A new report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) shows England is rapidly losing its network of smaller farms, and the diversity in food and landscape they provide.
CPRE’s Uncertain Harvest uses official statistics from the UK and Europe to demonstrate that smaller farms in England are in steep decline.
Overall, a fifth of English farms have disappeared in the past 10 years, but the rate is fastest amongst the smallest farms. Almost a third of farms under 50 hectares disappeared between 2005 and 2015.
Should these trends continue, CPRE suggests that farms under 50 hectares could all but disappear from the English countryside by the middle of the century.
CPRE believes that a mix of farm sizes and enterprises is crucial to maintaining England’s world-renowned landscapes and diversity of food.
As part of this mix, smaller farms are vital to the countryside as they sustain rural communities through jobs and protect distinctive local character.
In their diversity of approaches, they create greater diversity in food production and conservation, both of which shape rural heritage and rural economies.
Competition and market pressures have put great strain on smaller farms, with supermarkets controlling 90% of the retail market and forcing down prices.
During this time, smaller farms have also faced an inequitable funding model through the Common Agricultural Policy.
Following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the Government has pledged to pursue a new funding settlement that rewards farmers for public goods and environmental benefits rather than the size of land holdings.
The future structure of public funding will likely determine the future of many smaller and struggling farms.
Graeme Willis, food and farming campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said:
“There is a silent crisis in the farming sector. Smaller farms struggle to compete in the current market and, if the current trends continue, they could all but disappear from the English countryside by the middle of the century.
“While it is not a case of small versus big, smaller farms are vital to the diversity of our rural communities and our beautiful landscapes. Michael Gove has made positive statements about moving towards rewards for public goods and environmental benefits. We must use this platform to help all farms become economically and environmentally sustainable.
“To help smaller farmers succeed, the Government must research the health of the farming sector and assess the impact of any new funding model. Public finance should be designed with tapering to support all farmers for providing public benefits, and smaller farmers should be given a strong voice in the distribution of local funding.
"We must also make sure markets are fair and support our farmers. We all want a diverse, thriving countryside and wonderful food. Smaller farms are integral to both.”
To tackle the stark decline in smaller farms, CPRE recommends that the Government undertake research to assess the current health of the farming sector, especially in respect of the market, and to work out how any new funding models can help farms of all sizes prove economically and environmentally sustainable.
Any regional-based funding must ensure small farmers have a strong voice to determine share and distribution, and assist new and young farmers across the sector.