Are the Archers now the only farmers with a future?

A government report this week will shape our landscape for generations to come. Here is a look at two farms' problems, and a possible solution.
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The Independent Online

Gerry Minister and Chris Reynolds farm at opposite ends of the North Downs, in Kent. Both see rolling chalk hills and ancient hedgerows from the tractor seat. But ask these two veterans to look into a crystal ball and they offer contradictory visions of the future of farming. Will the England of 2020 be revived by countless tiny organic farms, whose managers are paid extra to keep Britain beautiful? Or will our countryside be a land of endless prairies, over which monstrous machines roam?

The agricultural world is ball- gazing this weekend as it waits for the final report by the Government's Commission on the Future of Farming. There has been talk of a "green fund" to help farmers manage the environment and of grants for those who want to adopt organic practices. But so many farmers feel battered after the events of recent years: the pound's rise, BSE and foot and mouth have all had a devastating effect. And few of those who tend the land are willing to put any faith in the Government's promises.

Some have retired already, or plan to do so as soon as their farms are saleable. Others, however, still dream of a future in which farming has survived its present crisis and is reborn. It's just the size of the baby they disagree about.

For Gerry Minister, small will be beautiful. "I'm optimistic about the future," says the 53-year-old, who manages the 900 acres of Luddesdown organic farm near Snodland with his wife Jill. "There are so many opportunities for small, organic farms – even those of 10 to 15 acres – to make a living because of food-box schemes and farmers' markets."

The pair created a niche market for their organic vegetables by offering a home-delivery food-box scheme to those living within 15 miles. In the farm shop customers who have been converted to organic produce as a result of BSE fill up their freezers with Soil Association-approved supplies of organic beef, mince and burgers produced from the farm's 90-strong herd of suckler cows. The rest of the meat is sold to Sainsbury's.

"We're developing direct sales wherever possible," says Minister. "There's a strong demand for local food, and we can justify what we charge. The closer you get to the customer the better it is for the farmer," he says. He depends on customers who demand to know where and how their food is produced – and are prepared to pay more for that guarantee.

Luddesdown won the Kent Environment Business of the Year Award in 1998. It now employs four full-time workers and six part-timers. "Farms like ours can help keep the rural economy alive," says Minister. In contrast, he sees a bleak future for intensive farming, which competes in a global marketplace. "How can we achieve a prairie style of farming such as there is in the US and Canada? How can farmers compete with that? I think that – just like the dinosaurs – the bigger farms will cease to exist."

But Chris Reynolds, who farms near Folkestone, could not disagree more. "It is absolutely inevitable that farm units will get larger. I don't see how we can change that." The big operations will just keep getting bigger, he says, until the Fens, Salisbury Plain and other parts of England where the land is flat and uniform are covered with huge farms of 20,000 acres or more. In turn, they will use ever more intensive methods of producing arable crops for export. "The picture will be one of vast acreages, cultivated by very few people working on enormous bits of kit. That won't create the greatest looking landscape in the world, but that's the decision people living in those areas will have to take."

These farms will almost certainly be sown with genetically modified (GM) crops, the true effects of which could take years to emerge. By 2020, GM crops could be providing cheap, resilient, easily grown nourishment to a hungry world. On the other hand, those who fear that this will usher in "Frankenstein food" may see their worst nightmares realised.

Reynolds, 53, manages three farms covering nearly 2,000 acres around Postling. One of them is organic and has a herd of cattle. The others produce arable crops: winter wheat, barley, oilseed rape, beans and peas. The company employs just three men to help him and his wife Jane.

The three farms cannot expand unless a neighbour decides to sell up. Their alternative way forward is to use economies of scale by pooling equipment and labour while combining a hi-tech approach with green sensibilities. This is a third way forward for farming that the Government is likely to support with enthusiasm. Its grants and subsidies for looking after the countryside and converting to organic methods will be sought equally keenly by a new kind of landowner. "There is quite a trend towards City money buying up farms," says Reynolds, who works for a banker and a leisure industry millionaire. They want farms that are attractive as well as profitable. "Of course, such people may have no idea how to farm, so they employ people like me to do it for them."

They may disagree over whether the future is big or small, but Reynolds and Minister share a revulsion at the way large-scale farming continues to treat animals. "Supermarkets have driven farms to even greater intensity, and that will continue," says Reynolds. "Broilers are bred to produce as much meat as possible in a short space of time, and if they live beyond that period their legs can't take the weight, and they collapse. Are we prepared to tolerate that – and worse?"

If the price is low, the answer is probably yes. Many Britons are completely ignorant of the conditions under which their food is produced. In 2020 even more children than now will think that eggs come from boxes. "That's what happens when you lose the connection between what is on the plate and the way it is produced," he says. "That's how we got into this mess. The future of farming, and public confidence in it, lies in restoring that connection."