What County Farms Can Do For Us | Victoria Balfour

County farms, once considered a prized asset for UK local councils, are in danger of becoming extinct. A recent report revealed that the number of county farms has shrunk by half in the last 40 years. According to the most recent Defra figures, between March 2017 and March 2018 alone, councils across England sold off 2773 hectares of farmland. The legacy of privatisation and austerity measures that have taken place since the 1980s has led to some councils to make the decision to sell off these family jewels in a bid to sustain themselves financially in the face of increasingly restricted funding. The number of small farms is dramatically declining. This includes county farms which are usually under 100 hectares in size. This decline is making access to land increasingly difficult for new entrants. At a time when we should be investing in our future farmers and food production, we are selling off the very means to do this.

In 1970, the Agricultural Act stated that “[smallholding authorities] shall make it their general aim to provide opportunities for persons to be farmers on their own account by letting holdings to them”. However, the idea of ‘county farms’ has been around for much longer. During the late Victorian agricultural depression, where advancements in cheaper transport allowed food imports from abroad into the country, local grain and meat prices plummeted. In the face of crippling rural poverty, MP Joseph Chamberlain championed radical land reforms in the form of ‘three acres and a cow’, considered the ideal amount of land for landless tenant farmers. This was finally given the official title of ‘County Farms’ or ‘County Smallholdings’ in the 1920s. Their numbers continued to grow until the Second World War, playing a vital role in offering work to returning servicemen. Since then county farms have been providing opportunities for new entrants to farming to get a foot on the ladder, as well as farmers wanting to progress further.

Catastrophically for these prospective farmers, over the last 40 years this trend has been reversed. In 2010, Somerset sold off two-thirds of its county farms whilst in 2015, Herefordshire council announced the sale of 59 lots, amounting to 1700 acres, almost its entire smallholding estate, affecting 45 families. Last year, Staffordshire sold off 20% of its estate to raise money for infrastructure whilst nine counties in Wales were reported to have sold 458 acres in 2015 alone.

As farmers are an increasingly aging population, with an average age of 60, there is an urgent need for a new generation who can bring innovation and energy to a sector that so desperately needs it. Yet, with the average price of land in the UK valued at nearly £7000 per acre, it is out of reach for all but the wealthiest of potential farmers. Traditionally, this is where county farms would come in. “Most local authority farms are let to new entrants,” explains George Dunn, Chief Executive of the Tenant Farmers Association and lifelong supporter of county farms. “Without them, new entrants are losing a main route into farming, perpetuating the high barriers and family dynasties in the industry.”

At a time when climate change, diet-related illness and biodiversity loss make the headlines on a daily basis, producing sustainably grown healthy food for a growing population is increasingly important. As one of his final actions, Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced a review of the National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby – the first review in 75 years. Setting out his vision, Gove said “The time is right for us to look afresh at our food system to ensure everyone has access to high-quality British food and our environment is protected for future generations.” Yet, as more county farms are sold off for development or swallowed up by larger farms, the possibility of this is greatly diminished. As Dunn explains, “If people are serious about producing good, sustainable and healthy food with high animal welfare and environmental standards, whilst looking after rural communities, county farms have an important role to play.”

Moreover, the sell-off of county farms mirrors the wider loss of small farms across the country, where a third of farms under 50 hectares were lost between 2005 and 2015, often incorporated into bigger and more industrialised farms. To be more profitable, larger farms are becoming increasingly intensive, shifting to vast monocultures or increased herd sizes. This is having a detrimental impact on the environment as well as crop diversity which provides resilience in the face of climate change and maintains our rich and differentiated food culture. The knock-on effect is that as farms increase in size, they risk becoming faceless businesses selling to supermarkets, losing a local connection to the community around them. Conversely, small farms – which include county farms – can be the backbone of sustainable farming, as well as the rural community. Often mixed, they work on a rotational system with pasture-fed livestock that can sequester carbon, providing high-quality food produced in a more environmentally friendly way.

In Pembrokeshire, Wales, a group of local people looking for access to land have decided to take matters into their own hands with a campaign to save Trecadwgan Farm. Nestled above the stunningly beautiful coastline of Solva, Trecadwgan Farm was put on the market by the council this past June. The area is a tourism hotspot and if sold, the farm with its 13 outbuildings and 11 acres, would almost undoubtedly be turned into holiday cottages. Rather than see yet another farm lost, a group of locals has raised money to buy the farm back for the community. This could provide them with a “once in a lifetime opportunity that could support the whole community,” according to Rupert Dunn, a local farmer and baker and one of the campaign leaders, where it could benefit both the environment and the local population.

The farm dates back to the 15th century and originally included 70 acres of farmland which have already been let but could eventually be returned to the community farm. In the past, it would have been possible to rent this farm from the council, but as county farms are sold the opportunity to do this is becoming increasingly difficult, making projects like this critical for future farmers in the area. Farmer Gerald Miles, who is also leading the campaign and runs nearby Caerhys Organic farm, is the cousin of the previous tenant at Trecadwgan Farm. “Because of the economy, county councils are stripping their assets and cashing them in. We’re losing these small farms which are a stepping stone into farming. What happens when all the council farms have gone?” Gerald asks. “That’s another access to land route, gone forever.”

The vision is to turn the land and buildings into a community farm that is not only growing local food in an agroecological way but is also a place for people to learn new skills, connecting the community to the land and each other. Alongside food production, there will be a community bakery and a processing and storage facility for butchery, curing, smoking and cheese-making and that would support other local agroecological businesses and add value to their produce.

Last year Pembrokeshire Council announced that they may have to sell-off their 47 council farms, which if Trecadwgan Farm is anything to go by, appears to be underway. The rural community is set to suffer, losing employment opportunities and the means to grow local food. To reverse this, Rupert, Gerald and their team plan to turn Trecadwgan Farm into a rural regeneration project, focussing specifically on what the local community needs. They hope to work with local schools and other community groups and provide educational courses that will drive more agroecological production across Wales. “Looking at the bigger picture, this farm is really setting a template to show what a community can do,” Gerald says. Not only are Gerald and Rupert taking the farm back for the people, they are also taking it one step further, showing a way forward for rural communities.

Run properly, county farms can continue to have an important role to play in providing a sustainable income for the council, as well as having huge environmental and social benefits. Cambridgeshire Council continues to invest in their Farms Estate, where in 2016, it earned £300/ha from its 13,190 hectare estate. Along with opportunities and revenue, county farms provide a much-needed connection between society and local land. Like Trecadwgan Farm, county farms can provide opportunities for learning outside the classroom and additional access to land, as well as greenbelt management, renewable energy and assistance in flood risk management, among other things. They have the potential to be valuable assets for everyone. “I understand councils have a tough job to finance services but they lack the initiative to work with the community to solve problems,” Gerald says, “Through county farms, councils could fulfil the role of feeding people, but feeding people more than food, feeding them hope and purpose and developing the community together.”