The UK has traditionally offered fertile land for farming with over 70% of UK land (17.2 million hectares) is used for agriculture.i Of this 11.5 million hectares is devoted permanent or temporary grassland, 4.5 million hectares is devoted to arable is arable, and 160,000 hectares is used for horticulture, with the remainder made up of woodland, outdoor pigs and other activities.ii Government policy aims to support farmers competing effectively in the global market place and as a result tends to be predominantly intensive and highly mechanised. It also encourages the application of new technologies to farming including GM.
Food production in the UK varies by region. Arable crops such as wheat and animal feed are grown predominantly in the south of the country and the south west has a lot of grazing and milk production. In the north and the uplands there is also grazing for dairy, beef and sheep. Large scale vegetable production, grown mainly for the supermarkets, is prevalent in the east of England. Small scale vegetable production can be found across the UK although there are higher numbers in the south and particularly in the south west. Certain parts of the UK such as Devon, the West Midlands and the south east are known for their orchards.
Agriculture has declined in importance and is now by far the smallest headline industry, making up only 1% of GDP now, whereas it was 6% in 1948.iii The total income from farming rose to £5.6 billion in 2013.iv Within the EU, the UK is the 7th largest cereal producer, the largest producer of sheep and the 3rd largest producer of cattle (2013).v
There are approximately 212,000 farms in the UK, according to 2014 figures, and this number is slowly declining, with 10,000 less than in 2013.vi An estimated 464,000 peoplevii (1.5% of the UK workforceviii) work on agricultural holdings, made up of 138,000 full time farmers with a further 152,000 part-time owners engaged in some capacity in the farm business.ix Recent changes in the number of farm workers may be attributed to extreme weather impacting on subsequent years cropping rather other causes.
The UK shares with many countries the problem of an ageing farming population, with the median farmer age standing at 59.x Just under a third of farmers are above 65 years old while only 3% of farmers are under 35.xi Our ageing farming population is partly caused by low retirement rates – many ageing farmers do not want to or are unable to retire. This is due to a number of issues, including ongoing income from CAP subsidies, a lack of alternative rural accommodation, inability to financially plan for retirement (particularly the case for tenant farmers) or the inheritance tax framework — agricultural land is not subject to inheritance tax.
Within family farms, the main route into farming is through family succession, a 2002 study found that only 8% of first generation farmers did not have a farming background.xii The relatively low profitability of family farms, however, has made this less attractive and many farmers’ children choose to make a living elsewhere. Meanwhile, new farmers who are not from a farming background often struggle to find land and capital required to set up a new business.
Although the trend from the industry and government is towards ever-more intensification, there is also an increasing interest in smaller-scale, low-input and ecological farming practices. In 2014, Organic farming represented 3.19% of the agricultural land area, a drop from recent years, when the organic market had been beginning to grow following the recession. xiii The total number of organic producers in 2014 stood at 6002xiv
New routes to market are arising around the UK. There is a good network of farmers’ markets in many towns and cities. Organic veg box schemes are a popular route to market for many, with a couple of nation-wide companies delivering weekly boxes all over the UK and many more local schemes. There is also an increasing rise in online platforms, from online supermarkets which allow organic and artisanal produce to be delivered nationwide, to local food hubs and networks that use online interfaces to allow people to order from a range of local producers.
The term ‘peasant agriculture’ is not widely recognised in the UK although there are a growing number of small scale producers, many of whom benefit from increasing interest in the provenance, quality and ethics of food. A UK branch of Via Campesina launched in 2013, called the Landworkers’ Alliance.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is still a tiny part of UK farming and refers to an approach rather than a defined model. Some CSAs are initiated by farmers, others by communities. The CSAs vary in scale, production type, distribution method and model but in all cases the risks and rewards of farming are shared. The CSA Network UK launched in 2013 to represent, promote and advise new and existing CSA initiatives.