THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Published 30 September 2023
In an era which seems to value youth over experience, those of us who have been around for a while can sometimes be reluctant to talk about what knowledge we have acquired over the years along with our grey hairs, writes Simon Evans.
Forty years ago this month I started my career with Irelands, Hall & Palmer; four decades on that business is now Arnolds Keys – Irelands Agricultural, and I’m still here. As I celebrate that milestone, I thought it might be interesting to look at how agriculture has changed over those 40 years – and what has stayed the same.
In 1983 agricultural land was worth £1,500-£2,000 an acre (as opposed to £10,000 today); farming land cost around £30 an acre to rent (on broadly the same terms, it’s £90 an acre today).
The farming landscape looked considerably different back then as well. Norfolk had around 2,000 dairy herds, most of which have simply disappeared – there are just 36 in the county now. Crops such as rape and maize (for biodigesters) were still seen as emerging, and certainly weren’t the common sight they are today.
Farms were generally smaller, with many in the 200-250 acre range. I remember one commentator predicting that farms under 600 acres would become unviable (and taking some stick for saying so); nowadays, something approaching 1,000 acres is the norm.
I am not going to be that person who pretends that everything was better at the start of my career. In many ways, our industry has improved beyond recognition. Perhaps the biggest positive change has been the realisation that we are custodians of the land for future generations, and that issues such as soil health are every bit as important as short-term yields.
Technology has transformed the sector. In 1983, farming was a labour-intensive, physical activity. Today it is technology-driven, with the realistic aim of one person farming 1,000 acres more or less by themselves.
The biggest shock to agriculture in those 40 years was undoubtedly Brexit. When I started, the CAP interventionist system provided farmers with considerable stability and support. The business is much more ruthlessly commercial in today’s world of trade agreements and tariffs.
That said, there are many fundamentals which have not changed in four decades. The dedication for farming remains, there is still a palpable love for the land, and farming continues to revolve around families. I enjoy working with emerging generations who have new ideas and a new approach.
So what of the future? I foresee an industry continuing to be driven by technology and plant science, but above all climate change will transform how we use the land. The best agricultural land will have to produce the majority of our food, while the marginal land will be used for environmental benefit, something we are already seeing.
So farming may have changed dramatically in 40 years, but the stewardship role of farmers in preserving our countryside for the future remains as strong as ever, and may it always be so.
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