English farm families take flight


Agriculture: During the worst crisis to hit England's agricultural sector in more than half a century, more and more families are giving up.

August 19, 1999|By Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TELFORD, England -- Chris Taylor, whose roots in farming reach back more than 400 years, has traded his herd of cattle for livestock less typical of the chilly English countryside -- tropical birds.

Fed up with low milk prices and the "mad cow" disease crisis, Taylor and his wife, Rebecca, sold the last of their 100 dairy cows five months ago, rented out most of their 150 acres and converted their barns into aviaries.

"It was a big decision. Took a good 12 months to make me mind up," Taylor, 48, said in a clipped Shropshire County accent. "But I'm glad to be free of it. So many years of not getting anywhere. You try to climb the ladder, and always something knocks you back."

But parrots in England?

"Oh, these birds are bred here. They don't know what hot weather is," Taylor said with a shrug.

While the Taylors' choice of breeds may be unconventional, their decision to diversify is increasingly common among Britain's family farmers, who are struggling to stay afloat during the worst crisis to hit the country's agricultural sector in more than half a century.

Farm income has plummeted 75 percent during the past two years, according to the National Farmers Union, accelerating a transformation of British farming much like the one that has occurred in the United States: Family farmers are being driven out of business, and food cultivation is becoming concentrated in fewer hands on larger farms.

So far, this may not have altered the verdant British landscape, engraved in the world's imagination by the brush strokes of John Constable and the prose of Thomas Hardy.

But it is fast bringing an end to a centuries-old way of life for rural England's tightly knit communities of farmers. These men and women of sturdy stock and few words, accustomed to toughing out the bad years awaiting the good, no longer see a future in the land.

As Britain's rising standard of living has more city dwellers escaping to the countryside, farmers are urging their children to head for urban areas. Many are quitting themselves.

In Britain, the causes of this change are many. Under a common European agricultural policy, farmers face quotas limiting how much they can produce. At the same time, an international downturn in prices for agricultural commodities has been compounded by high interest rates, the pound's strength relative to the dollar and the euro -- making British food exports more expensive and foreign imports cheaper -- and an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as BSE or "mad cow" disease.

The British farming industry estimates it lost nearly $2.5 billion during the three-year worldwide ban on British beef exports because of the epidemic, and although the embargo was lifted Aug. 1, cattle farmers fear that they may never recover their share in beef exports.

Other markets also have disappeared. The collapse of the Russian economy last year eliminated a huge demand for British sheep hides for coats and rugs, driving down the price per head earlier this year to the equivalent of a bag of potato chips.

At one point this year, some farmers said, it was cheaper to give the sheep away than take them to market.

Furthermore, a shift in British buying habits away from small shops and in favor of supermarkets has affected the prices farmers can demand for their goods. Supermarket chains buy larger quantities and, therefore, demand lower prices. Their loyalty goes to the producer who makes the best deal -- anywhere in the liberalized European food market -- and not to the family farmer who may have supplied a shop for generations.

The result is pressure for larger, high-technology farms that can produce at a lower cost per quart of milk or pound of potatoes, forcing many family farmers to give up and most of the others to diversify.

Neither the government nor the farmers union has precise figures for family farmers who have gone broke. In part, that is because the farmland remains in production and relatively few farmers have declared bankruptcy.

Like the Taylors, many family farmers still own the land on which they live and rent most of their acreage to large-scale farmers while seeking other sources of income. They are going out of farming but have not left the farm.

The Taylors' friend Bill Bromley is another example. He has quit cattle farming on his 500 acres in Telford and is gradually giving up grain and sugar beet farming in favor of breeding racehorses.

"The small man is being driven out. They're killing us off quietly," Bromley said. "You've got to be big, 2,000 to 5,000 acres, or you can't make it."

So horse breeding, which started as a hobby, is becoming a business. "I'm putting the farm down to grass, and in three years' time, I won't be farming anymore," Bromley said.

The trend is only beginning to show in numbers. According to government figures, 5,000 farmers -- about 1.7 percent -- quit tilling the land between 1987 and 1997. Of those who remained, 10 percent went from full-time farming to part-time farming.

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