Less Dreaming, More Digging

My favourite magazine lands on the doormat – The Land – an occasional magazine about land rights – serious and interesting reading over breakfast.

The lead story – ‘Less Dreaming, More Digging’ couldn’t be more timely, and in one of the many informative and thought-provoking stories, Ed Hamer asks ‘Can Britain Farm Itself’

Given the highest rate of UK unemployment for nearly two decades, and the sharpest spike in food prices in living memory, the author asks if farming could once again become a major employer in the UK and comes up with a ‘rustic guide’.

After some rustic number crunching, the author reveals that the UK currently devotes “the equivalent full time labour of 16% of our agricultural workforce to the production of goods for export, while at the same time 2010 food imports equated to an estimated 91,893 full time agricultural jobs”. This means that if we cut exports and replace imports with domestic jobs, the UK farming sector would increase by 66,315 full time equivalents.

Perhaps more usefully, if we calculate the labour demanded by a standard diet supplied entirely from domestic resources, it is possible to feed 62.3 million people based as closely as possible on the balance of farming and land use in the UK today.

But of course the bigger question remains: How many people could we employ if we radically change the way we farm?

More rustic number crunching reveals that assuming a modest target of meeting 90% of domestic demand, we can assume a budget of £140 billion consumer spending (based on Defra 2010 figures). Currently, our centralised retail model awards the producers just 8% (£11.2 billion). When applied to 50 hectares of farmland allocated to each full time employee in Ed Hamer’s model, this equates to a gross margin of £33k per person per year. This is not sufficient for a 120 acre mixed holding – so to support this level of agricultural employment the share of the food pound received by producers would need to be significantly increased.

So the author proposes reorienting supply towards local markets so that producers can receive a higher proportion of consumer spending. By aiming at the 58p in the £ secured by Farmers Markets, or 21p from local retailers, the picture starts to look more achievable. A farmer could expect an estimated gross £98,562 based on 2010 figures, from a 50 hectare holding with a combination of vegetables, cereals and beef, of which she sold a quarter through a Farmers Market, a quarter through local retailers and still gave half of it away to Tescos (!)

Ed Hamer acknowledges that you can prove anything with statistics, and that the model he describes is idealistic, and needs robust research, modelling and testing. However the statistics quoted in the report reveal the insanity of our current model – for example in 2010 we exported 0.25 and imported 0.28 million tonnes of potatoes. The UK is not even self-sufficient in produce suitable to its climate and soil, and with all the associated social and environmental problems arising from the current model, we need a significant policy shift towards promoting production and consumption of domestic produce.

You can read the complete article and many other stimulating and readable articles at:






3 thoughts on “Less Dreaming, More Digging”

  1. before the industrial revolution, around 90% of the workforce was directly or indirectly involved in the production of food.
    We produced just enough surplus to meet the needs of the other 10% who more or less owned the land, ie the church and landed aristocracy. plus some extra to pay for armies when needed and suchlike.
    That agricultural arithmetic kept the population in balance, because it was physically impossible to make the land deliver up more food than would support that extra 10%. If the population exceeded that balance, pretty soon the excess died.
    By throwing around grossly exaggerated figures of cash produced etc, ignotes the infrastructure by which we all live. One must assume that getting to a farmers market would be done by horse and cart??—to deliver an income of £98000?? wow. thatll be one fast horse!
    we only have that budget of consumer spending because of the commercial infrastructure that supports our entire economy. You cant pull the plug on industrialised farming and expect everything else to carry on as if nothing had happened.
    Oh, and by the way, when 90% of the population worked the land, it was called serfdom. and remember there’ll have to be a body of overseers to make sure all this field labour is getting done properly too

  2. Dear Mr Scarecities,

    The author of this blog has asked me to respond to your comment – so I would like to give it a go. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I understand you have a specific question and a specific disagreement with the idea of a renaisance of agricultural labour in the UK. Just dealing with the question to begin with –

    “By throwing around grossly exaggerated figures of cash produced etc, ignotes (sic) the infrastructure by which we all live. One must assume that getting to a farmers market would be done by horse and cart?”

    Firstly I’m afraid all of the figures I have used in Can Britain Farm Itself came directly from Defra sources – as referenced in the original article. If you believe any of the figures to be “grossly exaggerated” all I can suggest is that you can contact Defra’s statistics team directly on 020 7238 6001 to point out their mistake – I’m sure they would be only too happy to hear where their research has gone awry and will endeavour to remedy the situation.

    On your eloquently argued second point I think you may have misread my copy. Yes the gross retail spending quoted from the Office for National Statistics does relate to goods supplied via today’s heavily industrialised food chain, but the figure is used to highlight the value of consumer spending that could be available to support a more resilient food chain- based on 2010 figures. Having re-read the article I’m afraid I cannot find a reference to a farmer having to earn £98,000 a year by delivering produce with a horse and cart – again please correct me if I’m wrong.

    On your disagreement with the idea of a renaisance of agricultural labour in the UK. I strongly agree that you cant pull the plug on industrialised farming and expect everything else to carry on as if nothing had happened. However I do believe that we need an informed, reasoned and articulate debate on the future of how we feed the population of the UK. This is what I have tried to encourage through the article.

    With all best wishes


  3. while I accept that the concept outlined in that article is of necessity rather vague, because of all the uncertainties involved, I feel that the biggest hurdle is actually getting people to do farm labour, short of actually cutting off food supply.
    Here in the developed west, we have got used to food originating in supermarkets, and cash coming out of a slot in the wall. I fear that until that actually ceases to happen, there will not be a renaisance (sic) in our agriculture. Debating will not cure laziness or restore lost knowledge.
    As to the horse and cart, if you de-industrialise farming, that’s what you are left with. (and every horse needs about 2 acres as its energy source)
    With regard to DEFRA, in 2006 they were assuring us that: “the UK is well placed to access sufficient foodstuffs throughout the world markets”
    By 2008 : “Existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low carbon, resource constrained future” I sometimes get the feeling that DEFRA is staffed by economists in wellies
    Thanks for pointing out that there’s no such word as ignotes, that will improve my writing standard no end

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