Are family farms heading for extinction?
By Luke Dale-Harris, Farm Wilder Founder
What’s most frustrating is that this financial peril comes at a time when the pieces are falling into place for there to be a seismic shift in agricultural practices to something far more environmentally, and potentially even economically, sustainable. While the government are phasing out the old subsidy system, an EU policy which involved paying farmers a set rate for every acre they own, they are introducing payments for public goods approach that rewards farmers for environmental outputs.
Initially, this was to be set at a rate that would equal the EU subsidies, which would have kept farmers afloat while encouraging them towards more sustainable practices. This financial commitment has now been rolled back – even though the payments haven’t yet explicitly been cut, it creates a level of uncertainty that makes farm planning near impossible.
Equally influential is the incredible rise in costs farmers are now facing. In some cases, this is a major lever for organic and grass fed farming. Many of even the more intensive farmers have stopped spreading fertiliser this year as prices have risen four fold – a hike that seemed unimaginable even a year ago. Meanwhile more and more are stopping feeding grain as the Ukraine war pushes prices up and up. Environmentally speaking, this is certainly a good thing. However, even for farmers like ours who don’t feed grain and barely use fertiliser, the pain is still felt elsewhere – prices of everything from vet bills to fence posts are going nowhere but up.
A couple of years ago, the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts produced a report on farm economics that argued that in the absence of subsidies, the only way to make money as an upland farmer was to work within the limits of what the land can produce through natural processes. Any money spent on inputs like fertiliser, herbicides or livestock feed quickly pushes farm businesses into the red; a fact that has historically been masked by the provision of subsidies.
ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY FARMING SYSTEMS
It is of course no coincidence that the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, who share an agenda very close to our own, found their economics to match very closely with their priorities – namely to encourage more extensive and environmentally friendly farming systems. But there was a glaring omission in their calculations: this type of farming only makes money where land is abundantly available and its costs (i.e. rent or mortgage repayments) are next to nil. In the UK, this is true of large estates, National Trust properties and very little else. It’s no coincidence that it is these same estates that are behind the boom in rewilding, which is in most cases another name for extensive, wildlife-friendly farming.
For many of the farmers we work with, this reality is profoundly depressing. As wildlife-friendly, 100% grass-fed family farmers they are doing everything the government says it wants to see. Even so, after generations on the same holdings, they can no longer say with any certainty they will be handing their farms down to their children.
It wouldn’t take that much to reverse this calculation and keep farmers secure. That they need to be paid more for the food they produce is a given, which is why we pay all our farmers a premium above market price. But this alone isn’t enough. We need farms to provide food, but we also need them to massively extend and improve wildlife habitats, sink carbon in soils and trees and store increasing amounts of water. These are public goods, so should be paid for primarily by the public purse. The government knows this all too well; for the last five years, it has been repeated so often it has become a kind of mantra, increasingly devoid of meaning.
The danger now is that as public sentiment shifts away from farmers, the government sees cutting subsidies as a way to drive a popular agenda while saving themselves money. That would be a huge missed opportunity to build a better food system.