Guest blog by Vicki Hird: Imagine the death of UK farms

As the Government continues to fail to develop any coherent plan for farming after Brexit, Vicki Hird, Sustain Campaign Coordinator and independent consultant (@vicki Hird) writes a guest blog.

Imagine the death of UK farms



Is it an exaggeration to predict the death of the family farm in England? A toxic combination of tough farm policies post-brexit and ‘open all borders’ trade deals could conceivably kill off small and medium sized farms. There is no way most of our farms could really compete with US farmers for instance, given the relative sizes and different safety, welfare and environmental standards applied.

Imagine the impact… most of English lowland farmed by a handful of big agribusinesses – the ‘Tesco-ization’ of farming.

And if you think no one could farm the whole of England just consider the largest farm recently sold in Australia – 77,300 sq/km (7,730,000hectares) – was about half the size of England.

Such a loss of farms would accelerate a trend. In England, farm numbers have been in dramatic decline this century as smaller farm businesses struggle to survive in a more globalised market which fails to pay for any sort of decent livelihood. Bigger is better and consolidation has meant the number of farms has almost halved. By contrast in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland specific conditions and support structures limited the losses.

Does this matter? Surely it is a natural restructuring and those smaller, family farms are inefficient. They can’t produce enough food and don’t employ skilled workers anyway, so why lament?

Well no actually. There is no evidence to suggest a smaller farm or a larger farm is better or worse. Recent surveys for The Prince’s Countryside Fund by Exeter University confirmed that you get good and bad small farms and good and bad big farms. But many are in serious jeopardy and once they are gone they are gone forever.

But why should this matter to the majority of us who have no link to farming other than the food we eat, 40 per of which is imported?

The reality is we lose so much when we lose farm diversity. In all regions we need the smaller farm sector within a mix of sizes so that:

  • we have smaller units for new entrants to get a foothold into farming. And we need new younger, innovative, energetic farmers. The ladder up for new players – which a matrix of farm sizes gives – is vital to get new entrepreneurial farmers who are up to the challenges ahead including climate change;
  • rural employment and services can thrive in remoter rural areas. Farming is often the backbone of rural communities – amalgamation of farms can have devastating social as well as economic consequences in rural areas with the loss of farm jobs and few alternatives available. Shops, schools and other services cannot be sustained as people migrate out;
  • communities flourish. The Exeter survey confirmed smaller farms support a greater density of employment and more local farm people means people available for community activities, parish council work, help when there are crises like flooding. That social connectivity will be lost;
  • rural economies prosper. Up and down-stream businesses rely on the range of farm businesses to survive – the multiplier effect. Imagine if 40 smaller farm businesses in a parish all became 1 large corporate unit run from one office selling on the commodity market, using external contractors and sourcing cheap supplies – photocopying even – from outside of the area.
  • Landscape and wildlife corridors are protected. Whilst data is older, there is evidence that smaller farms tend to have smaller fields, greater hedgerow density and more features like broadleaf woodland, and so create greater habitats for wildlife. Field boundaries also reduce soil erosion from wind and water. Smaller farms may be more passive conservationist compared to more active larger farms with more time and money.
  • wildlife can bloom. Smaller businesses often have smaller machinery and less time to ‘tidy up’ thereby providing great habitats and weedy bit for all sorts of wildlife though smaller farms may struggle to manage soil and water management as well as the big players.

This is not to demonise large farms but to explore what would be lost with a large scale reduction in farm diversity – if we ended up only with a few huge farm business, some highly protected high value farmland and hundreds of ‘weekend’ farms. The matrix, or tapestry if you will, in any given area is key. We have lost many smaller and middle sized farms. But we do still have some of that diversity left: held together by a lifeline of subsidies and by farmers willing to work for little income and no holidays. But it is in real danger.

So do we leave the sector to itself to further consolidate into a few giant farm businesses – ‘FarmTesco Ltd’ or ‘MicrosoftFarm Inc’. Given the interest in robotic farming to cover the loss of migrant workers that may well be prophetic. It is a vision restructuring into very tidy, very big farms with mega fields and mega livestock units, with some great conservation work going on in targeted areas and few farming families left. The Archers will be unrecognisable as would the landscape.

