Farmers are dying out

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Sat Aug 16 09:36:37 BST 2003

Farmers are dying out
by John Vidal
The Guardian 
August 7, 2003 
Farmers are dying out: The steady decline of small farms in the UK is 
being accelerated by the sale of country land to townies who have no 
intention of cultivating it
Earlier this week, a 40-hectare farm on the Welsh borders was sold to 
a family from London who only wanted one hectare of it for their 
horse. They will live in the house, sell the rest of the land and for 
the first time in 300 years, there will be no farmer at Penybryn. The 
sale confirms a five-year trend, identified this week by the Royal 
Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the property agents FPD Savills, 
that roughly half the farms sold in England these days go to city 
people who want large old houses in the countryside and do not want 
the bother of maintaining the land, let alone growing 
food on their new acquisition. It also highlights the 50-year shift 
away from small farms and the concentration of UK landownership into 
ever fewer hands. In 1939 there were almost 500,000 farms in Britain, 
the majority fewer than 40 hectares, and almost all worked by 

 Between them, they employed up to 15% of the population. Within 30 
years, the number had almost halved and in the past 15 years the 
number has fallen to about 130,000. There are still about 100,000 
farms under 40 hectares, but more and more of these small farmers are 
going part-time, 
supported mostly by the banks and the value of their land, which 
remains strong. It's the same story across all developed countries. 
In the OECD (the world's 30 richest countries), the number of farms 
has been declining by roughly 1.5% a year, and farmers and their 
workers now make up only 8% of the labour force. Some 15 million 
people have left farming in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and 
Italy since 1957. In the US, the number of farms has shrunk from 6.5m 
in 1935 to under 2m today. As the number of farms falls, so the size 
of those left grows. For governments pursuing relentless industrial 
logic, this "rationalisation" of farming is to be encouraged. Lord 
Haskins, who has chaired reports on the future of agriculture and 
advises Tony Blair, is eager to see UK farming compete in the world 
market. The only way this will happen, he argues, is for holdings to 
get bigger, and he 
predicts that the number of British farms will halve again within 20 
years. Anyone wanting to survive in farming, he implies, will simply 
have to grow, and the rewards of size under the present system of 
subsidies are undeniable. 

Around 80% of Britain's annual pounds 30bn grants from Europe go to 
the largest 20% of farms. Moreover, the supermarket chains, which 
control 70% of the UK retail food market, only want to deal with big 
farmers who have standardised their production and can deliver 
exactly what 
the supermarket wants, when it wants it. Agribusiness and large 
farms, however, are not geared to food production but to subsidy-
reaping. US farms get 60% of their income now from subsidies and it 
is only slightly less in Europe. Yet small farms have been shown in 
study after study in 
Britain, the US and India to be more productive per hectare, less 
polluting, better for employment and wildlife and environmental 
diversity. Besides, the odds are stacked against anyone contemplating 
taking on a small farm. Land costs roughly pounds 8,700 a hectare and 
the current thinking is that you need about 160 hectares to survive. 

 Furthermore, very little land in the UK ever goes on the market. 
Savills reckons only 80,000 out of more than 25m hectares in the UK 
is sold a year and the clearout of small farming, widely predicted 
during the foot and mouth crisis, has not happened as expected. Small 
farmers may be getting 
out of the day-to-day running of their estates by handing over to 
management companies or leasing their land to neighbours, but they 
are not selling in large numbers. Land is also being managed by fewer 
people than ever before. The Small and Family Farms Association 
suggests that within a 
generation, fewer than 10,000 people will decide what is grown in 
Britain. The implications are huge. Should, for instance, GM foods be 
allowed to be grown in Britain, only a few key people will have to be 
persuaded to grow them. It would also mean the end of livestock 
markets as growers move to deal directly with supermarkets, and the 
severance of farmers' connection with the land, as remote management 
companies take over day-to-day farming. The UK already has by far the 
greatest concentration of land ownership in Europe and the greatest 
proportion of large to small farms. 
The author and investigative journalist Kevin Cahill has calculated 
that under 1% of the population now owns 70% of the land. Compare 
this to Brazil, where 2.8% of landowners own over 56% of arable land. 
The figures are stark. Some 6,000 landowners - mostly aristocrats, 
but also large institutions like the National Trust, the church, the 
Co-op and the crown - own about 16m of the UK's 25m hectares. 

 Britain's top 20 landowning families have bought or inherited an 
area big enough to swallow up the entire counties of Kent, Essex and 
Bedfordshire. The 100,000 small farmers with less than 40 hectares 
own less than 20% of the land, and the 77% of the rest of the 
population of 60 million is squeezed on to just 5.8% of the land. 
Land reform in England and Wales is not on the agenda, and new 
legislation in Scotland is not expected to change ownership patterns 
much. The best advice for anyone wanting to get into farming is to 
head for Russia, where the largest sale of farmland on the planet is 
about to start. President Putin, thinking like Lord Haskins, has 
insisted that land reform is essential to persuade investors to 
develop big, efficient farms. 
John Vidal is the Guardian's environment 
editor john.vidal at 

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