In June 2016, the Prince’s Countryside Fund published a report that posed the question ‘Is there a future for the small family farm in the UK?’* The British dairy industry may offer one sobering answer. Figures released in 2016 by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) show that in the beleaguered British dairy sector, one in 10 farms were forced to close between 2013 and 2016 – over 1,000 farms in three years. One reason for the downturn is that small farms have been unable to compete with larger ones, in an industry where deregulated prices and supermarket price wars mean that dairy farmers are routinely paid less than the cost of production for their milk. As ‘efficiency’ and ‘economies of scale’ become driving factors across the industry, large-scale ‘agribusiness’ has been touted by some as the only viable model for future farming in Britain. But can small farms be helped to thrive, and why are they important to Britain, now?

Post-Brexit uncertainty

Besides deregulation and competition from large-scale agribusinesses, there’s a new factor casting uncertainty over the future of Britain’s small farms: the ‘B’ word. Since the EU referendum in summer 2016, there’s been much uncertainty around what future farming policy will look like. Many see the relinquishment of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as an opportunity to make the sector fairer for farms of all sizes, provided the government is committed to putting in place a well-structured support scheme.

In August last year the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published the report New Model Farming, which argues for increased government support for Britain’s small farms; for greener, more sustainable farming practices; and for a commitment to promoting diversity within the sector. The report proposes a new subsidy system that would see the tapering of public funding to benefit smaller farmers and subsidies tied to good environmental practice.

Many, however, will be sceptical of the Government’s commitment to enacting positive policy change, aware that, as yet, there is no guarantee of security for small farms in post-Brexit Britain. So what steps are farmers taking to ensure the longevity of their businesses?

Branching out

Along with recommendations such as developing solid management, technical skills and lifelong learning, the authors of the Prince’s Countryside Fund report suggest that, if appropriate, farmers should consider diversifying by introducing new enterprises. It’s an idea that has been gaining traction within the sector; indeed, it’s been heralded by some as its future. In a recent article for Country Squire Magazine, for example, Ben Eagle suggests that “in future, farmers will increasingly see themselves as rural entrepreneurs, embracing new technologies, selling direct, diversifying into non-farming side businesses and galvanizing rural tourism.” The message to farmers seems to be that they should expect to adapt and diversify if they want to survive.

Street Farm, in the village of Tarvin, near Chester, is a family dairy farm run by David and Joanna Lomas. Frustrated by being at the whim of the market and having no say over the price of their milk, they decided last year to seize back some control over the distribution of their product. In November 2016, they installed a raw milk vending machine in their milking shed. The machine, known as the ‘Milkbot’, cools and dispenses unpasteurised milk, fresh from the cow, seven days a week. Customers can pay with cash or credit card and can choose how much they’d like to receive, dispensed into plastic bottles.

The Milkbot allows Street Farm to sell direct to the customer, and consequently to maintain some control over the sale of its raw milk (currently priced at £1.30 per litre). But, cautions Joanna Lomas, there is a balance to be struck between introducing clever innovations such as these, and branching out into new areas, such as tourism and retail sales, that have the potential to fundamentally change the nature of a farm, or even to replace the core business.

Diversifying is far from an easy (or necessarily desirable) option, requiring farmers to learn new skill sets and familiarise themselves with new areas of legislation. “Certainly farmers are looking for other ways to boost their falling income, but diversification does require a degree of investment at a time when spare cash is unavailable,” says Joanna. “It also requires a fair amount of courage to step outside your comfort zone, a leap into the unknown. The marketing side of things is something quite alien to most farmers and certainly is to us. Our venture is in its early days and growing steadily, but it is far from offering us a replacement income.”

Smaller and smarter

It’s clear that running a small farm does not mean eschewing innovation – in fact, it may well mean being quick to embrace new technologies. Julia Hawley works at Hall Farm in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, which is a traditional mixed farm with a herd of 75 cows. The farm employs technical benchmarking to monitor and increase its productivity, something many people don’t expect, says Julia. “We use quite a lot of technology, which seems to surprise people, but why as a small farm should we be ‘backward’?” she asks.

Graeme Willis, a CPRE food and farming campaigner and author of the New Model Farming report, agrees. “You can get innovation at all levels,” he says. “If you have more variety, a more diverse farming industry, you have a much more diverse set of cultures, because every business is different. No other industries say, oh let’s get rid of our small businesses because that way we’ll have a really interesting, creative sector. I think quite the opposite; they say the SME sector is the real driver of innovation and change, and of dynamic change, disruptive change.”

At the heart of country life

The CPRE report highlights the key role smaller-scale and non-industrialised farms play as custodians of the land, working with and protecting the natural environment. Crucially, though, the report notes that these farms not only play a role in shaping Britain’s natural landscape, but make up a vital part of its cultural and social landscape as well.

Graeme Willis makes a distinction between environmental management, and the part that small and family farms play in protecting the countryside. “When you look at the environment you can probably say, well big farms and small farms can manage the environment well or badly, depending on how they manage the land. But the ‘countryside’ is a bit different from the ‘environment’, because countryside is about rural character and way of life and community,” says Graeme. He explains that when a farm is lost – perhaps turned into housing for those from urban areas – it has an indelible impact on the local community, which loses a rural business.

A vision of the future

In a recent blog post for A New Nature, Sustain Campaign Coordinator Vicki Hird asks readers to imagine what she terms the ‘Tesco-ization’ of farming in Britain – the closure of small and medium-sized farms and the domination of a handful of huge corporate-controlled agribusinesses – and urges them to think about what will be lost if small farms are not supported to thrive.

Julia Hawley believes that the continued closure of small farms will mean the loss of an important facet of rural life. “When smaller farms are lost, a part of a village’s history is lost,” she says. “The buildings become ‘The Old Dairy’, a pretty little conversion, or ‘The Stackyard’, an exclusive new development. Old Joe will not stop on his Massey 135 tractor for a gossip; instead, the contractor’s enormous machinery will charge up and down the road.”

The picture she paints is not purely nostalgic, it has real repercussions for those who live and work in Britain’s countryside. The argument in favour of supporting smaller-scale farms is not about clinging to a longed-for rural idyll, but ensuring that farms are able to continue making a valued contribution to the communities of which they are a part: producing fresh local food, buoying rural economies, as well as providing employment opportunities and a foothold for young farmers and those entering agriculture. By contrast, large intensive farms may well be focused on producing food for export, their biggest contributions to local communities being increased farm traffic and pollution.

There are big challenges ahead for small farmers, but Joanna Lomas believes that the industry will find a way to meet these. “Farmers if nothing else are very resilient,” says Joanna. “The farming industry always finds the strength to carry on and rises to the challenges, but each time it gets harder and more fall by the way side. It would be great to feel there is support and actual concern and understanding from government for the rural community and its contribution to the welfare of the country.”

Note: the authors use Defra’s classification of a ‘small farm’ as one requiring the labour output equivalent to one to two full-time members of staff.

Photograph: Geraint Rowland