Monday, August 04, 2008

The staff of life

click photo to enlarge
Britain's farming population is in long-term decline. In 1996 there were 616,000 people employed in agriculture. By 2007 this had gone down to 526,000, the result of increasing mechanization, the amalgamation of farms into ever larger units, and the declining profitability of the sector. Over the same period the age profile of those employed in agriculture increased.

Changes in wheat farming are fairly typical of the sector as a whole. Over the same period the area devoted to cultivation declined from 1976,000 hectares to 1816,000 hectares, and the volume produced also went down.The income generated by milling wheat and feed wheat slumped, and the amount of wheat produced as a percentage of UK use fell from 125% to 106%. There was, and is, money to be made by producing wheat, but of the 60,000 cereal farmers in the UK it is principally the large landowners and corporate bodies who can benefit from larger subsidies who are making it. The smaller, independent farmers have seen incomes fall drastically, then rally slightly recently. A consequence of this is that a significant number of cereal farms, with hundreds of acres under cultivation, are now worked by the farmer alone, assisted by no permanently employed farm hands. Family members, friends, and occasionally some bought-in contract hours, are the only additional help. It's true to say that the main ingredient of the "staff of life" is grown and harvested with virtually no staff at all! Not surprisingly, since as much of the work as possible is mechanized, the land (and landscape) where these crops are grown is tailored to be managed by farm machinery.

I gleaned this information some time ago from the Statistics pages of UK Agriculture, and from Corporate Watch, and it came to mind as I was looking at this photograph of a combine harvester. I took it a while ago on the Yorkshire Wolds near Weaverthorpe. The solitary driver, alone in his cab in the large, regimented, rolling fields of this cereal growing upland area, seemed to encapsulate the predicament of today's wheat farmer in Britain.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E500
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 134mm (268mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/160
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: N/A