Rural areas across Europe are experiencing major changes involving closer ties between the rural and urban economies. Key elements include:
- The re-valuing of local assets.
- A shift from subsidy-driven development to investments that build social capital.
- Exploitation of hitherto unused resources.
- Diversification of farming into niche markets linked to food, tourism and craft activities to create a new ‘eco-economy’.
In Wales these objectives are pursued by the Welsh Government as part of its sustainable development agenda. There are concerns among some commentators about the creation of the new environmental body, the result of merging the work of the Environmental Agency with the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission for Wales. However, in my view, it is providing an opportunity to reposition Welsh farming as central to delivering a wider range of environmental goods and services, which are inextricably linked to the development of the rural eco-economy.
This is, by the way, far more innovative than the approach adopted by the UK government in England where much of the strategic planning, regional development and environmental agency infrastructure has been dismantled. In Wales there is a chance that we can integrate the new Common Agricultural Policy post 2013 with the objectives of our domestic policy developments, and deliver them through the Welsh Agri-food Strategy: ‘Food for Wales, Food from Wales’.
How will farmers in Wales respond to the revised incentive systems that are about to be implemented? Surveys carried out at the Wales Rural Observatory have found that the Welsh farming population can be broadly divided into three types of approximately equal proportions:
- Those whose approach is ‘business as usual’ in which they are heavily dependent on subsidies. This group are likely to be highly vulnerable to policy and market changes in the near future.
- Those in a worse condition who might be called the ‘strugglers’. They display higher levels of vulnerability and may exit farming in the near future, especially if they are close to retirement and have no clear succession plans.
- Those practising one or more forms of multifunctionality, through a range of deepening, with value-added, high end niche foods; broadening, with diversified on farm businesses like tourism, equine and renewable energy; and re-grounding, by expanding their family income through non–farm sources.
This third group is spearheading the new rural paradigm in Wales. Their numbers are roughly in line with what we have witnessed in extensive comparative surveys across rural Europe. There will be a continuing role for the increasingly scale-dependent intensive and specialised producer. However, in my view, these will be very few and far between as we progress through the coming decade.
Witness what has been going on in the intensive dairy sector in Wales and we see a ‘race to the bottom’ numerical decline in dairy farms chasing ever more retailer-led price setting. The future must lie in value-added and more networked forms of multi-functionality that can meet urban as well as wider rural development needs.
A central question is how the farming community can adapt in ways that create greater resilience and less vulnerability. In short we must deliver a more holistic green economy in rural Wales. In the process we will need to rely on innovation rather than subsidy dependence.
We must build on existing advice mechanisms such as farming connect, but also develop other farmer and rural community groups as learning organisations. We need to breakdown the barriers between farming and the wider rural community by making it a more attractive, progressive and inclusive activity, especially for the young. This means more ‘bottom-up’ sustainable place-making which connects with what hopefully will be more joined up European Common Agricultural policies.
There should also be more emphasis on connecting town and country, between urban dwellers keen to enhance their quality of life, and rural communities as producers of high value, eco-economy goods and services. In the process we can strengthen both rural and urban Wales for future generations.