Or maybe diversity of farm size is recognised as a good thing. But if we want economically vibrant remaining and new smaller sized farms to exist we need to take action to make sure they can – from decent affordable advice, facilitation and training to long farm business tenancies and a really effective, well structured farm support scheme to replace the European CAP.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, Brexit, farm subsidies, guest blogs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Guest blog by Vicki Hird: Imagine the death of UK farms

  1. Dave Blake says:

    Vicki makes some good points, but does not mention land value. If land values drop far enough, then there are likely to be large-scale and permanent changes to our landscapes that no agri-environment scheme or tariff change can stop. The ‘family farm’ of whatever size may become a thing of the past within a decade or so. Such low values have not been seen since the first decades of the Twentieth Century. Those of us who talk to farmers about their businesses are accustomed to dealing with owner-occupiers and long-term tenants; dealing with larger agri-businesses and their managers would be a very different kind of discussion.

    • Vicki hird says:

      Totally agree land value is key and I maybe should have touched on it. I have another blog on it as rather too much too say. I was trying to stress we need to maintain a dynamic diversity and that needs specific policies.

  2. tracydwjones says:

    I agree there are some good big farms and not so good small farms depending on whether they are farmed sustainably with high animal welfare or not. I really enjoyed Christine Watson’s (SRUC) presentation at the Organic Producers conference on ‘mixed farming’. This questioned whether the mixed system should be on one farm or farms working together on a landscape scale to a common goal eg increasing biodiversity. This was also mentioned a couple of years ago at an IFOAM meeting with regards to global organic ag. Farms working together may not be straight forward and could possibly lead to tension/disagreements but it would mean farmers wouldn’t need to make large investments/up skill immediately to change from specialist system to a mixed system. Sharing resources/knowledge could be key to the survival of the SME family farm. As could processing, adding value and selling direct. Trading standards, food hygiene policy etc can have an affect on this as it currently appears to be a bit of a postcode lottery when dealing with local authorities with regard to food processing and selling. Public health and procurement policy can also play a role in affecting the food on our plate, and I feel this is the crux of the problem, farming policy when taken in isolation lacks joined up thinking. It would be my hope that somehow we get to thinking more holistically about our land, food, farming and environment but I fear that this is probably still a long way off.

    • Vicki hird says:

      Thanks Tracy and agree with what you say. No silver bullet and good business support and directed procurement would help. I do feel we need to be careful though on farm support payments if they continue. Some proposals will mean v v hard for smaller farm businesses to access the schemes. And we risk losing the crucial diversity unless we keep it in mind. V

  3. tomwestce says:

    Thanks Vicki – how far do you think a cap on direct payments (or even a flat rate payment) could go in securing the future for small/medium sized farms and hence diversity of farm size? Is there any evidence of the effects of a similar approach in other (EU) countries?

  4. Vicki – entirely agree that farm diversity binds many rural communities. I would however make the point that farms are not subsidised; instead farmers are paid by the public for their hard work producing food and managing the landscape.
    Yes, there are hazards aplenty, but Brexit is an opportunity to build a new contract between farmers and the public. Farming is a public service and yet farms have little direct public accountability. We must break the link between production and support and use public payments to finance public goods, such as improved soil quality and biodiversity, GHG mitigation, water management, electricity generation, and good farm animal welfare. We should also build in mechanisms so that citizens are given the chance to contribute to farm policy, and hold failing farms to account. (If the local school is failing our child then we can hold that head teacher to account – we should be able to do the same with farms that pollute the air with pesticides or fail to mitigate flood risk.)
    You also make the point that big is not necessarily bad. This is important. Over the next decade we are bound to see more big farms relying more heavily on robots. This will help ensure that good food is available to all, and is cheap enough to enjoy. But technology will advance swiftly, and there’s a lot to be said for smaller solar vehicles that put less pressure on the soil than heavy oil-powered tractors, and the use of drones to more effectively target interventions. Smart technology could also provide the opportunity, given the right incentives, for larger farms to reintroduce hedges, ditches and trees, and actually improve biodiversity. I think we will also see a growth in the number of smaller farms serving direct markets locally and on-line – particularly as a younger generation of family farmers, with a more diverse set of skills, takes over from their parents.

