Smaller farms heading towards a cliff edge, warns CPRE
In a new report released today, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) call for farming funding that will stem loss of smaller farms and the diversity they provide.
Agriculture is in the spotlight in a way we haven’t seen for a long time. A new Agriculture Bill, one of only eight core pieces of Brexit legislation in the Queen’s Speech, will sweep away the European funding model – the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - that has shaped the UK’s farming sector for over 40 years. And it isn’t yet clear how big the post-CAP cake will be or how it will be cut up, despite a growing sense from Government that future policy will focus more on rewarding farmers for providing environmental benefits.
What is clear is that this upheaval presents serious economic challenges, and will have a huge impact on rural communities and the natural environment. Whether that impact is positive or negative depends on what the Government does next.
CPRE’s Uncertain Harvest report, released today, calls for the diversity of our farms to be at the front and centre of Government thinking on the new farming policy and funding settlement. The report uses official Defra statistics as well as Eurostat data to show that smaller farms in England are in steep decline: almost a third of farms under 50 hectares disappeared between 2005 and 2015 and a fifth of farms in total have been lost. If these trends continue, farms under 50 hectares could all but disappear from the English countryside by the middle of the century. With them would go part of the wonderful mosaic which characterises many landscapes.
Small and intermediate farms have struggled most to make headway given the economic challenges farming has faced for decades. Even with the protective umbrella of the CAP, many farmers have struggled, whether with falling farm gate prices or in terms of trade. Brexit presents new risks but also important opportunities: to put farming on a much stronger economic footing, to support a diversity of farm sizes and to build the environmental sustainability of the industry.
Despite the clear official data, the haemorrhaging of farms from the industry is largely an untold story. National debate, policy and research have all failed to consider sufficiently the issue of farm losses and their impacts, especially when it comes to smaller farms. In truth, as CPRE’s report shows, we don’t understand how changes to the types and diversity of farms are altering how the land is managed. We lack the depth and breadth of research to know the impacts on the rural economy and the prosperity and health of the countryside. Without this information, we seem to be going blindfolded into critical negotiations about the future of farming.
Recently, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, and the Farming Minister, George Eustice, have both talked about helping smaller family farms. These welcome comments need to be reflected in Government action. The report calls on the Government to:
- Improve data on farm sizes and drivers of change
- Research the impacts of farm losses on the countryside
- Support an independent and comprehensive review of policy and how it can support a diverse farm industry
- Provide continued and targeted public investment to maintain a diverse countryside
- Put in place a strategy to help a new generation of farmers and drive up performance of farms with the least resources.
Most importantly, this report calls on the Government to recognise how a diverse farming sector contributes to thriving communities and beautiful landscapes, and to put this at the heart of its vision for the future of farming.