Defra figures spell looming disaster for the uplands

Latest Defra figures paint a bleak outlook for upland farms in England, as many question how they will remain viable in the future.

Farm business income (effectively net profit) figures in England for less favoured area (LFA) grazing livestock farms are expected to fall by two-thirds for the current financial year (April 2022 to March 2023) to £16,000.

Exmoor hill farmer Robin Milton described the figures as “terrible” and he warned of a significant fallout of upland farms during the agricultural transition.

See also: How upland farmers are pooling resources to plug funding gap

“Out of that figure of £16,000, the average family farm in the uplands would be expected to pay for the labour, rent and finance – it’s not even going to pay for the rent on a lot of farms,” said Mr Milton.

“Realistically, this means the average upland farm will have to survive on considerably less than the national minimum wage, while also being expected to manage the business for farming and environmental activities.

“I think we’re going to see upland farming becoming unsustainable more quickly than we thought. Former Defra secretary George Eustice promised a sunlit uplands, but this is a sunset.”

Mr Milton said the prospects for upland farms are likely to get even worse during the next financial year (April 2023 to March 2024).

As sheep prices are lower this trading season, there will be further falls in Basic Payment Scheme funding and Defra’s new Environmental Land Management scheme “is lacking in its development to provide a viable alternative in the uplands”.

Defra now faces serious questions about whether it wants farms in the uplands or not, he added.

“There is very little in the SFI [Sustainable Farming Incentive] for upland farms, and the income foregone approach is going to be disastrous,” said Mr Milton, who is also chairman of the Exmoor National Park Authority.

“If you want environmental activity, upland farmers will have to be paid appropriately to do it, not the lowest common denominator. Otherwise, many will leave farming, diversify into other activities, or sell to lifestyle-type businesses.”

Defra said it had been unable to produce income forecasts for specialist pig, specialist poultry or horticulture farms because these had been “subject to a considerable degree of uncertainty”.

However, average income on dairy farms this financial year is forecast to increase by just over three-quarters to £249,000 “largely driven by output from milk rising by 43% as a result of higher prices”.

For cereal farms, average income is forecast to rise by 11% to £134,000.