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FG 175: The changing faces of British agriculture

As farming has changed, so have the people who work within it. Emily Ashworth takes a look at how agriculture’s workforce has adapted through the centuries.

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FG 175: The changing faces of British agriculture

Agriculture has always been defined by its people and to scour through 175 years of farming, the changing faces within it reveal a great shift in the country’s agricultural workforce.


While today’s robots, machinery and computer technology would no doubt blow our agricultural ancestors’ minds, the need for a literal ‘extra pair of hands’ in terms of farm labour is often no longer the case. But it was not always that way.


In 1850, 22 per cent of the British workforce was in agriculture, but since then the farming workforce across the UK has slowly reduced.


And it continued to change, not only in size, but in sector, gender and role.


Farm clothing has had its moments too, from donning flat caps and waistcoats in the 1800s, to scooting around the dairy parlour in jeans on a hoverboard, as one young farmer recently posted on social media.


During the early 19th century, the need for people was far greater as agricultural machines only started to dramatically improve towards the latter part of the century.


But by 1901, there had been a population boom in the UK, with numbers climbing to 37.1 million.


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However, with the rate of population growth twice that of agricultural input at the time, the need to feed a burgeoning population meant this era was still deemed to be a time of notable progression and agricultural output expanded alongside the growing nation, despite its reduced number of workers.


After a period of great productivity, the country entered the 1900s and the grim reality of mechanised warfare in 1914. Not only would World War I take men away from the farms, but it would lead to women taking on a far greater role at the business end of agriculture.


Considering more than 170,000 farmers fought on the front line, agriculture’s future looked bleak, leading to not only the introduction of women, but of a foreign workforce too.


It led to the creation of a training scheme for women in farm-based work by the Board of Agriculture at colleges across the country, forcing the establishment of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1917.


By 1918, 250,000 women, who faced much controversy for wearing male-oriented workwear, were working in farming, along with more than 30,000 agriculturally employed prisoners of war.




It also saw a large rise in the use of machinery as the Government bought 400 British Sanderson tractors and invested a further £3.2 million in US models, such as the Fordson.


By 1918, there were 6,000 tractors in operation in the country, as part of the ‘Ploughing Up’ campaign, the start of a more mechanised era.


History repeated itself only a short time later when in 1939, war broke out again and saw the WLA was re-established, enlisting the help of more than 80,000 women by 1944.


Post-war Britain became much more production focused and an agricultural expansion plan was devised to improve output by 60 per cent.

By the middle of the century an agriculture act set out some longterm assurances which included:


  • Not to reduce the guaranteed price of any product by more than 4 per cent in any one year.
  • Not to reduce the price of livestock or livestock products by 9 per cent in total over any three consecutive years.
  • Not to reduce the total value of guarantees by more than 2.5 per cent in any one year.


With this newfound stability, farmers turned to using technology or machinery, meaning labour costs and employment reduced significantly.


John Martin, professor of agrarian history and research fellow at the Museum of English Rural Life, says: “The technological and scientific revolution in agriculture which has taken place since the 19th century led to an unprece dented decline in agricultural labour, ensuring farming is no longer a communal activity but more often now undertaken by an individual working in isolation.


“The development of modern agriculture with its emphasis on replacing labour with machines and technology has fundamentally transformed farming.”




In the late 1960s, more than one million people worked in agriculture and, today, we are facing our own modern challenges as Brexit poses a threat to the thousands of foreign workers our industry depends on.


In 2017, 60,000 seasonal workers picked fruit and vegetables and only 1 per cent were British.


But the number of European migrant workers in Britain took its sharpest tumble since 1997 last year, as numbers fell by 4.5 per cent.


It begs the question: ‘What does the UK’s future agricultural labour force look like’?


According to Barclays, only 3 per cent of those aged 18-30 consider jobs in agriculture but with the average age of a farmer increasing to 60 and the growing demand to feed an expanding global population, the need to attract new entrants and the next generation is key.

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