms of 200 hectares and more have seen an increase in size of almost 11% in the past 10 years.
Besides, given the current capital required for new green space (which between 2004 and 2015 has increased from £3,000 to £8,000 per acre), the spend often outweighs the production value it can net you. ‘It seems very difficult for people to buy up more land,’ says Abby Allen, marketing director at Pipers Farm. ‘I think Pipers is about five times the value of what it was 30 years ago.’
Diversifying the family farm
Pipers is, ostensibly, a 20-hectare, family-run meat farm in Devon. But they also work shoulder-to-shoulder with a community of 25 family farms, helping them diversify and grow into a sustainable business. ‘All are small scale,’ says Abby. ‘200 acres [80 hectares] would be the largest.’
Small farms such as these are often written off as inefficient or low-output. But a study carried out by the Prince’s Countryside Fund last year points out top-performing small family farms are just as efficient as many of the country’s much larger ones. Especially when it comes to producing higher value food – grass-fed, hand-reared, free range, self-sustaining, and all. ‘Lots of farmers have found they’ve had no choice to diversify,’ says Abby. ‘We’ve got guys who will grow veg alongside pigs, and the pigs will eat the roots and spread the manure to grow more veg.’
Big farms, getting bigger
There’s also the case of large scale farms often being too efficient, in that they produce surplus, which can be sold cheaply. These fluctuating profits don’t cause so much of a dent in the coffers of large industrial farms, but for the smaller ones, it can price them out and, in worse cases, shut them down completely.
Perhaps this is one reason why the number of US-style mega farms has increased in the UK by 26% in the past six years. Cheap food culture is still a force to be reckoned with, and corporate-minded farmers don’t want to miss out. When looking at the amount of disposable income each household spends on food for example, the UK comes third last in the world. A statistic particularly notable when on average UK residents are the biggest spenders in Europe.
This just goes to show – the noise of supermarket price cuts and promotional discounts drown out the family farm and the defining aspects of their produce. And is something smaller family-run farms are likely to find even more of a challenge in the decades to come. Provided the next generations will want to stick around, that is. ‘My daughter is working for me at the moment,’ says Rowie Meers of Purton House Organics, a 70-hectare farm near Swindon. ‘It would be great if she kept up the interest, but it’s not an easy life. Everything’s at such a huge scale these days – while people are wanting organic and home grown produce, you are really fighting against the tide of people wanting cheap food.’
Success in alternative routes to market
But as Rowie says, there is still hope for family-run farms who refuse to pander to the demands of the mass market. Purton House, like many of its ilk, finds there’s sufficient desire in high quality produce for the farm so sustain itself with its farm shop, box scheme, and the support of Farmdrop. ‘It’s a good route for small family farms to go down for the future,’ she says. ‘Without Farmdrop, my business would be really struggling.’
This interest in quality food, fortunately, often carries through to the work required of farmers as well. ‘Though it’s not the same as every other part of the world, here we’re seeing a lot of young blood come back into farming,’ says Abby. ‘People in their thirties, who’re really respecting where their food is coming from, and want to put something back in. When farming’s about nurturing the soil, and grass-fed animals, it attracts a lot more people. But as a wider industry, farming is certainly on the decline.’
Out of necessity, comes invention
It could be said that a world not fit for small farms to flourish means less access to generally better quality produce. But even ignoring that, should we be sitting by while their demise quietly unfolds? Doing so would mean less potential for businesses to shape the future of our food for the better – like what the world’s first no-kill caviar farm KC Caviar in Leeds or London’s first subterranean farm Growing Underground are doing.
The decline of the small family farm would mean fewer farms who are ready to champion the war on waste. It would mean a significant disadvantage to rural communities, whether it’s farmers sitting in on parish meetings, or being a major force in conserving the local environment. Ultimately, supporting these businesses is supporting the backlash to destructive, profit-driven industrial farming. So let’s make it happen.