Recent news from the Office for National Statistics that, for the first time ever in the UK, less than 1% of the population works in fishing and farming provokes different reactions.

There are those who worry that if 99 people out of 100 rely on just one person to provide them with food, then they are dangerously stretching their expectations as well as stretching those they are relying on.

It does seem quite a challenge for the few of us left in agriculture. The very thought makes me want to have a little lie down. Skeleton staffing is all very well, but who wants to be one of the skeletons?

On the other hand, you could equally argue that the smaller the proportion of society who work the land, then the greater the level of civilisation society has. In Britain the numbers employed in agriculture has been falling since the Black Death and that’s no bad thing.

Ever since the enlightenment, technology has freed mankind from the misery of producing food by hand and Britain has led the way in terms of a drive to greater efficiency and a better supply of affordable food. Far from being worried about the fact so much is produced by so few, we should actually be proud of it.

Furthermore, peasant agriculture can look all very twee through the rose-tinted spectacles of those who watch from the sidelines, but in reality it is a parlous and pathetic existence for those who live it day by day. The further we get away from it the better.

“Furthermore, peasant agriculture can look all very twee through the rose-tinted spectacles of those who watch from the sidelines, but in reality it is a parlous and pathetic existence for those who live it day by day. The further we get away from it the better.”
Guy Smith

My guess is that this trend towards a smaller farming population will continue. The development of robotics will mean there is even less need for farmers and farmworkers. If we try to stand in the way of this technological progress we will fare no better than the Luddites who smashed up the threshing machines in the early 1800s.

This depopulation of the land puts down an interesting challenge for the CAP in that one of its goals is to maintain a healthy rural economy with high levels of agrarian employment. In Brussels keeping people employed on the land is a virtue, not a vice.

At this very moment, the policymakers are wrestling with the task of trying to focus CAP money on as many “active” farmers as possible. That, in turn, opens up the old chestnut as to how you define an “active” farmer.

To my mind it should be simply someone who produces food from the land. Bizarrely that definition is not acceptable, as it would breach WTO agreements.

In the Monty Python world of the CAP, the noble art of food production is an irrelevance when it comes to qualifying for CAP payments.

As ever, when it comes to defining an “active” farmer, Smith has a cunning plan. Payment eligibility should rely on proving you actually work outdoors and the obvious way to do that is to show you have a summer tan.

Obviously the danger here is that if having a tan qualified people for CAP payments then the risk is that people of Essex would absorb more than half the CAP budget. But there is a simple way to prevent this.

The tans in question should only be “farmer tans” that stop at the elbow. Anyone with a tanned chest, male or female, would be automatically disqualified.

Sometimes my ideas are so good I impress myself.

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. The farm is officially recognised as the driest spot in the British Isles. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip.

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