Ed Hamer discovers a European youth movement taking action on the issue of access to agricultural land
If the statistics are to be believed farming must be up there as one of the least attractive jobs facing school-leavers in the UK. With a typical wage middling at £4.50 an hour1 and the average farmer pushing 622, the future looks far from rosy for an industry recently charged by the government with securing the nations food supplies over the next 20 years. Or so you would think.
Take a walk through a typical student Barrio in Bristol, Leeds or London however and you may well come to a different conclusion. Among the multitude of backyard veg-plots, edible window-boxes and youthful looking allotmenteers you see, you are more than likely to witness guerrilla-gardening in action or overhear the word “permaculture” casually dropped into a passing conversation.
There is no doubt about it, growing-your-own now competes with recycling, energy saving, and cutting short-haul flights in the efforts of the country’s youth to act decisively on the environment. And while many of these urban gardeners are happy simply to be greening-up their own streets, there are many, many more who are desperate to get back to the land.
So what’s the problem? On the one hand it appears we are faced with an ageing farming population, endowed with acres of land but lacking young recruits, while on the other, an emerging movement of motivated young growers are desperate to farm but frustrated by a lack of land. The solution it seems could be simple, the reality however is far from it.
The current state of land ownership in the UK, which has placed our entire country’s farmland in the hands of less than one per cent of the population3, has its roots stretching from the original enclosures of the 14th century to the progressive industrialisation and more recent gentrification of the British countryside. Economies of scale dictate that, today even the children of farming families face little prospect gaining agricultural employment in an industry in which a 90-acre farm can only realistically support a single wage4.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. In 1950 120,000 people were directly employed in farming in the UK5 with many young lads leaving school at 14 to pursue a worthy career on the farm. Within 30 years however the systematic intensification of farming, which accompanied the UK’s entry to the Common Agricultural Policy, had claimed over half of these jobs and taken the majority of our small farmers to the wall.
Without doubt, access to land remains the single greatest obstacle facing a new generation of growers. A combination of property speculation and city bonuses have seen land prices inflated by an average of £2,000 per acre within the past 10 years alone and as much as £10,000 in some areas of the country6. Volatility in the agriculture sector has also left many farmers reluctant to lease even the smallest area of productive ground.
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