Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ninth Report


FARM STRUCTURES IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

Number of farmers

38. An area of much concern is the large number of people leaving agriculture, particularly in the last two years. The President of the National Farmers' Union described it to us as "a massive exodus from the industry", which over the last two years was "running at around 20,000 people per year".[56] Figure 11 (at the end of the Report) charts the decline in farm labour over a longer period. The recent exodus is apparent. The other obvious trend is the much greater rate of attrition among farm staff rather than farmers: farmers, it seems, are better able to remain in the industry, often by switching from full- to part-time farming. There is a paradox that many very small farmers who do not depend on farm income continue to draw down subsidy. This is having a significant effect on policy­making, making it more difficult to achieve any consensus. Although it is very difficult to compare data exactly because the collection methods and reporting of data have changed over time, Table 2 illustrates the relative increase in the number of part-time farmers during the past twenty years.

Table 2: Full- and Part-time Farmers in the United Kingdom[57]

  
Full-time
(thousands)
Part-time
(thousands)
  
Farmers, partners and directors
(doing farm work)
1983
1988
1993
1997
202.8
192.5
176.1
168.3
86.8
93.3
107.8
123.0
  
Farmers, partners, directors and spouses (working on the holding)
1998
2001
184.2
166.1
178.9
186.1

Number of farms

39. Although the available data is somewhat imperfect, it is apparent that the total number of farm holdings in the United Kingdom has been relatively stable during the 1990s. Table 3 shows the number of holdings recorded in the June census conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in recent years. Moreover, although the number of holdings has been stable, there have been a number of changes in how those holdings have been managed and farmed. The fragmented nature of farm businesses (sometimes comprising separate blocks of land) was highlighted by the foot and mouth disease outbreak.[58]

Table 3: Agricultural holdings in the United Kingdom[59]

  
No. of Holdings
1997
1998
1999
2000
237,700
237,900
239,600
232,500


40. Furthermore, the size of holdings has changed, in part reflecting the switch from full- to part-time farming. Figure 12 (at the end of the Report) shows an increase both in the number of very small holdings (under 10 hectares) and also in the number of larger holdings, when measured by area. A similar pattern emerges in Figure 13 (at the end of the Report), which classifies farms by business size (i.e. in financial terms) rather than by area. The Institute of Agricultural Management identified a potential difficulty resulting from this trend, they argued that "those small farms are propped up entirely by their non-farm income. And whether or not that should be a serious part of the consideration, in the future design of agricultural policy ... is questionable".[60] Mr Course of the Institute told us that "the reality is that there are probably somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 serious farm business decision-makers in the agriculture industry at the present time".[61] Figure 14 (at the end of the Report) compares the size of holdings across the European Union.

Production of crops and livestock

41. The types of crops grown and livestock reared by British farmers have not changed markedly over the past few decades, although the scale of production and the proportion of total farming activity devoted to each has shifted over time. The Table below compares production for selected years between 1984 and 1999, and shows that there have been an increase in, for example, the numbers of beef cows, and a decline in the numbers kept for producing milk. The numbers of sheep and lambs and of pigs, until recently, have remained relatively constant, and the volume of cereals produced has varied over time.

Table 4: Trends in selected agricultural products between 1984 and 1999[62]

  
1984
1989
1994
1999
Cereals**
26,590
22,725
19,960
22,120
Dairy cows*
3,281
2,866
2,716
2,440
Beef cows*
1,377
1,525
1,809
1,842
Clean cattle*, #
2,998
2,687
2,417
2,216
Sheep and lambs*
34,985
43,588
43,813
44,656
Pigs*
7,708
7,606
7,892
7,284



Note:
** thousand tonnes produced [nb. i) there is considerable annual variation in cereal yields; ii) set-aside was introduced in 1993]
* total numbers in thousands
# clean cattle - steers, heifers and young bulls slaughtered

42. Such general figures conceal quite sharp changes in the production of individual commodities. For example, the structure of subsidy paid to support linseed production meant that the total value of linseed produced in the United Kingdom went up seven-fold between the beginning of the 1990s and 1999, and has since fallen back.[63] The value of oilseed rape production has also fluctuated, again driven in part at least by policy changes. The sheep flock has also increased, putting pressure on the environment in some upland areas. That having been said, the structure of production has not changed hugely: British farming continues to be dominated by the production of cereals, meat and dairy products.

Conclusion

43. Whilst agriculture has been, and is, more heavily subsidised and better compensated for major set­backs and difficulties, and enjoys greater protection than most other British industries, it is also clear that its present crisis is very real. Its effect is being felt in farmhouses up and down the country. Without doubt the impact of the coincidence of low world commodity prices and the strong pound would have reduced farm incomes considerably. But the problem has been compounded by the long-term effects of BSE and the shorter-term effects of classical swine fever and foot and mouth disease. It has also been affected by changes in, and uncertainties surrounding, European farming policy and the Common Agricultural Policy. It is no wonder that agriculture feels buffeted, at times vilified, and is desperate for some clear signals as to the way forward.

44. In acknowledging these problems, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fundamental economics of agriculture. Patterns of domestic food consumption have been changing for a long time and they will continue to do so in future. As consumers become richer expenditure on food inevitably forms a smaller and smaller part of total spending, a reality exacerbated by the fact that increased processing means that raw agricultural products represent a smaller and smaller proportion of the total value of the food product consumed. Moreover, greater use of technologies results in cheaper and ever more abundant agricultural produce. In the light of the economic and other factors affecting the future of farming the Government should commission an annual financial assessment of the state of British farming which goes beyond simply looking at farm incomes. Its production should involve representative bodies from across the food chain, as well as the industry's bankers. Such a document could form an objective basis against which to judge and assess the possible effects of future policy proposals.



56   Evidence taken on 8 May 2002, Ev 294, Q. 980. Back

57   Source: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Back

58   Foot and Mouth Disease: Lessons to be Learned, Minutes of Evidence, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, HC 1144, Session 2001-02, Q.41. Back

59   Source: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; see http://www.defra.gov.uk/esg/default.htm. Back

60   Evidence taken on 30 January 2002, Ev 22, Q.98. Back

61   Evidence taken on 30 January 2002, Ev 19, Q.78. Back

62   See http://www.defra.gov.uk/esg/Work_htm/publications/cf/auk/current/5­1.xls. Back

63   See Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2000, MAFF, p.59. Back


 
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