Small farm productivity & the role of small farmers in the UK food system

As Rebecca Laughton the author of this study (A Matter of Scale) says in her introduction, the sustainable intensification and industrial farming lobby has found it all to easy to dismiss the contribution of small farms to food security and environmental management. Their argument is three-fold:

-”More people can be fed from less land and fewer resources if we adopt technologies such as precision farming and genetically modified crops”. . . .

- the productivity and efficiency gained from maximising such “smart agriculture” in some areas can allow land in other areas to be freed up for wildlife conservation.

- larger farms are perceived as being “more efficient because they can achieve economies of scale through using larger machinery and bulk buying inputs, giving an advantage when competing in a low-price environment”.

Small farms according to this worldview are an “old fashioned, romantic anachronism – unprofitable, inefficient and not to be considered as serious contributors to food security or rural economic growth. . . . They are at best considered to be niche – producing ‘high end’ products for an elite market – and at worst to be simply ‘hobby farms’.”

But these are just assumptions. They are never really questioned.  And they ignore the fact that 70% of the world’s food is produced on small scale, family farms and the evidence from many countries there is an inverse relationship between farm size and productivity.

Thus this study. It seeks to “discover how much food small scale farms (20 ha and less) in the UK are producing, as well as to ascertain their financial viability, and set these findings within the context of the multifunctional benefits they deliver. Measuring performance of small farms in terms of productivity, economic viability and delivery of public goods will provide evidence for policy makers about the role that small scale farms have in the UK food system and indicate how policy can support the growth of this sector. The study aims to prompt debate and encourage others to build on this work with further research on the role of small farmers in UK food system.”


A survey of 69 small, agroecological farms showed a diverse and vibrant sector, which attracts new entrants and incubates entrepreneurs. Many of the holdings were five hectares or less and, while some were focussed on horticulture, others were operating several different enterprises including eggs, meat and micro-dairy. Key findings include:

• Productivity data for 18 indicator vegetable crops showed small farm yields being higher than non-organic field-scale yields for those which benefit from more intricate husbandry and hand picking (e.g. salad leaves, French beans, kale leaf-beet and chard). At a few established market gardens vegetable yields were much higher than average non-organic yields.

• The prevalence of integrated, mixed farms, means that inputs and waste are reduced compared to monoculture farms. Such diversity may also lead to resilience, by spreading economic risk, improving ability to cope with extreme weather and increasing resistance to disease.

• Despite low average net farm income levels, when compared to average UK farm incomes the ‘A Matter of Scale’ (AMOS) sample were performing well financially. 78% were receiving no farm subsidies, and subsidies made up less than 20% of the income for 19% of those who were receiving subsidies.

• Most of the farms were adding value either by direct marketing or processing their produce into cheese, juices or preserves. Vegetable box schemes, farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture schemes enable better incomes, while building customer trust through provision of fresh and sustainably produced food. Many holdings supplemented income with off-farm employment, or had diversified by running courses, campsites or holiday lets.

• An average of 2.3 full time equivalents work on each holding, with the average per ha being 3.2. This is much higher than the mean for the UK of 0.026 annual work units (AWU) per hectare (Eurostat 2011, p. 5). Workers are attracted by the meaningful nature and variety of agroecological farm tasks. Despite this, labour issues were frequently mentioned as a limiting factor in increasing productivity.

• Other barriers to productivity included: lack of capital to invest in equipment and infrastructure, meaning the efficiency of some holdings was less than optimal; affordability of land and accommodation; and lack of technology suitable for small scale farmers.

• Small farmers are highly motivated to provide environmental and social benefits. Care of the soil, water and biodiversity, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as provision of public education about farming and the building of community were cited as multifunctional benefits generated by the farms.

Until now, little research has been conducted into the productivity and viability of small-scale, agroecological farms in the UK. This study shows that they deserve closer attention by both policy makers and academics as they simultaneously address many of the challenges facing twenty-first century food production, including efficient UK provision of vegetables and fruit, fulfilling employment opportunities, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and food waste, and the re-building of rural communities.

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