Since my last visit just before Christmas, it would seem there are now more acres covered by not only solar panels but also houses which are popping up along the A11 and B1065 at an alarming rate.
British agriculture is in recession, prices for almost all farm commodities are dropping, in most cases below the cost of production. It is hardly surprising that some farmers and landowners are turning land over to developers, energy companies and numerous other forms of diversification.
The effect upon small farms and businesses due to the collapse in food commodity prices is increasingly concerning. In particular, tenanted and small family farms are feeling the pinch, as many are already operating on tight margins
Today milk is cheaper than bottled water, due partly to the fierce supermarket price war. A collapse in profits could see many small farmers giving up altogether, either selling their farms or in the case of tenant farmers, handing the keys back to landowners.
Today around 10,000 dairy farms are left in England and Wales, half the number there were in 2002. The NFU (National Farmers Union) has warned that number could fall to 5,000 over the next 10 years.
It is anticipated that traditional small family-run farms will be replaced by bigger operations owned and managed by large investors. Phil Bicknell, head of food and farming at the NFU said, “It is part of a process of continuing evolution in the agricultural industry. The trend is for farms to get bigger. If you want to make more you have to farm a bigger area.”
British farming makes an important contribution to the UK economy, bringing in more than £8bn in 2014. The Chancellor offered some relief in the recent Budget, with farmers now able to average profits for tax purposes over five years, to counter the volatile commodity markets.
Are we now facing a similar situation as in 2000, when at the time the Government urged despairing farmers to abandon their farms and seek employment elsewhere? It was even suggested then that some of these farms should be left to return to wilderness. Farming and food security was not then considered to be a special case for concern.
The current situation raises several questions for farmers facing this present financial crisis. Do they sell up and allow ‘Super Agri Businesses’ to take on their land to be gobbled up into a huge farming enterprise? Or rent the land to the power companies for the next 25 years, to erect acres of solar farms with panels unsightly enveloping the countryside. As the cost of producing solar energy plummets the argument for this option will become stronger.
Land prices continue to rise, particularly in the home-counties. Hedge fund managers and oligarchs still search for their country retreat so a few hundred acres with an old farmhouse which can be knocked down and replaced with a twenty bedroomed mansion, is no doubt infinitely appealing.
There is also the option of turning the land over to nature. Some environmentalists consider this to be the perfect solution, in the belief that before long amazing woodlands would spring up.
In 1882 agronomist Sir John Lawes abandoned some isolated fields at Rothamsted in Hertfordshire, just to see what would happen. A century later the land had reverted to thick scrub woodland, quite unlike the managed parkland and woodlands we are used to. Not the mighty Robin Hood type oak woodlands, these are dense, uneven and chocked with ivy.
In 1961 the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology abandoned land at Monks Wood also in Hertfordshire, which is now an elegant oak wood with 30ft tall trees. This woodland has been nurtured and managed, not left abandoned as at Rothamsted. It helped that this land was close to ancient woods, as acorns do not travel far.
Trees with berries, such as hawthorn that dominate the English landscape, travel greater distances thanks to being spread in bird droppings, and which tend to populate open wasteland such as Rothamsted.
We could of course also abandon our livestock along with our land, and allow them to roam wild across the countryside. The pigs would do best, and cattle would also thrive. Sheep would however rapidly die out as modern sheep have been selectively bred to produce a very thick woollen coat. If it were not shorn every year, it would grow so thick around their rear end that they would find it impossible to reproduce.
British agriculture is facing difficult times as we compete on a global market. China has reduced its demand for milk, and supplies of agricultural produce to Asia have also diminished. The Russian embargo on European imports is sending shock waves through the farming industry too, and there is generally a global over supply of food.
Before the British countryside is covered completely in houses, solar panels, industrial estates and woodland, we must decide if the drop in the demand for food as short term, or is there be a market and need for British farm produce? In the increasingly dangerous world we live in, how important is ‘Food Security’?