When James Peck took over the family farm from his father in 2003, aged 26, he started out working alone on 960 acres of rolling Cambridgeshire fields.

But the arable farmer spotted an opportunity in his neighbours’ reluctance to do the same. Peck has since rented the land of other families whose younger generations did not want to work in agriculture. Now he runs a successful agribusiness employing 48 people, storing 90,000 tonnes of grain in vast sheds, with a grain lab and fleet of 44-tonne lorries. Yet the very trends in farming that helped to fuel Peck’s success make him fear for its future.

“I’m now farming for 27 different families. That means 27 different families whose children aren’t farming any more,” he says. “I’ve never seen so much discontent or so much change.”

UK farms have been consolidating for decades. The total number of separate UK farm holdings declined by 35 per cent to just over 185,000 between 2005 and 2016, according to Eurostat — a trend echoed in almost every European country. Smaller farms bore the brunt of the decline, according to a 2016 report for the Prince’s Countryside Fund.

Farmers say post-Brexit changes to the UK’s subsidy and trade regimes are likely to catalyse a much faster pace of change, as well as incentivising some landowners to shift to environmental projects away from food production.

That may pose risks not just to the amount of food produced in the UK, but to a rural culture shaped by farming families. Peck says: “The biggest risk to farming, in my view, is that I’m part of the last generation.”

James Peck took over the family farm in Cambridgeshire, turning it into a successful agribusiness by renting the land of other families whose children did not want to work the land © Thomas J Duffield

Photo of Peck’s parents
A photograph of Peck’s grandparents

Two-thirds of the UK’s land is covered by farms, but it retains a much smaller average farm size than centres of industrialised agriculture such as the US and Australia. Much of the landscape, from fields marked by hedgerows and dry stone walls to sheep-grazed hills, speaks to centuries of small farms.

But large-scale farming is encroaching globally. Nuveen, the world’s largest farmland investor, bases its acquisition strategy in part on the availability “in every location” of former family farms whose younger generation does not wish to work the land.

Offering economies of scale and the ability to invest in technology, large farming groups have helped to drive down food prices in relative terms. However, Michael Winter, professor of land economy and society at the University of Exeter, says that further widespread consolidation of small family farms would be a significant loss.

“When all the farms in the village are farmed by some big guy 10 or 15 miles away, they are not really invested in that place, that community,” he says. “They don’t get the snow ploughs out to clear the lanes when it snows, or let their fields for the village fete. All you see is their massive machines going up and down the road. Farmers can be some of the few people who live and work in a place, as opposed to living there and working elsewhere.”

Julia Aglionby, a Cumbria farmer and executive director of the Foundation for Common Land, argues that in areas such as the Lake District, small farmers have another economic role: shaping a landscape that draws millions of tourists each year. “These are very complicated landscapes to shepherd and manage . . . You don’t get that intricacy of management with fewer people. People love the managed landscape. [Visitors] feel it’s natural but it’s managed.”

Farm consolidation in parts of the Lake District has already led to visible changes, she says. “We are seeing a breakdown of the systems of farming . . . when the walls are not kept up, you move from a managed landscape to a ranch landscape. There are areas of undergrazing and overgrazing.”

Small UK farmers have been squeezed by low food prices, powerful retailers, rising costs and competition from larger players, leaving many — especially livestock farmers — dependent on European-style subsidies to survive. Pig farmers especially have suffered in the post-Brexit period, with a shortage of abattoir workers leading them to begin culling healthy animals and suffer heavy financial losses.

As it carves out its approach to farming after Brexit, the UK government is pursuing two very different aims. Its subsidy scheme will carry a new environmental emphasis, unlike European subsidies, which are allocated in proportion to the land area farmed. While one of three tranches of the scheme, the Sustainable Farming Incentive, is linked to food production, the rewards in all three are for ecological work.

At the same time, a liberalised trade policy will push farmers to compete in the global market. Announcing a trade deal with Australia in June, Liz Truss, then trade secretary, said: “I don’t buy this defeatist narrative that British agriculture can’t compete. We have a high-quality, high-value product which people want to buy, particularly in the growing middle classes of Asia.”

The National Farmers’ Union has argued, by contrast, that the UK should enhance its own food security by supporting production for local sale. UK products currently account for 55 per cent of the country’s food consumption.

The government’s approach leads some farmers to predict a bifurcation between those ramping up food production and those who tilt towards a role as environmental stewards. Peck says that despite securing a place on a pilot scheme for the new green payments, he is unlikely to take part in the longer term. “From our point of view . . . the liability outweighs the reward. It will not suit what we want to do.”

James Peck’s daughters with his miniature red Massey Ferguson combine harvester
Peck’s daughters play with his old toy, a miniature Massey Ferguson combine harvester © Thomas J Duffield

Dave Smith runs a family livestock farm in the Pennines and receives some environmental funding, but also has reservations. “I don’t think you will find too many people who have farmed all their life who will want to return to being no more than park keepers. The environmental aspect has to be a spin-off [from food production],” he says.

Others have made environmentalism a focus. Second-generation farmer Graham Macklin, of Hayes Meadow in Devon, manages his small farm organically, eschewing even fly repellent. He sells meat and byproducts such as tallow-based skin creams directly to customers online.

