The good old ways: can we still farm like our grandparents?

‘I can tell you a story about every cow’

Mary Ankers is back on the farm. In every direction there is a memory of her childhood. Everything had involved being outside. Jumping on hay bales, bottle-feeding newly born calves and sitting on the back of the trailer with her two older brothers during harvesting.

She left home 15 years ago to go to university before starting a career as a chartered surveyor. But as she married and thought about children, the “emotional pull” of being able to live and work on a farm again was too much. She’s now returned to take over the tenancy of the 100-cow dairy farm, near Chester, from her father.

But it is a very different dairy industry from her father’s childhood. Back in the early 1950s the UK had close to 200,000 dairy farmers. Today, there are barely 10,000. Her farm is small in an industry where herds of 500 are commonplace and the average has doubled to 150 in the past two decades.

As farms get bigger, some are switching to indoor or zero-grazing systems where the cows never get to go outside. The grass and food is brought to them, with every mouthful rationed and monitored. It’s a world of milkbots where a cow is a number or tag, and success is measured in litres.

Ankers keeps her cows out for most of the year and has no space or inclination to expand. But she’s in a minority. While the number of larger farms continues to grow, small-scale farmers are quitting. Those who survive are increasingly hobby or part-time farmers, who rely on another income to sustain their businesses.

Farmers like Ankers are a last stand of the small-scale family farm – “Living on the farm and breathing it every day,” she says – the demise of which has long been forecast. She has worked hard to cut costs, improve fertility rates and get more milk from her herd. The result is a profitable business supplying milk on contract to a supermarket and earning enough to employ a full-time farmworker to help.

But for how much longer will supermarkets prioritise milk contracts with small-scale farmers? Tesco, for example, has made a public commitment to supporting British producers, but nothing in terms of specific or continued support for small-scale farms.

Ankers doesn’t have to look far to see the direction farming is heading. Across the hedgerows at the back of her farm is one of the biggest dairy farms in the country. The farm houses almost 3,000 cows, all of which spend their lives indoors and eat food brought to them by machines. It’s a slick-looking operation with dozens of farmworkers charged with keeping the milk flowing.

In contrast, Ankers says farms with smaller herds can maintain a closer relationship with their livestock, reassuring those consumers who reject the shift towards factory-style systems of keeping farm animals. Farms like hers “know their animals inside out” and are “more in-tune with each animal”, she says. “I can tell you a story about every cow. I can look in a field and say, ‘That cow is that one, and she has done this in the past, or had this many calves.’ As you get bigger, I suppose you perhaps don’t know that information straight away.”

‘Being a farmer isn’t only for sheepy people’

Humphrey Lloyd had an upbringing far removed from the sights and smells of farming. He doesn’t even remember spending much time outdoors as a child. There wasn’t much in the way of plants for him to look at and learn about in his neighbourhood in south London and he grew up being told that working in a field and being a farmer was a “drudge”.

Not that he listened. He now spends eight months of the year outside growing tomatoes, cucumbers and cut salad on farmland just outside Bristol, near where most of his customers, including cafes and restaurants, are based. He set up the business eight years ago and has been farming his current plot for the past five years.

“We have an inbuilt cultural snobbery against physical labour. But being a farmer isn’t only for sheepy people. It’s just as intellectually stimulating and challenging as it is doing most other jobs. The very fact that the term peasant is a derogatory term in the English language says a lot about our cultural assumptions of farm work.”

What is perhaps more surprising than his willingness to take on field work is that he actually got a foothold in the sector in the first place.

Farming is a notoriously closed shop when it comes to new entrants. To a large extent, either you have parents who own a farm, heaps of money to buy land, or you are lucky enough to be able to get hold of the rapidly dwindling number of farm tenancies – traditionally small-scale farms of less than 20 hectares (50 acres) – mostly made available by organisations like the National Trust and county councils.

Under severe budgetary pressure county councils have been quietly selling off as much of their tenanted farmland as possible in recent years. A lump sum for councils facing budgetary cuts is preferred to longer-term rental payments or the societal benefits of supporting unprivileged or new-entrant farmers.

“They’re a bit like council houses offering new-entrant farmers a leg up,” says Lloyd. Yet more than half of England’s county farms have vanished in the past 40 years. Herefordshire, one of the worst examples, sold off almost 90% of its farmland in just one year.

