THE TIDE has turned on the rural exodus this year, as 13,000 extra workers joined the farming industry.

The figures from June‘s agricultural census, just released by DEFRA, show that numbers have almost recovered to 2002 levels after their disastrous fall in 2003.

The industry counted 367,500 workers in June compared to 354,400 in 2003, not far short of the 371,000 the year before.

Ian Kenny, head of Natwest‘s agricultural policy department said that labour was becoming harder to find.

“The labour market is tighter and farmers are finding it harder to find skilled agricultural workers.”

Signs so far this year suggest that wage negotiations are pushing up pay, as farmers compete to hold onto their workers.

But the long-term decline in numbers of full-time farmers continued in 2004, with another 2200 farmers, partners and directors either leaving the industry or moving to a part-time basis.

NFU president Tim Bennett said: “It is encouraging to see that farming still plays a significant part in an increasing number of people‘s lives.

“The fall in the number of full time employees does reflect the challenges and change currently being faced by the industry and we expect these trends to continue until the uncertainty many are experiencing as a result of CAP reform and uncertain commodity prices is resolved.

“While the flexibility offered by seasonal, casual and gang labour is attractive to farmers when making business decisions, many of our members are telling us that they are also finding it increasingly difficult to recruit full time employees.”

There are now 126,000 part-time farm owners, up 6.3% on June 2003 and more than in 2002.

Further evidence of the drift towards larger, professionally-managed holdings came from the marked increase in salaried managers employed on UK farms, whose numbers rose more than 28% to 14,800.

The basic movement towards part-time farm work was mirrored in the rest of the agricultural labour force. Part time labourers numbered 28,300, with 50,000 additional casual workers.