    • Vicki hird says:

      Thanks ffinlo. Would be good to chat at length as I have written and campaigned on many of these area. As you say now is the opportunity to redesign but I am concerned how a redesign may accelerate the loss of diversity in farm size and structure. I think there are ways to avoid it but only if we acknowledge diversity- a dynamic matrix – is important.
      Interesting ideas re smaller machinery and tech. V

      • ffinlo Costain says:

        Yes, agreed. Retaining and improving rural economic diversity is extremely important, otherwise the philosophical distance between producers and consumers will widen still further. I am hopeful that this can be achieved, but it’s important to work with government and mainstream agriculture to ensure state and financial levers are employed carefully to support businesses and inspire innovation and enterprise.
        NGOs must do more to engage directly with centre-right groups and communication channels, and campaigners need to make the case using the most helpful language. There’s a great deal of fear and uncertainty, and it’s important to keep mainstream farmers and centre-right groups alongside.

  5. Tom Lines says:

    This blog rings true to me right now. I happen to be in Georgia – not something that happens every week of the year, but I was presenting some work for Oxfam on the impact on this country’s farmers of its new trade agreement with the EU. (Georgia is moving in the opposite political direction from the UK.)

    Now, in Georgia the average size of a farm is 1.4 hectares: there are 572,000 family farms, averaging 1.2 HA each, and 2,200 “larger” holdings averaging 49.2 HA. By contrast, after recent consolidations the average farm in the UK measures over 90 HA – the second largest in the EU. So it might be hard to sustain a case that British farms are too small.

    On the other hand, Britain’s farm labour force is smaller than Portugal’s or Bulgaria’s, and the farm output in 2013 was worth exactly the same as Poland’s, from substantially more land. But Poland used 1.9 million “agricultural work units”, compared with just 275,000 in Britain. Meanwhile, Germany used 1.9 times as much labour but produced 2.1 times as much as the UK; and from 2.6 times as much labour, France also produced 2.6 times as much output. I am sure it could be argued that the answer for Britain is not fewer or bigger farms, but more farm workers.

    We can play this numbers game many ways, but one thing the EU figures (at show clearly is that easy conclusions are not easy to find, because agricultural structures and conditions vary so much.

    On the other hand, agriculture IS unprofitable in Britain. That is because prices are low. There is one statistic that is similar in Britain and Georgia: in the Caucasian country, only 22 per cent of family farms are run by a person under 45, while in the UK in 2013 it was only 14 per cent. And the median age of the British farmer is now 59, with one-quarter over 65. That reflects a worldwide crisis of agriculture – quite another whole story which needs to looked at very closely for its own sake.

    • Vicki hird says:

      Thanks tom and lucky you. Contrasts much with the vast farms of Russia?
      Very good points re labour (crucial to incorporate) and re profitability which is why I run a campaign on retailers and the GCAreview is focus right now. Suggests as others have that we need clear suite of measures to deliver that diversity

      • Tom Lines says:

        Both Russian and Georgian farms came out of the Soviet collective system, of course, but then they went in dramatically different directions. On independence in 1991, Georgia had a short but nasty civil war, during which the collective farms collapsed. Until the present government was elected in 2012, agriculture was simply neglected, with just 0.44% of government expenditure in 2010. In Russia too, agriculture was neglected and farms in many places decayed, but the old bureaucracies stayed largely intact, both at farm and ministry levels. They used their power – as in so many other areas – to prevent new, independent forces from getting established. In this case their “rivals” were small, family-based farms.

  6. Julian Jones says:

    Important perspectives here … many thanks. Fully accounting for the presently unaccounted externalized costs, as ffinlo Costain urges above in the case of farm pollution and flooding, is vitally important before any further consideration of subsidies.

    In the case of both pollution and flood (drought too) turns out we haven’t really made that much progress since the pre-Columbian Indians who apparently understood how store soil carbon as humus at prodigious and persistent levels (1.). A practice which, if widely replicated in UK would largely negate these problems … and save our economy £billions.