“We chose to go a little bit beyond organic because of our ethics,” he says, adding that people need to get “more in touch with the sacred part of eating meat”.

The high prices he commands online help to enable this approach, which may be supported by green subsidies in future. He acknowledges he can do this because of skills gained in his previous career developing children’s toys. “That helped me with my product development and taking a fresh approach to farming, a bit more internet design savvy. It’s very difficult for anyone who has only farmed to discover this.”

Still, Macklin says he operates “on a shoestring”. While the government is tapering European-style subsidies in England gradually from 2021 until 2027, it is still piloting the new payment schemes, leaving farmers with what they say is a paralysing lack of detail. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plan later changes to subsidies.)

In 2019-20, before tapering began, the average grazing livestock farm in England would have been lossmaking without the payments, despite many farms diversifying into areas from holiday cottages to ice-cream making.

The squeeze on incomes is one reason younger members of farming families look elsewhere, says Peck. His grandparents, farming 770 acres, took exotic holidays and frequently bought new cars; it was a “better life and income than I [have] farming 12,000 acres”, he says.

Clare Wise
Clare Wise, who runs her family’s livestock farm in county Durham with her husband, says of the subsidy changes, ‘We are going to lose 60 per cent of our income within the next three years’ © Thomas J Duffield

Wise’s parents and children
Wise’s parents and children

The average agricultural worker earns just over £21,000 a year, according to the Office for National Statistics. On smaller farms, money is especially tight. Clare Wise, a fifth-generation livestock farmer in county Durham, says of the subsidy changes, “We are going to lose 60 per cent of our income within the next three years. It’s utterly devastating.”

Wise returned to the family farm — which she calls “coming home” — after a decade in other jobs, despite her parents urging her to avoid farming. She farms with her husband and no employees.

“It’s not the easiest life. You’re working 60-hour weeks, you don’t get holidays . . . It’s virtually impossible to get somebody to farm-sit.” Nine years ago, she returned to work 16 days after a caesarean section. “I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “It was lambing time.” Yet she says returning to the farm was “the best thing I ever did”. “It’s a very tying lifestyle, but the benefits radically outweigh that.”

Wise and Peck, on their very different farms, have one thing in common: they were able to take over at a relatively young age — Peck under a profit-sharing contract with his father — as their parents stepped back. That is not always the case. Even where younger members are willing to take over, they may fall foul of family dynamics, with an older generation unwilling to cede control.

Peck’s cousin, Michael Dungworth, says he has always loved farming but his father “isn’t hugely interested in retiring”, so Dungworth instead developed a lucrative career as an agronomist. He says he is unlikely to return to work on his father’s farm. “I know so many farms where the 50-year-old son isn’t allowed to make his own decisions in life and his father’s still pulling all the strings.”

The median age of farm holders in England is 60, and only 2 per cent are aged under 35. These figures have limitations since they are based on subsidy claimants, who are not always the head of a farm in practice. But the government is worried enough to offer subsidy payments as a lump sum to farmers wishing to retire or change career.

Farming groups have questioned whether the payments are high enough to be effective. They also say the scheme should be combined with better plans to attract younger people to agriculture.

David Ratcliffe, 30, a Gloucestershire livestock farmer who is part of the Next Generation Forum of the National Farmers’ Union, says ministers have emphasised programmes to improve young farmers’ skills, but that he would like to see more financial support, such as loans aimed at new entrants and a grant scheme echoing Ireland’s Young Farmers’ Capital Investment Scheme.

One of Wise’s children helps out
One of Wise’s children helps out © Thomas J Duffield

Winter says another possibility would be to look at the tax arrangements around farming. Agricultural property relief exempts farmland and farmhouses from inheritance and capital gains tax, helping them to be passed down. But it also prompts some landowners no longer wishing to farm to let out their land on a short-term basis to maintain the tax reliefs, according to the Prince’s Countryside Fund report.

Any change to the relief would be wildly contentious, however. A more palatable alternative might be a tax incentive for landowners to let land to new entrants to farming, Winter says.

Ratcliffe, meanwhile, sees signs of hope for recruitment. Public voices from James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd’s Life, to Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of Amazon’s Clarkson’s Farm, have drawn more attention to traditional mixed farming as a way of life. “It’s not just people from farming families,” Ratcliffe says. “Our apprentice isn’t from a farming family but she’s incredibly keen to learn and get stuck in.”

Peck says his parents encouraged him as a child to enter farming with toys such as a miniature red Massey Ferguson combine harvester, which he still cherishes. But his daughters, aged seven and nine, have so far showed little interest, while the safety risks on a 21st-century arable farm mean it is harder for them to feel part of farming life.

When they are older, he says, they can make their own choice. But the transformation on his own farm has been such that they would be looking at a very different life: “They wouldn’t necessarily have to be farmers. They would have to be interested in business.” 

Despite the uncertainty, Wise too is expanding. Hoping for more news soon on subsidies, she has taken the bold step of buying additional land from a neighbouring farm. Like many family farmers who view themselves as “custodians” or “stewards” of the land, she plans to take a long-term approach there, restoring the soil before planting crops or bringing in livestock. She says: “That soil really needs some love.”

Judith Evans is the FT’s consumer industries correspondent

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