Monday, December 13, 2010

Why there is a case for county farms

The demographic profile of farmers in Europe, not least in Britain, is an ageing one. To some extent the figures may be misleading as younger members of a family may be involved in the farm enterprise, but as junior partners or salaried employees. Tensions between the generations are a recurrent theme in fictional programmes like The Archers. They happen in real life on farms, too.

Farming does need an influx of younger people who are not only more energetic but are open to new ideas and new ways of farming and have a recognition of the importance of dialogue with the consumer. Some older farmers have modified their views and taken new initiatives, but they are often more resitance to change and accustomed to a world in the task was maximising production with generous assistance from the taxpayer.

It is, however, very difficult to get into farming except through inheritance. Of course, you can be a farm manager and many go down that route. But ownership or even tenancy is more difficult. The entry price in terms of start up capital is too high a barrier for many.

That is why county farms have played an important role. They were originally provide for under the 1908 Smallholdings and Allotment Acts, although most of them were created between the two world wars to provide smallholding opportunities for landless agricultural workers and soldiers returning home from the war.

They are rented out by county councils and sometimes it is possible to progress from a smaller holding to a larger one and then eventually to your own farm. Of course, many farmers stay on the county council farm.

Many of them are not really large enough to support a family. Most of the county estates are made up of farms of around 100 acres, too small to compete with larger farms, but arguably too large for smallholding type enterprises serve the local market. In practice the tenant often relies on the farmer's partner (usually a woman) obtaining paid employment as, for example, a teacher or a nurse.

This week the full extent of the cuts being made to local government budgets will be made known, but it is evident that local authorities are going to taken a big, front loaded hit. Some county councils have already sold off their farms, e.g., Oxfordshire, while others such as Buckinghamshire and Somerset look like going down that route.

It's a way of paying down debts, but it potentially harms the structure of farming. When asked about the sale of county farms the leader of Somerset County Council argued, 'It's not our core business.' Maybe it isn't, but it is still arguably worthwhile business for rural county councils.

The case for these farms is made by Simon Fairlie in a special issue on Land in the latest edition of the excellent Food Ethics journal published by the Food Ethics Council. See: Food Ethics

I'm not sure I agree with Fairlie's argument that there is an opportunity for the revival of smallholdings to meet demand for local food. To me this seems like a reversion to the nostalgic idea of spade husbandry advocated by some Chartists in the early 19th century.

Semi-subsistence farming is not the way ahead for the Global South or developed countries, but there is a case for providing opportunities for motivated and innovative farmers to pursue farming as a career. The case for government intervention can be made on food security grounds.

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