    The French Govt has suggested a moderate 0.4% soil carbon sequestration (SOCS) target per annum (2.) because if this were applied to all the world’s farmland this would account for all global CO2 emissions. It would also be an eminently sensible starting point in a post Brexit world of ensuring equalized and fair competition between all nations food production as a bench mark. Negating the need for subsidies too but incurring a ‘rebalancing’ that would profoundly affect highly leveraged agribusiness that depends on these.

    Such SOCS is apparently more easily achieved with the original ‘solar powered vehicles’, ruminants, with their novel ability to both process solar produced cellulose, and reincorporate back into the soil.

    These concepts are of course a long way from where UK mainstream agriculture is heading but unless some alignment is achieved here, farming is headed over a precipice along with the rest of our economy.


    • Vicki hird says:

      I will look into these ideas and yes re cost accounting. If we go down market based approach i am nervous. The carbon soil market is one that development experts are highly concerned about due to fact that smaller farms less access to tools, measurement and negotiations… Any market based tools problematic I fear. V

      • Julian Jones says:

        Thank you for considering this. ‘Social complexity’ here (1.), as with most sectors, makes it very hard to see what ‘best to do’. By dealing with effects, not causes, we are incurring additional costs and not addressing the problems. Funding measures, like Catchment Sensitive Farming or Higher Level Stewardship, that attempt to deal with the effects of such toxic agriculture are still effectively subsidizing the original activities that caused the problems … these are pollutions, and the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle should apply here.

        Measuring soil carbon content is very simple – and also a simple indicator of ongoing damage, or otherwise. (

        Earlier schemes, like Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, showed few benefits – we should not expect much more with CSF or HLS.

        Despite absurdly convoluted regulations, increasingly over past half century or so, our watercourses and aquifers became heavily polluted with sediments, nutrients and toxic farm chemicals, with biodiversity severely impacted, water quality compromised and flood/drought risks raised.The costs incurred to the public purse are very much more than the ‘£200 per family’ often mentioned here.

        Fundamental change is required.


  7. If one assumes long term global trends in productivity (e..g in dairy) are to continue then – unless prices do something very surprising for a sustained period – the quantum of production required to deliver a given income will continue to increase, and farm consolidation will continue in the search for economies of scale. The trend of centuries seems unlikely to go into reverse. Product differentiation (local, organic, etc.) can help, but only up to a point. If we agree we see public value in a particular size or form of business then the question arises of what mix of direct support and market mechanisms might work best to sustain it. What the conditions under which such enterprises can create viable incomes? In other sectors an equivalent small business growth strategy would be considering how to create an accessible market open to innovative newcomers with fresh ideas. Support mechanisms that allow incumbents to capture the subsidies and which inflate asset values create barriers to such new entrants. So does part of the answer lie in tenancies and management agreements in which land ownership is delinked from its management, thinking about how to foster open markets in associated services (whether food production or maximising the ecological value of field margins), and – heresy, here – facilitating exits from an ageing industry so as to encourage renewal. As George Monbiot has noted, employment-intensive growth in some rural regions might be more likely to come from activities other than 20th century models of farming, and clinging to the old may actully inihibit the emergence of new, more sustainable rural businesses. Trying to sustain a particular model of the family farm is not necessarily the most effective way to maximise the vitality of the rural economy, the supply of environmental goods & services, or other outcomes we might be interested in.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks for your comment Andrew.

      Speaking for myself rather than Vicki, the situation in England is that average farm size is already considerably greater than most of the rest of the EU, which is probably the most reasonable comparison, as opposed to continent-scale farming, like the USA or Australia. As Vicki suggests what little data have been collected indicate that public goods provision is greater when the average farm size is smaller, and this works on an intuitive level as well. If a given area has a hundred smaller holdings, or one larger one, for the many small holdings, the ownership boundaries (and their associated public benefits) are going to add up to a much greater length, compared with the single large boundary for the single estate. Equally, for a hundred small holdings, there will be a certain number who will be personally interested in things like nature, landscape and so on. Whereas if the estate owner is not interested, then those things will not appear on that estate or at least be given a very low priority. I imagine there is some sort of mathematical law operating here. Any suggestions from geographers out there?

