By Sam Fortescue

LATEST FIGURES suggest the flow of people from farming slowed in 2004, but some experts have questioned the reliability of DEFRA’s statistics.

An extra 13,100 workers joined the farming industry, according to DEFRA”s labour figures, but there are signs that this conceals a worrying number of exits.

The statistics on labour were based on the agricultural census taken in June, and they show that despite the overall rise in farm employment, another 2200 full-time farmers left the industry.

And DEFRA itself, which sat on the results for longer than usual in an attempt to unravel them, warns that the census may have recorded one worker several times on different holdings.

Derrick Wilkinson, NFU chief economist, said that the results were unreliable. “It’s not entirely clear what’s going on from these figures,” he said.

“The type of information available from DEFRA is for British agriculture in the 1980s, not in 2000. As time changes we need to review the type of statistics.

NOT ADEQUATE

“Statistics from DEFRA are not adequate, because the emphasis is too much on the environment and the regions at the expense of agriculture. We need an expansion of the resources, particularly in view of the changes due to the single farm payment.”

Pressure on farmers to cut costs means there are now as many as 80,000 casual and “gang” labourers working in the UK. But this is far from encouraging for those committed to the industry, said Mr Wilkinson.

“It would be nice to see more full-time jobs being created, because good, well-educated young people will not be encouraged by an increase in part-time and casual labour.”

Behind the figures, analysts say that large farms are getting larger while ever more small lifestyle farms are being set up. Mr Wilkinson described it as the “Fearnley-Whittingstall” syndrome, after the TV chef who moved to Dorset to produce his own meat and vegetables.

FAMILY FARMS

There are also signs that the medium-sized family farm continues to decline, with farmers taking off-farm work to bolster income.

William Gower, a largely arable farmer with 180ha (450 acres) near Herstmonceux, E Sussex, said he had just laid off his last full-time worker and now farms part-time with his brother.

“Things were getting so bad four years ago that I took a job as a Father Christmas, and now I do maintenance work at the Old Greenwich Observatory.

 “I rely more and more on non-agricultural work, such as renting out workers” cottages and working off farm. We used to have 3-4 blokes working full time on the farm, but now it’s just me and my brother.”

sam.fortescue@rbi.co.uk