Rewarding small farmers through the market will protect the environment and our heritage
Rory Stewart is right to stress the crucial role of small farms in our heritage and landscape. And his concern for their future is one that I share. We depend on farmers to manage the beautiful landscape of the Lake District which draws in nearly sixteen million visitors a year. They are a vital to our plans to have the area’s cultural heritage recognised as a World Heritage Site. Yet average earnings per hill farm are £8,000 per year, according to research that we commissioned from Newcastle University. We are expecting farmers to do a lot, for little return.
It’s not a choice between the market or local farms
But I don’t think it’s a case of choosing between ‘the market’ and local farm interests, as Rory suggests. Like him, I’d fight against the crude argument that market forces should be left to work unencumbered, and that there’s nothing we can do to arrest the decline of traditional farming. But that doesn’t mean we need to abandon economics.
We know that the value of hill farming is far more than the value of the meat produced. Farms can provide energy, from wood, sun and wind. They can help us to lock carbon into soils and trees, and make the landscape more resilient to flooding. They can provide distinctive local food, like Herdwick lamb and even Cumbrian brie. And, of course, they provide a beautiful setting for a holiday. In the academic jargon, they provide ‘ecosystem services’.
The trick is to translate the intangible value of these services into monetary value; in other words, to better align farmers’ incomes to the value of farms. Our partnership of 24 organisations is committed to doing this as we implement our collective Vision for the National Park.
Supporting diversification and local business needs
Our planning policies encourage appropriate renewable energy and we are seeing more farmers profit from small scale electricity generation, like hydro and solar power. As biomass boilers become more widespread, there’s money to be made in providing woodfuel, another opportunity we are helping farmers with. Through our planning service we also support diversification and ongoing business needs such as new barns and houses for workers and their families.
We are working with the National Farmers’ Union and the tourism industry, to make local food more readily available. Visitors say they are keen to ‘eat the view’, and the shorter the supply chain, the more profit goes to the farmer. Not only that, but there are obvious environmental benefits too: as my earlier blog pointed out, drinking local beer saves carbon.
New schemes are better than previous subsidies
Farmers themselves may not realise the part they are playing in arresting climate change. Our uplands contain huge amounts of stored carbon, in peat soils and woodlands. Good land management prevents this carbon escaping. We are just beginning a pioneering project to establish a ‘carbon brokering service’, which would match farmers wanting to plant new woodlands or restore peatlands with companies, and even individuals, wanting to pay for carbon storage.
And while they are not perfect, the stewardship schemes that farmers sign up to, in return for farm payments, already provide some financial reward for the work that farmers do to manage flood plains and increase biodiversity. These schemes are a vast improvement on previous generations of subsidies, which encouraged overstocking and overgrazing, leaving the hills denuded of vegetation cover and leading to soil erosion and flooding.
So it’s not a case of letting the free market rip, pitting farmers against environmentalists and claiming, as George Monbiot does, that fewer farms would lead to a richer environment. Instead, we need to reward farmers for what they already do well, and encourage them to do more of it.
I would never want to argue that you can collapse everything down to money. You can’t put a price on the sense of achievement you feel when you reach the summit of Scafell Pike. Nor can you put a monetary value on the view from the top. But as the squeeze on our hill farmers continues, we owe it to them to find ways for them to get financial reward for the vital services they provide.