The U.K. packs a lot of agriculture into a small space

British farmers need to get along with neighbouring communities, 
cut greenhouse emissions, and fend off cheap foreign competition

Cows on pasture in Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire, England
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s an area steeped in history and culture that is also a breadbasket of diverse agriculture.

The United Kingdom is home to 214,000 farms, which nearly mirrors Canada’s 205,000 farms, although the average size is 142 hectares (or about half the size of the average Canadian operation). And though the farms may be the same in number, U.K. farmers need to feed 66 million people or double the Canadian population.

And the entire United Kingdom could fit into Alberta 2.5 times. That’s a lot of action in a small area.

Being a net importer of food is both a challenge and an opportunity in the U.K. As the farmers only provide 20 per cent of what is consumed, there is an opportunity for further value adding in the food sector, particularly in beef, poultry, wine and in fruits and vegetables. Most imports come from the Irish Republic, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

It is a bit of an irony that the countries to which the U.K. exports are pretty much the same from whom they import. Exports are predominantly to the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, France and the U.S. Wine is a major export along with whiskey, salmon, and cheese.

Farmers employ 476,000 persons and produce an impressive amount of food.

There are 33.3 million sheep (compared to about 830,000 here) and it makes for picturesque scenes as one travels the country. There are 9.9 million head of cattle (which is not far off the 12 million head of cattle in Canada) and dairy is a big business with 1.8 million head of cows. The dairy industry is no longer supported by quota and there has been expansion in this area. Milk prices had tanked but are now at a 20-month high which is fuelling further optimism. Beef cows number 1.56 million compared to the 3.8 million in Canada. The poultry industry houses 167.6 million birds and is a major producer of eggs.

To feed its livestock, farmers grow 1.1 million hectares of barley and 1.8 million hectares of wheat. They also grow 652,000 hectares of canola (still referred to there as rape) and I found many flavoured table varieties of this oil in stores and farmers’ markets.

Canada is known as a key potato producer with nearly 139,000 hectares, but the U.K. is only about 40,000 hectares behind us. It’s big business and the U.K. is focused on expansion in this area, particularly in seed exports.

The glasshouse (or greenhouse as it is known in Canada) industry is huge, with 3,000 hectares under cover. Farmers grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers to ensure year-round supply. This is a complement to the outdoor production of flowers (13,000 ha), soft fruit and wine grapes (10,000 ha), fruit (26,000 ha), and vegetables (123,000 ha).

Wooded areas are common and there is a host of incentives to encourage farmers to plant trees and establish environmental areas. When travelling through England, it feels forested yet only 12 per cent of the land base is treed (and 70 per cent of that is privately owned).

With so much production and so many folks living close to each other, there is always the potential for activism and misunderstandings. Add to this the U.K. initiative to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by the year 2050 (and to double wildlife populations), and the environmental issues become complex. To help achieve these targets, British farmers are (for the present) heavily supported through the Common Agricultural Policy.

This European farm program has three pillars and includes basic payments made directly to the farmer known as direct income support. Greening up on the farm is part of this basic payment. The European Commission contributes to a crisis reserve fund and also funds public intervention as well as producer organizations.

Finally, there is a rural development component that focuses on competitiveness, the preservation of ecosystems, and regeneration of rural areas economically and socially. The way these payments are distributed varies between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

How the future plays out for the farms and agri-food processors in the U.K. now depends on the final outcome of Brexit as the nation prepares to leave the European Union.

As a net importer of food and with so many farmers depending on solid support policy, these are critical times for the agricultural sector. Protecting production, markets, and access to labour while overhauling national policy, agricultural and otherwise, is a daunting task for this small but progressive food-producing island.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at All rights reserved.



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