Figures out today showing a 17% drop in farm business earnings in 2012-2013 may be in part down to the appalling growing conditions of the year in question. But the underlying story of farm incomes, especially for those grazing livestock, has been patchy at best over many years. And the latest figures and the explanations behind them prompt a number of questions about UK farming in the 21st century.
Producing food in a world where demand is growing could hardly be more important. A sophisticated, highly mechanised and well-funded industry is needed to feed a hungry world. So does UK agriculture, as it is currently established, fit the bill? The best answer, from close examination of the farm income statistics and other information, would surely have to be “only in part.”
While many farmers wholeheartedly embrace the latest technology, machinery and methods, a good number do not. While the majority treat farming as a serious profession and the primary means by which they earn their living, some take a different approach. At one end of the scale farming is a multi-million pound international business; at the other it can be a part-time hobby.
There is certainly room for all kinds of farming. Large scale arable, beef and dairy operators putting significant quantities of raw materials into the food chain, keeping costs and environmental impacts to a minimum and squeezing the maximum value and profit from their land are vital for our balance of payments and our food security. The specialist producer adding value to his own raw materials and selling produce at a premium, direct or through retailers, is equally meeting a need and maintaining strong traditions. But each of them – and the many shades of farming in between – needs to be working profitably for the good of those involved and the benefit of the rural community overall.
Yet too many farms are not making any money at all; others are almost entirely reliant on outside income to stay solvent. A proportion are farms in name only, supported by single farm payments and benefits but making little or no profit through agriculture. If we really are going to feed our own population with more home-produced goods – as we should – and build a growing export market
then we need farm policies that reward the innovators and the hard-workers and ensure they are well paid for their vital contribution.