      What you suggest as a possible future sounds quite similar to the sorts of ideas that George Eustice has been toying with for at least the last five years – eg a market in tradeable biodiversity obligations; or more recently Dieter Helm’s proposals based on natural capital principles. While these ideas may have merit (while also beset with ethical and practical problems) do you agree that the risk now is that the impact of changes to our trading arrangements will dwarf anything positive which might come from the opportunity to reform our agricultural/land support policies, once we are free of the CAP.

    • Tom Lines says:

      “…the quantum of production required to deliver a given income will continue to increase…” That is another way of saying that unit prices will go on falling, and accentuate the decline in farm incomes that I drew attention to above. That is indeed a very long-term trend; Adam Smith wrote about it, and even to a degree explained it, in the late 18th century.

      This is what orthodox economists call market failure – not too many mouths to feed, as Malthus predicted, but too little money for those who grow the food to put in them. It tells me that agriculture has to go on being subsidised, unless we say we should simply stop growing food in this country. But the crisis of farm prices and incomes is worldwide, and the need for subsidy correspondingly broad.

      The question then becomes what form subsidies should take. I won’t embark on that here!

  8. Vicki hird says:

    Thanks andrew for your comment which is kind of what i am aiming to address – market and regulatory failure – to acknowledge impact if we don’t decide to keep diversity. And thanks Miles for great answer. I’d be interested in response to his final Q Andrew. .
    But to be clear not suggesting keeping all in perpetuity. More that we need a dynamic diversity where new entrants can come in because mix of farm sizes still available. And they get support from both market and go to innovate and diversify. Not against retirement. Quite opposite but not if
    a. it’s due to totally unfair terms of trade (hence my campaigns to curb retailer behaviour & GCA was successful outcome but far from enough – agree with you there we need to address market factors) or
    b. If means farm is instantly swallowed up by huge farm or corporation (or biofuel producer) ….
    I think we need special attention paid to this or we will end up with what you predict. We also need more data. And i think action is possible but will take lots of pressure on this administration….. shame farming unions not supportive. Vicki

  9. Matt Shardlow says:

    Of course the difficulty is that we are comparing a farming system that we know and understand with a hypothetical one that is difficult to predict. Any appraisal of the value of a system of bigger more corporate farms, perhaps only a handful of main players, has to grapple with some substantive unknowns.

    Would this provide better or worse long-term consistency of management for wildlife?
    Would the big farm companies be more visible and hence more readily subject to consumer pressure?
    Would big farm companies be able to afford and apply better ecological advice?
    Would big farm businesses be better able to stand up to the super markets?
    Would a corporate system develop new local economic and social networks?
    Would the regulators have higher expectations and hence be bolder with enforcement?
    Would the companies be more willing to invest in infrastructure that would protect long term water and soil resources?

    Without knowing the answer to these questions quite a lot of belief and expectation is needed to plum for one scenario over the other.


    • vicki Hird says:

      Thanks Matt – that is a good set of questions and valid. I do think in a way we can refer to either what we had say 40 years ago (unhelpful) or maybe overseas (eg Russia, the US) to have a comparison to draw on to some extent. I also was trying to bring in wider issues than delivering measurable, marketable, enforceable outcomes eg passive conservation, ladders for new entrants, smaller machinery, community cohesion etc.. anecdotally and from some surveys its shown that larger and corporate farms with managers and contract staff that maybe do not live locally – the visibility and community linkages are not there. But they can afford more attention to edge of field conservation, regulation and investment in say water protection infrastructure. That may be a bit polarised and there will be a spectrum of types but we can draw on what we see already. My point overall is when the diversity is gone its gone so we need to decide if that’s what we want. Thanks for the input. Will use in my follow up! vicki

  10. Matt’s questions go the point – the uncertainty that selecting a particular enterprise model is necessarily the best means to a given set of target outcomes, or that engineered diversity will be more successful than what emerges when things are left to evolve. Turning to the list at the top, perhaps the more effective strategy to help rural employment and services thrive and communities flourish in remoter rural areas is to spend the same money on upgrading broadband services and enhancing the amenity value of the landscape (rewilding, recreation). Perhaps landscape and wildlife corridors elsewhere might be best protected and enhanced most by specialist contractors (that could themselves be small businesses) familar with the latest research on margin management, and water resources best protected by well-capitalised farming businesses that can afford the latest equipment that applies fertiliser or herbicide with greater precision and less run-off, rather than farms that can’t sustain a decent income for those who run them. With farm support decisions coming home from Brussels and being thrown into the fight for funds with health, social care, education, defence, and the prospect of the current terms of trade changing in ways that could significantly disadvantage domestic producers, the question of how radical we are to be in our thinking is an urgent one and Vicki is to be thanked for continuing to foster discussion and debate on the issues and options.

