Are family farms heading for extinction?

Are family farms heading for extinction?

By Luke Dale-Harris, Farm Wilder Founder

Farmers occupy a strange place in our collective imagination – sometimes hardened heroes, working tirelessly to feed the world and steward our countryside; other times mercantile destroyers of the environment, grubbing out trees and demanding more money from the taxpayer.

The pendulum of public opinion swings both ways, but in recent years the balance has started to tip towards the negative. This is particularly true for livestock farmers who are blamed, often unjustifiably, for a disproportionately large contribution to climate change. The timing is ominous – just as people are falling out of love with farmers, political and economic changes threaten to drive tens of thousands of them out of business.


Many farms have existed on the margins of profitability for decades, with farmers often relying on second jobs to keep them afloat. But now a combination of falling subsidies and rising costs will make even this approach unviable in the coming years. The problem is most acutely felt in the uplands, where farmers make a living on marginal land that can support far fewer livestock than the more productive lowlands. But the risks are felt across the landscape – a post-Brexit Defra report showed that without subsidies, the average livestock farm will be making a loss. The same is true for arable farming; in fact, the only farms that would remain viable without public support are intensive pig and poultry units and vegetable farms.

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.

June on our Farms


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.


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.

Why buy Farm Wilder produce?

Creating a way for you to purchase our extraordinary meat is a small but vital step forwards - it means you can directly support farmers that are working to deliver the change we need.  That’s why we’ve partnered with Andy Gray, of Elston Farm and MC Kelly butchers, allowing us to use his master butchers and online sales platform to deliver our meat right to your door.

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