Small farms, once the beating heart of the British countryside, are disappearing. This is nothing new – they have been in decline for the last 80 years, but the pace of their disappearance is faster than ever. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) report, New Model Farming, a third of UK farms under 50 hectares have been lost between 2005 and 2015. In stark contrast, the number of farms above 100 hectares is on the rise. For some, big may still be better but for our rural environments, economies and communities, this is grave news.
A case in point is the tiny island of Sark in the Channel Islands. The island has recently publicised that they need a dairy farmer. With a resident population of just 400, this may sound quaint; but to the islanders who have relied on a regular supply of local dairy products, it is vital. Caragh Couldrige owner of Caragh’s Chocolates is one of them. Inspired by Sark’s dairy cows, she set up her chocolate company 20 years ago, when she moved to the island. “I couldn’t believe how rich and pure the cream was. You can tip the pot upside down and it doesn’t budge! I am sure it’s to do with the unpolluted pasture and glorious mixture of sunshine, rain and lack of stress,” she says.
The previous dairy closed down in 2017 when the farmer, Christopher Nightingale, wanted to retire and at the same time the land tenure came to an end. With no land, rising costs and a lack of government support, it was an impossible package to pass on. Islanders are now importing their dairy products from Guernsey, but the boat only arrives twice a week. “Being dependent on Guernsey is anathema to me, as our own products are just superior,” Caragh explains. “The drive to set up our dairy again is not just for the chocolates. I can’t bear to think that we are losing the very industries that make this place so special. Visitors are our biggest income and they love to have our milk, cream and butter.”
The Sark Community Dairy Trust, which has been set up by Caragh and three others, has arranged to lease 40 acres of land from the Seigneur of Sark, the hereditary head of state on the Island. The land will be used for grazing but also growing hay and other crops in a traditional mixed system which will benefit the biodiversity of the island as well its beauty. “Sark is a rural living landscape where we all benefit from its natural beauty. Having the dairy is part of this rural idyll,” Caragh says.
The dairy farmer will have to bring their own cows, but accommodation will be provided, making the opportunity a good one. “The new dairy will give a huge boost to the economy and the energy of the island, something to feel proud of and shout about.”
Why small farms are disappearing
Sark may be a world away from the rest of the UK, but the issues there illustrate the challenges facing other small farms across the country. Recent data shows there has been a 4.6% drop in dairy farms over the last 7 months alone with 3,000 farms closing over the last ten years in England and Wales. Since the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board in 1994, dairy farmers have been at the mercy of global free trade. Supermarket price wars ensued, and to maintain or increase their market share, retailers drove down the price they paid for milk. To survive, dairy farmers have had to accept rock-bottom prices, sometimes below the cost of production for prolonged periods. The result has been a triumph for economies of scale – only the biggest and most efficient farms (where efficiency is measured only in terms of the direct costs) are economically viable. Small farms have closed, while large ones have grown and become increasingly intensive.
Gerald Miles, a 3rd generation farmer, owns a 120-acre farm near St Davids in Pembrokeshire and has been at the mercy of these changes. The farm used to have a mix of potatoes and dairy cows, but the price of potatoes collapsed in the 1980’s, and Gerald lost almost everything. “The intensification of farming is really all our fault,” he explains. “Food is cheap. Supermarkets squeeze the margins to as little as possible to sell more, and then farmers need to produce more. Why should food be a commodity, it’s a necessity. It’s a crime.”
Big is not better
Output may be impressive but what large farms gain in profit they lose in sustainability. Since 1996 the average dairy herd size has nearly doubled. As the size of the herd increases, the cows have to walk further every day to and from pasture, which begins to be impractical with more than about 350 cows. According to Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), Britain now gets around 20% of its milk from zero-grazing dairy farms. This has implications for animal welfare as well as the environment. Cows kept inside are denied the chance to graze naturally. They are also fed grain – including soya meal, much of it grown on the land of former rainforests, and maize silage, which leaves soils bare and prone to erosion over winter. Keeping so many cows confined indoors also makes them more prone to infection.
