With our long history of working with smallholders in Africa and South Asia, we tend to forget that rural poverty can also be disastrous for farmers in Europe and the USA.
Dust storm, Spearman, Texas, 1935.Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Buried machinery on a farm in South Dakota, 1936.Photo: USDA
This has been brought home by the excellent TV series on the US dustbowl in the 1930s, when years of expanding wheat production in the Southern Great Plains were brought to a halt by prolonged drought, and the inappropriate technology in use caused massive wind erosion of the soil. Combined with the economic depression of the time this led to a vast displacement of people.
Closer to home and more up-to-date, it was a shock to read that Oxfam, better known for their work in famine zones in Africa, were working on poverty among upland farmers in Upper Teesdale in northern England. The UK uplands are areas, sometimes remote, of high rainfall, cold weather and poor soils, where traditional farming methods largely depend upon the rearing of livestock for later fattening in more fertile lowland farms. Their report has some startling conclusions.
Typical upland pasture at Harwood in Upper Teesdale.
Photo: © Copyright Gordon Hatton and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence
Farmers’ incomes fluctuated, largely due to circumstances beyond their control, and relied upon government support as well as sales of livestock. This resulted in situations when bills could not be paid, farmers could not afford food, or had to reduce the inputs such as fertilizer and livestock feed, and were unable to invest in improving their farms. Average farm incomes were about ¾ of the minimum level needed by an adult to live in a rural area, and some were only half this. Farmers in poverty had no insurance, no pensions or savings, and depended on off-farm income for survival. They felt vulnerable to landlords and to the banks, and some had developed mental health and well-being issues as a result of the poverty. Farmers were becoming older as younger people left for (better-paid) jobs in towns and cities. The report noted that the problems were becoming worse.
These would all have been recognised by the dustbowl farmers of 1930s USA, and by smallholders in developing countries the world over. They are all situations our group have become familiar with over the years, but we did not expect to see them in the UK which, despite the recession, is still one of the world’s largest economies. The question is “what is to be done?” The Oxfam report recognised three key issues: raising awareness and increasing take-up of available State benefits; improving skills development and generating off-farm income; and addressing exclusion from mainstream services, in particular healthcare, and suggested half a dozen action areas to address them. These included the transfer of livestock skills to the next generation; encouraging young people to remain in the hills by providing training and employment; and thinking through the unique features of upland farming environments.
Upland farmers in the UK are fiercely individualist, and want to carry on making a living from their traditional livestock raising. Historically, this has been recognised by government, who also recognised that this was not easy in harsh hill environments, and provided subsidies to guard against low prices and funded research organisations to develop technologies for improving production. However, times have now changed, and there is a greater focus on using subsidies to maintain biodiversity and on the provision of a more general range of ecosystem services. That is not to say that livestock production is unimportant, it is and must remain so if the character of the hills is to be maintained. The challenge is to develop a means of funding farmers to produce what the nation and its people want from the hills and uplands, while maintaining biodiversity, protecting the environment and sustaining communities in times of austerity. Whether the government has the will to do this remains to be seen.