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The Future of Farming – What lies ahead?

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When most people think of farmers in the United Kingdom, it tends to conjure up two slightly contradictory images. On one hand, you have the likes of Adam Henson from Country File: the so-called celebrity farmer who seems to be very wealthy and able to focus on niche animals or crops. Often born into wealthy families that own a lot of land, they can afford to invest time and money on more speculative endeavours. On the other hand, you have what might be considered working farmers, those who entirely rely on their farming to fully sustain them. This means not only raising meat and vegetables and grain (or any single one of these or combination thereof), but providing enough of an excess that can be sold to meet other needs, such as paying for utilities, purchasing clothing and meeting all the other day-to-day financial needs one must meet to survive in the modern world, as well as putting away a little money for holidays, savings and pensions.

Farming is perhaps the original gig economy, demanding long and antisocial hours and offering no guarantees in return. It is perhaps no surprise then that existing and ageing farmers’ children and grandchildren are increasingly turning away from the land. We are currently in a situation where the average age of a farmer is about 60 years old. This, almost certainly, means that the very oldest farmers are in their eighties, perhaps even their nineties, which is worrisome as the number of young farmers is not sufficient to fill in gaps left by these older farmers as they succumb to age and the vagaries of time.

Because British farming has such a low profile with the population – an alarming proportion of people do not make the connection between local farms producing the food that appears neatly prepared and packaged in their local supermarket – the dearth in the next generation of farmers will potentially not be sorted out until it is too late. Skills currently being lost instead of being passed on to future farmers will have to be learned the hard way, by trial and error with very little margin in either the profit line or production levels for any errors. Of course, there is a risk that they will simply be lost with no replacement farmers coming through the pipeline.

Farms whose owners have passed away leaving no heirs – or no heirs interested in attempting the daily grind that farming can become – tend to fall quickly into disrepair. This is, in fact, already a problem, with a quick Google search finding multiple listings of derelict farms, many rated as ‘sustainable’, which means that a knowledgeable farmer could take possession and reap harvests within the year, or the growing period, whichever is shorter, if only a knowledgeable farmer in need of a farm could be found.

But even existing farmers are being tempted away from a food production basis. Food animals are labour intensive, need time to grow to slaughter age (including conception times and gestation, of course), while food crops are subject to many laws and regulations designed to protect the end consumers of these foods. These rules are even more stringent when it comes to organic foods for those who are even more careful about what goes into their bodies. This means that being given the opportunity to grow tough and hardy crops, genetically modified for disease-resistance and speedy growth, for use as biofuels, synthetic fabrics, plastic replacements and much more, can encourage farmers into choosing this considerably easier path. GMO food crops are banned in the UK, but often a blind eye is turned to crops raised for biofuels: if it will not enter the human food chain, the Environmental Health Officers have little to no jurisdiction over it.

Brexit is another issue facing farmers. Many farmers benefit enormously from being within the EU, having generous subsidies that make up any deficiencies in their earnings, and having customers found for their goods. While truly independent souls might chafe at being told what to grow and when, others found comfort in knowing that their enormous carrot crop (for example) would be paid for, even if the carrots in question were not used in the end. (This, of course, raises the question of food waste in a world where food poverty is not only still a problem, it is a growing one, but for now, that is beside the point.) When Brexit finally happens, if it does, the farming industry will have to firstly recover from the three years and more of uncertainty since the referendum, and put into place systems and structures that can move food around the country to match needs and supplies in the way that current EU-tried-tested-and-perfected systems currently do.

The main sticking point with Brexit is that no one knows exactly what will happen after the exit: it may be a disaster, it may happen that little is affected and new deals are quickly and easily put into place, although most experts agree that this hope is naïve and highly unlikely. But the uncertainty and the drawn-out exit is already doing its own harm, with farmers unsure of what crops they will be planting when the next growing season rolls around, and how long they can rely on EU funding to grow those crops that they have been allocated.

But Brexit is just one of the issues facing British farming at present, and it is clear that the lack of young farmers working their way through the system is a very serious one that must be addressed soon, regardless of our relationship with the EU now or in the future. One positive to the whole mess is the growing number of women in farming, especially as many of these are young and often university or college trained. Using figures provided by young farmers’ associations, there are now about 28% women farmers, many of them young – although there is still a tough and feisty band of older women farmers who succeeded in their fathers' and uncles' places, fighting the elements, the land and nature as well as institutionally misogynistic systems to claim homes and careers of their own. There is also a small uptick in male young farmers – those in their teens and twenties, compared to those in their late thirties, forties and fifties – as people turn away from money-making but soul-destroying careers in the city, selling insurance and cars and even smartphones, in favour of living on and loving the land once again.

There are a number of farm jobs available for young strong people, ideally with agricultural and horticultural qualifications, but also for those who are unqualified but willing to move where needed and eager to learn new skills.

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