How to restore life to our rural economy

5 March 2014, Comments Comments Off on How to restore life to our rural economy
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Farmers look after about 75% of the UK’s land area, producing food, providing wildlife habitats and looking after the essence of this ‘green and pleasant land’. But farms are not what they used to be.

This is not another article about the loss of hedgerows and field margins, and agricultural intensification. This is about a different, 21st-century farming crisis. It’s also about the deeper question of how we value and relate to the land God places us in.

The truth is that our farms are producing less of our food. Ten years ago, they produced 67% of it. Four years ago it was 59%. The proportion continues to fall and we depend more and more on imported food.

Farmland wildlife is suffering too, with for example, declines of around 90% in numbers of Grey Partridges, Turtle Doves, Corn Buntings and Tree Sparrows in the central, southern and eastern parts of the UK between 1970 and 2007, and their numbers are still declining.

BLEAK PICTURE

The figures paint a bleak picture, and were it not for Environmental Stewardship Schemes, which use government and EU money to reward farmers for managing the countryside to benefit wildlife, soil and water resources, things would be bleaker still.

These schemes have made a positive difference, but our new coalition government is doing away with DEFRA’s targets on this front, and other targets relating to improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) have already gone.

It is not just land that is impoverished. Farmers – its stewards – are too, particularly on small farms. Images of wealthy farmers are far from the truth – net income on an average farm is under £21,000 a year. Younger people are getting out of farming, and every day over 20 people walk away from the farming workforce.

In 2009, about 800 farmers contacted the Farm Crisis Network, mostly because of money worries. Thankfully, the government has realised the importance of sustainable UK-grown food, and a 2009 ADAS survey showed more confidence among UK farmers of better days ahead.

VALUE OF FARMLAND

From a Christian perspective, farming is not a solely economic activity – it is also a spiritual one. The relationship between people and land is inseparable from, and a reflection of, humanity’s relationship with God.

From the Genesis invitation to ‘tend and keep’ the garden, through the rhythms of the farming year woven into Israel’s religious life, and on to the land acting as judge upon God’s people’s faithlessness, it is clear that land, the creatures that inhabit it, and the way we steward it, matter deeply to God.

There was a time when the land was greener and pleasanter, but economic hardship has encouraged ‘diversification’ and this hasn’t always been good for the rural economy, or for the state of creation. Farmland has given way to housing, shops, warehouses, leisure complexes, hotels and other ‘rural surprises’.

The value of farmland is on the up. It costs 64% more now than in 2000 and has increased in value faster than City of London houses. Between 2000 and 2006, 63% of UK development was in rural areas. Farmland comes with nice tax breaks, supply is diminishing, and in five years’ time, its value could have doubled.

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It is a sound investment, and City firms are adding farmland to their portfolios. Land with ‘development potential’ commands a high price. Without it, its current value is around £5,000 an acre, but with planning permissions the UK land directory suggests some might sell for £1 million an acre. If you were a beleaguered farmer, could you refuse the higher prices?

Ex-farmland can be transformed into many things. Manchester’s Trafford Centre used to be 300 acres of farmland and is now a temple to consumerism with 10,000 parking spaces, over 10,000km of wiring and in excess of 80,000 daily visits.

Land that could, and once did, feed the nation can provide warehousing or a retail park for goods that, on the whole, we don’t need, and a place to bury them when they’re disposed of.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are alternatives. There is hope.

NATURAL SUCCESSES

Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire is an RSPB experiment that started in 1999. It has demonstrated that farming can be profitable and benefit wildlife at the same time.

The formula for success is not complicated. Hope Farm is an arable estate that invests in autumn sowing because there is more money to be made that way. There’s some pasture, a small amount of woodland and about 10km of hedgerow.

The hedges and ditches are cut once every three years, so there are plenty of autumn berries – natural bird food. In 2000, the farm made £34,000 and in 2008, at £48,000, profits were 40% up.

The Environmental Stewardship Scheme has helped, and the Yellowhammer is one of Hope Farm’s natural successes. Ten years ago, there were 14 pairs. Last year, thanks to new beetle banks, seed-rich areas and field margins, there were another 25 pairs.

The farm’s wildlife includes 24 butterfly species, seven bumblebee species and nearly 500 different fungi, one of which is a first for the UK.

The Wiston Estate in Sussex (where A Rocha has an Associated Project) also uses Environmental Stewardship money for good, offsetting losses from taking a percentage of land out of production to benefit our much-depleted Grey Partridge population.

Grey Partridges are being re-introduced on the estate. When they are well established, sustainable shooting will earn money and make up the difference.

The rural economy is in a sorry state. Careful diversification can help, but some changes are better than others.

Low density housing on the least productive and least biologically rich land, holiday homes, hosting festivals, summer mazes, sub-letting to organic farmers and alternative energy schemes could be positive ways forward.

HEAL THE LAND

These, with realistic financial incentives for sustainable, wildlife-friendly farming, can strengthen the rural economy, bring hope to struggling individuals, families and communities and ensure a brighter future for wildlife.

In A Rocha we should proclaim that ‘healing the land’ is not just about economic profitability. In 2 Chronicles 7, the people cry out to God amidst decreasing food production and economic distress.

God’s message is clear. A radical re-orientation, turning away from all idolatry (material, social and religious) and returning to trust God alone is required, if we are to see the land healed, society reintegrated, and creation flourishing.


At the time of writing:

  • Dave Bookless was A Rocha UK’s Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities.
  • David Chandler is a freelance writer and environmental educator and a regular contributor to A Rocha’s magazine.
  • Andy Lester is A Rocha UK’s Conservation Director.

Sources include: Times online, 26 February 2010; Michael McCarthy, The Independent, 15 June 2010; BTF Rural, 2010; UK Agriculture, 2010; Farm Crisis Network; Natural England, ELS Handbook, February 2010; Farmers Guardian, 21 April 2010. (Photo of lambs in the Welsh hills: Clive Price)

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