“How many sheep have you got?” The question was fired at me by a woman with ponies in a field down the road.

Whenever I’m asked this I usually say, “about 100”, regardless of whether I have 90 or 130, the fluid nature of the reality being too complex to explain in passing.

“That’s not many”, said the pony lady.

I didn’t enquire what underpinned a judgement that sounded like an accusation, but over the next couple of days it rankled. Why the interest in numbers? Without context you might as well ask, “How long is a piece of string?”

People often ask about total acreage or livestock numbers and sometimes the questions relate to specific points of interest. Mostly, however, I believe what they are really asking is, “Are you a real farmer?”

So how do you define what a farmer is and why is the question important?

The dictionary definition of ‘farmer’ is simply: “someone who owns or manages a farm”. A farm is: “an area of land and its buildings used for growing crops and rearing animals”.

So far, so vague. DEFRA statistics show the average size of a farm in England is 87 hectares, with many farms in the South West and West Midlands below the national average. The Farm Structure Survey, gathered by Eurostat in December 2015, shows that the UK has the second highest average holding size in the EU (after the Czech Republic), with six other member states recording average holding sizes of under 10 hectares (24.7 acres).

While these statistics help to create a framework of sorts, it is the history and psychology of who has the right to be called a ‘farmer’, that I am concerned with here.

At its most basic, it’s a question of money – are you making a living from growing crops or raising livestock? Is it a full or part-time living? Is the farm income supplemented with another job?

The Censuses for England and Wales between 1841 and 1911 gives a relatively clear picture of the farming community. There are gentlemen farmers dependent on a skilled and unskilled workforce; there are family farms (almost always rented) of varying sizes and degrees of affluence; and there are many farmers with more than one source of income. “Tanner and farmer of 5 acres”, “blacksmith and farmer of 13 acres”, “waterman and farmer of 10 acres” – these are the sort of rural occupations that come up again and again. There was no question then that you called yourself a farmer, if a relevant amount of your income came from farming, however small your farm might be.

By the late 1940s, post-war paranoia about food security was driving a short-sighted move towards large-scale, highly mechanised and chemically supported production systems. Commentators like G.A. Squires in his 1947 essay, The Small Farmer on the Land was concerned that, “The position of the small producer in agriculture becomes every day more precarious.”

In 1981, my secondary school had Agricultural Science (AS) at ‘O’ Level for the first time. Prior to this, pupils could take Rural Science (RS) as a vocational qualification and the subject involved such things as beekeeping, gardening and practical livestock management. AS was considered to be a more serious approach to agriculture and was being pushed for pupils that might be headed to agricultural college.

I took both subjects and the comparison could not have been more stark. In RS, we learnt how to take geranium cuttings, use a honey extractor and make goat’s milk yoghurt. In AS, we learnt chemical compounds, the superiority of battery production systems and breeding for the highest possible yields.

What we learnt most, though, was that only science and industrialisation could feed the world. Small-scale traditional farming was for luddites. Big machinery was sexy. Hedges, ponds and spinneys were in the way of progress. No one had even heard of the word ‘sustainable’.

Fast-forward 38 years and those students studying AS, are today’s middle-aged farmers, whose own children have, in many ways, lost the traditions that we rejected.

The industrialisation of farming has been endorsed over the last 60 years, by successive governments, with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) implemented in 1962. It encouraged farmers to increase productivity at any cost, tying payments to numbers – heads of cattle, litres of milk, tonnes of grain. By the time this approach to farming was being heralded at my school as the long-term future, over-production was already becoming an issue. In 1984, quotas were instituted to reduce the very productivity that had been promoted only 20 years earlier.

In 1992, CAP reforms coincided with the Rio Earth Summit and the words ‘sustainable development’ were applied to farming for the first time. By then, though, the ‘modern’ way of doing things was already entrenched in a community that was fast losing the intrinsic skills of their ancestors.

More reforms followed in 2003 and 2013, to provide income support and cut the link between subsidies and production. However, as the Single Farm Payment was paid per hectare, it inevitably favoured the larger farms. In 2014, the size of a holding eligible for payments was raised to 5 hectares, wiping out the claims of 18,000 UK smallholders.

Along with subsidies favouring the biggest landowners, practical considerations make it ever harder to be a small farmer. Machinery, for example, continues to increase in size, necessitating the widening of gateways, removal of hedges and demolition of old buildings and walls. An elderly neighbour gave up cutting his hay meadow because he couldn’t find anyone able to get their modern tractor down his old walled lane. As early as the 1940s, the specialisation in agricultural machinery was being blamed for the destruction of sustainable farming methods. As the engineer and writer Tom Rolt says in his essay, Small Machines for Small Farmers, (The Small Farmer, 1947), “one machine demands another…these ingenious machines lead inevitably to larger farms, staffed with mechanics and practicing extensive monoculture”.

Despite diversification, modern farmers rarely define themselves as ‘farmer and…’ with the same ease as their 19th century counterparts. Nobody wants to admit to being a part-time farmer because it comes with the implication of failure or ‘hobbyism’.

Conservationists increasingly point accusing fingers at modern farming practices and the damage being done to farmland biodiversity. Farmers, respond by viewing academics and conservation bodies as the enemy, despite most of them caring passionately about the land. As Richard Benson says in his book, The Farm – “If you put that point to them quite a few think you are a Green and therefore against them, and therefore someone against whom they have to defend themselves.”

Now report after report cites farming as responsible for everything from mass extinctions to climate change, without differentiating between sustainable and unsustainable practices. Few acknowledge that governments, corporate interests and society’s desire for under-priced food are all complicit in the unfolding environmental disaster.

All is not lost, however. An increasing number of farmers are recognising the need for a serious overhaul of their practices, and a response to environmental issues that comes from within the farming sector rather than imposed by outside critics. Many are looking at their farms with admirable honesty and an eye to a sustainable future. Paradoxically this also means turning an eye to the past. Yorkshire farmer, Neil Heseltine, for example, found that by halving the number of sheep on his upland farm it not only dramatically improved biodiversity but also increased rather than decreased the viability of his flock as he no longer needed to rely on ‘purchased inputs’ such as concentrates and wormers. “I believe that we’re going back to farming the way my grandad and father farmed when they moved here in about 1950.”

So, returning to the question of what is a farmer? It is easy to lose sight of the fact that a farmer is someone who “grows crops and rears animals”. With the majority of farming family incomes now dependent on diversification and subsidies (whether for land ownership, management of biodiversity or the delivery of public goods) you could say that we are not so different from those small part-time farmers of the past.

Why is the definition important? Because we cannot hope for a sustainable farming future if our idea of a ‘real’ farmer is a man with a big tractor and a thousand acres of wheat. Can a real farmer make a living from 100 sheep? Perhaps the next question should be, “what else do you do?”