Lloyd managed to get one of those coveted tenanted farm plots from Bristol city council. It is a tiny one-acre site, but enough – with the help of polytunnels and his choice of a high-value salad crop – for him to employ a helper during the growing season. He’s also recently managed to rent a further two acres of land close by to grow vegetables.

Even with access to land, Lloyd says the food system is skewed against small-scale farmers trying to sell their produce.

“We have a supermarket bottleneck of eight supermarkets who supply 90% of our food. So it’s extremely hard to access the markets. How do you afford the capital assets, the polytunnels and the like? Our food system has resulted in us being totally divorced from the process. It’s almost like you don’t have the right to produce food and you have to be very savvy and creative in order to get your way in there.”

Horticulture, more than any other farm sector in the UK, is about scale, and it is dominated by large operators in the east of England and European imports. Lloyd has survived by tapping into a demand for locally grown vegetables, even as his retail sales collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unlike larger farm businesses that were in some cases forced to dump crops and milk, or cull livestock as orders suddenly dried up, Lloyd was able to adapt his business and tap into a new market for home deliveries. He’s directly connected consumers with where their food comes from and cut out the distance fresh produce has to travel around the country before it gets to our trolleys.

While some might see people like him as low-tech hobby farmers and idealists, Lloyd says small-scale setups are actually more productive.

“It’s easy to walk into a site like this and think this is the kind of farm that belongs in the 19th century … it might produce a range of niche products, but it’s not really part of a sustainable food system of the future. That’s wrong, because what you’re looking at here in this small-scale farm is the future. We produce more food per unit area than any big farm.”

It’s also a job where he feels he is able to contribute something to society rather than “trashing the planet”. “We can argue till the cows come home about how valuable it is to grow salad on two acres of land in south Bristol, but this feels to me like I am being the change that I want to see. It also means I’m outside, I’m in nature, I’m fit and healthy.”

‘We have little choice if we want to carry on’

If we had a romantic image of what a small-scale farm looks like it would probably closely resemble Nibthwaite Grange, an upland farm in the Lake District national park.

Small fields and meadowland, native woodlands and distant fells populated with a mixture of rare-breed sheep and cattle, well-suited to surviving the harsher climate of the uplands.

It is a landscape that provides plenty of space for owner John Atkinson’s farm animals to spend most of their lives out in the wild, grazing on the fells. A way of rearing livestock little different from that practised by the six generations of his ancestors who farmed this area before him.

But upland farming, on stony, thin soils and in a wet climate is the hardest of all types to make viable.

His father earned enough to support a family of five, but Atkinson doesn’t generate enough for himself and his partner even though he’s taken on additional rented land from the National Trust and others.

“My dad gave up farming in 1980 and he was getting more for his milk then than farmers are getting now. The value of the food he was selling in real terms was higher and his input costs were much lower. It’s a cutthroat world so [farming here] has to be a lifestyle choice. It’s not a job where you can start at 9am and clock off at 5pm.”

This area of Cumbria has already seen a sizeable number of farming families forced to leave the industry, with a visible impact on the local community.

“When I was growing up and when my kids were growing up, there were always loads of other kids turning up because everybody liked to come play on the farm and drive the quad and things like that. But I can only think of four kids under five within a five-mile radius. You miss that sort of interaction.”

Atkinson, who runs the farm with his partner Maria, has only been able to survive by diversifying – Maria sells soap made from their own milk and wool products from their sheep, and offers farm accommodation alongside selling meat direct to customers through a box scheme.

The remaining small-scale farms in upland areas like Cumbria have little alternative but to do the same, he says. That means switching to being part-time farmers and returning to look after the livestock after a day at work, or starting to connect directly with consumers and finding niche markets. It’s an entrepreneurial task that doesn’t come naturally to many older farmers.

“Farming has been pushed down the wrong path for years. It’s been about industrial farming methods backed by companies selling you lots of inputs and chemicals to increase output. I’m trying to turn the clock back on that.

“It is small farms like me that aren’t on that industrial treadmill and that tend to be more mixed and with a greater variety of crops and livestock that can change and can sell our story to consumers. But we also have little choice really if we want to carry on.”

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