    • vicki says:

      thanks Andrew and I can see your and Matts points which are often proposed and may be the best we could get ie proper rural policy and effective targeted support. But I suspect we will lose a lot and maybe too much in the process. I’d be interested in some modelling that posits different scenarios where with and without front end loading or caps on payments, different types of payment and costs (and different market scenarios too – its a big model!) and how many farms of what size we end up in in the UK in say 15 years time. vicki

  11. Matt Rayment says:

    Interesting discussion! Trying to compete on the world market in the production of commodities will not work for many UK farms. It may work for some, but will lead to pressures to further seek economies of scale, with greater consolidation and large scale agri-business as Andrew predicts. I share Vicki’s concerns about the loss of diversity and change in character of the countryside that would result. I think we need to look at competitiveness more broadly and think about how farming can deliver the range of goods and services that we want and need. Rather than aiming for a particular farm structure or looking at ways of altering patterns of commodity trade, I think we should be looking to reward farmers for activities that deliver benefits to the environment and rural communities. Many of those activities may be delivered effectively and efficiently by family farms – therefore providing opportunities for them to compete in doing what they’re good at. In that way ending Pillar 1 subsidies – which are expensive and provide money to large and small farms alike with limited regard for their environmental or social performance – provides a great opportunity. We can use the money to reward provision of public goods – but given the range of competing priorities for public funds it will be important to make the argument about the benefits this will deliver.

  12. Matt Shardlow says:

    One further thought. In my experience much pesticide use is driven by fear of failure. The regret felt if a crop fails is much greater if the farmer does not feel he/she did everything the possibly could to protect it; while on the other hand there is no comparable regret if the crop is successful having been treated with everything. This insurance treatment may or may not have played any part in the success of the crop, but better to take a minor cost in many years than to risk an bigger cost once every few years.

    Clearly some farmers do practice IPM and take calculated risks (which they often say pay off) but this attitude is in a minority amongst humans. If you want evidence of this just look at how the prophylactic treatment of almost all seeds with insecticides has been taken up by farmers with zeal. Despite very little scientific evidence that they actually improve yields.

    How can we have a future for farming where the financial risks of annual fluctuations in pest prevalence and price are buffered, where farming can be done with more panache, where farmers are not at the mercy of factors out of their control.

    Over larger geographic areas and longer periods of time risks tend to level out. Just as when a company gets to a certain size it can reign back on insurance costs, because it becomes more cost efficient to take the hit on moderately sized claims, so finding a way of sharing risk amongst farmers could reduce the emotional pressure to spray.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Matt. that’s a very interesting point.

      I’ve been debating glyphosate use with a number of farmers recently and the risk aversion/compulsion & outbursts of emotion (usually anger) they display has similar characteristics to the behaviour of people with dependencies. They cannot see a present or a future without recourse to its use, prophylactic or reactive. Even the notion that there was a past where it was not used (or a present where others do not use it) seems to cause distress.

      • vicki says:

        very interesting – having been on the steering group for the Antibiotics alliance there are some parallels as use of antibiotics in livestock systems is an insurance – with prophylactic use out of control but rapidly becoming dangerous. We have managed to get some good actions, targets and
        I also think the cooperative approach should be a great one for explore (though UK farmers notoriously reluctant) – to cooperate on buying expertise or equipment, or sharing risk somehow of changing practice… . and especially true if want to maintain a dynamic mix of farms but use benefits of scale rather than consolidate.
        I aim to do a follow up looking at some of the solutions and issues that have emerged.

  13. Pingback: Fat profits, thin pickings: Tackling abuse in the food supply chain - New thinking for the British economy

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