Meanwhile, the varied landscapes associated with smaller farms like Gerald’s have given way to vast monocultures of ryegrass, in the case of dairy farms, or wheat and oilseed rape in the case of arable farms. These employ fewer people and sell direct to the supermarkets, bypassing the local community. With no traditional crop rotation or grazing to build soil fertility naturally or break weed, disease and pest cycles, farmers invariably resort to using a higher level of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. This has had a devastating impact on soil health, biodiversity and the quality of food.
The need for diversity
Greame Willis, senior rural policy campaigner at CPRE and lead researcher of the New Model Farming report, argues that farms need to become more diverse both in size and what they produce. Alongside environmental benefits, diversity brings resilience in the face of climate change and a “diverse and buoyant supply of high quality, differentiated foods”. In Sark, this means their superior cream, that makes the chocolates a quality product with a unique flavour. Without these distinct products, we are in danger losing our vibrant food culture and diet, as well as regional identity.
The impact on rural communities
The reduction in the number of small farms is eroding rural communities. Intensive farms tend to employ fewer people per acre, so there is less work for local people. What’s more, many small businesses, such as local abattoirs, which are reliant on small- to mid-sized farms, are going out of business. In addition, farmers provide a crucial link to the land which is severed when they stop selling their food to the local community. Richard Young, the SFT’s policy director, grew up on a small dairy farm. He says, “As small farms disappear, vital parts of rural infrastructure are disappearing with them, making life more difficult for the small farms that remain and dramatically decreasing the opportunities for those who would like to grow their own food and work with farm animals. As a nation we are losing our links to the soil and the fundamental physical and mental health that comes from properly rewarded work on the land. Traditional, rural people are dying out and the whole of rural Britain is steadily being urbanised.”
This disconnection impacts how we view our food. As Willis writes,“The potential to build public understanding of nature and landscape is being undermined by the direction of travel of our farming and food industries. Something needs to change to make our food less anonymous, without connection to seasons, plot or place.”The less we understand about where our food comes from, the less we care.
The case for small farms
Unlike many small farmers, Gerald Miles has managed to survive, selling off his dairy cows and turning to tourism as well as starting the first Community Supported Agriculture project in Wales. “It’s been the best thing we have done on the farm,” he says. Gerald’s son Carwyn now provides organic vegetables to 60 families in the area and he is trialling the production of ancient wheat and oat grain varieties that are more resilient to disease and require fewer inputs. The farm is just about getting by, but the benefits have been enormous. “The nature has increased 10-fold on the farm,” Gerald explains, “and I now know more people than I ever would have had the time to talk to before. We’re creating a bond with the community.”
In the 2017 report, A Matter of Scale, Rebecca Laughton, of the Land Worker’s Alliance, wrote that far from being old fashioned and nostalgic,“small farms are in a position to address some of the most pressing environmental, social and economic issues faced by rural areas, whilst providing adequate quantities of fresh and high quality food.”Laughton argues that British horticulture, which has lost 27% of its holdings since the 1980’s, would be a good place to start. This is especially pertinent given the urgent need for greater consumption of fruit and vegetables.
Despite the barriers, there are a growing number of agroecological farmers like Gerald trying to buck this trend. In north Wales, a group of eight farmers, many of them in their 30’s, have started a co-operative called Tyddyn Teg. Frank Scrace, one of the farmers there, believes this sort of model is a “rejuvenation process”, bringing new life to rural areas. As small farms have disappeared, and large farms have turned to mechanisation, the number of people who know how to produce food on a small-scale level has diminished. Farms like Tyddyn Teg are offering new, and often young, people the opportunity to develop these skills and reverse this trend.
Similarly, there has been a backlash in the dairy industry, with microdairies like the one proposed on Sark, on the rise. In both cases, by selling directly to the customer or local retailers, and cutting out the supermarkets, supply chains are shortened, the farmer gets a fair price and the land is being responsibly farmed. They are creating a relationship between farmer and customer. “It’s what a farm should be doing, feeding local people surrounding the farm,” says Gerald, “if every farmer did that, we wouldn’t need supermarkets. It’s therapy for the farmer and for the community.”
Photograph: James Stringer