A mad idea to create more smallholdings
As has often been remarked, it has been a strange year but one of the few bright sides has been the way many of us have found solace, enrichment and purpose in what is on our doorstep. This is definitely true for my household. We are in the fortunate position of owning our own little patch of paradise. 3 and bit acres of smallholding filled with tumbled down dry stone walls and a couple of mischievous miniature Shetlands. This gave us the unspeakable luxury during lockdown of being able to mooch around a patch of Welsh hillside no matter what the restrictions. It presented us an endless list of tasks to do so that boredom could never be an issue. And, maybe most importantly, it offered us a sanctuary from which to enjoy the most simple of pleasures. Last summer, around 9pm in the evening as dusk started to draw in, we were able to sit outside the back door and watch as our very own resident Swallows swooped in the fading light, catching insects to feed their young, safely ensconced in our rickety old tin barn. If we sat for long enough the parents disappeared and the first bat of the evening would flitter, disconcertingly closely, past our faces as the night took over.
Being a smallholder is hard work, time consuming, frustrating and under appreciated. It is also rewarding, creative, fulfilling and magical. It is an opportunity to shape your own little slice of habitat into something meaningful and productive. In your hands you can watch as your own miniature biodiverse haven takes shape and offers sanctuary to wildlife and food to your family. And it is because of all these benefits that I’d like to propose a radical idea;
I would like the Government of the UK and the devolved administrations to buy big farms.
For clarity, this is not a scheme to provide retirement projects for deposed ministers or a tax fiddle involving duck houses. This is a suggestion for an interventionist government policy to help transform our countryside. And what’s more, I think it can actually create money for the exchequer too.
But, before we get to my big idea, maybe we should rewind a little first. The UK is entering a period of change in farming policy unknown in most farmers working lifetimes. The leaving of the European Union and our departure from the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has created a window to completely re-shape our attitude to, and support for, the countryside. Right now the UK Government and devolved administrations are working on what the replacement for CAP will look like. Just last week DEFRA launched the details of it’s first trial scheme and invited applicants from the 15th March.
It has been clearly flagged by all relevant parties that they would like to move to a system that pays more attention to (and frankly, more subsidy for) public goods such as landscape management, soil improvement and so on. This is definitely a positive step forward in tackling the massive biodiversity loss that has occurred in the UK in recent decades. What’s more, in order to meet our carbon reduction targets going forward, the way we eat has to change as well. Large scale herd farming is going to feel the squeeze if the trends towards vegetarianism and veganism continue. We simply won’t need to produce so much red meat or dairy products in twenty years time. Oat milk may well rule the world.
In such a world, large farms will become less producers of food and more landscape managers. This is not what many dairy farmers, amongst others, got into farming for, and that is totally understandable. Some will seek to scale down, cultivate rare breads and small, local markets for pasture reared or high quality organic meat. Others will leave the industry.
And this is where my plan comes in. I propose a government policy that will actively seek to purchase these and any other available farms.
Firstly, this is an ethical solution for farmers. Their industry is going to be dramatically reshaped by an unprecedented change in government policy and consumer demand combined with the climate crisis. In such a situation it is only morally just to give them a means to leave the industry in a dignified manner. But more than that, it offers a chance to reshape the industry and our countryside because the second part of my proposal is the most important. I would like the government to break those large farms up into smallholdings of not more 20 acres and sell or rent them on the open market.
This will require the building of new houses in the countryside. Fantastic. We need more new rural homes built to high standards. Can you imagine a swath of 21st century farmhouses built to Passivhaus standards? Every 200 acre dairy farm would need nine new houses built and maybe a small barn on each one as well. This is definitely not a bad thing.
A lot of people don’t realise that the local authorities of the UK are already owners of small holdings. 1% of the land in Wales is made up of such properties. There’s a similar amount in England (The situation in Scotland is very different due to the history of Crofting). Every year the UK and Welsh governments are legally required to produce a report detailing the size and economic impact of these assets by the 1970 Countryside Act. One such property in Staffordshire was let to a 21 year who went on to become the Farmers Weekly Young Farmer of the year in 2019. Without the opportunity to rent a small farm (the term often used is County farm) he would never have got his start in the industry. What’s more, as well as creating opportunity, these properties create revenue. The report for 2019 show that local authority owned small holdings in England generated a nearly £9m profit for their owners. More smallholdings made up from breaking up larger farms is a policy that can pay for itself over time.
But why would we want more small scale farms in the first place? Why not just leave the big farms as they are?
We need more people to rediscover the connections between the landscape they live in, the food they eat and the lives of their families. Creating more smallholdings is a powerful way to do that. Instead of leaving huge estates to be managed for their public goods, why not spread the benefits around? Last summer my sister and her four children came to visit us. They got to run around the land, meet the chickens, one got scared by an over friendly sheep. They played in a tent, sucked in huge lungful’s of clean mountain air and generally had the time of their lives. The multiplier effect of ownership is a huge thing. For every person who owns a smallholding there is an extended family who gets an introduction to animal management and growing your own food.
The more families who own a slice of land, the bigger that knock on effect is.
In addition, smallholders are generally some of the most creative people you’ll meet. They have to be. To be a successful smallholder is to run half a dozen micro businesses at once while trying to fix a leaking roof. Locally owned, diverse land ownership can drive rural regeneration in this way. Lots of small enterprises popping up, highly responsive to local demand, can bring back to life communities that have become little more than collections of houses huddled around a disused pub and school.
Perhaps most important of all, modern, large scale farming doesn’t work for wildlife. By one measure UK farmland birds have declined by 55% since 1970. In wider terms, two fifths of UK animal species have seen a decline in that period of time. Change is needed. Change of priorities driven by subsidy, but also change in stewardship. Fresh ideas and fresh eyes are needed on the problem.
There is a small window of opportunity, between now and 2024, which offers a chance to move smallholding from the unspoken margins of farming policy into the centre of a rejuvenated countryside that is connected to millions more people through family ownership and connections. I’ve seen felt the benefits, we’d be a better, happier nation if more people got the same opportunity. Think of it as democratising dancing swallows at dusk.
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