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Let’s Talk about Farm Amalgamation May 21, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
Tags: , , , , ,

National Archives of the UK, MAF 142/457

In the early 1960s, British civil servants secretly contemplated how to rid the nation’s agricultural economy of inefficient, small-scale farmers.  Or, at least, that was how it might look if their deliberations became public before they had formulated any actual policy.  In reality, they were slowly and cautiously formulating a response to pressures being put on small farmers by market conditions.  Here are a few illustrative figures on farm sizes in Britain by size, adapted from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food’s (MAFF) A Century of Agricultural Statistics (1968):

Apologies for the awkwardness of presentation here — I don’t have table functionality on my WordPress account.

Total Number of Farm Holdings 20-50 acres in size

1895: 74,846

1935: 75,062

1955: 66,222

1960: 61,391

1966: 52,713

Total Number of Farm Holdings 300-500 acres in size

1895: 11,498

1935: 8,930

1955: 9,351

1960: 9,635

1966: 10,331

Then, just to extrapolate a bit into the future (from 1960), here are some further figures from Britton (ed.), Agriculture in Britain: Changing Pressures and Policies (CAB International, 1990), as reported in John Martin’s The Development of Modern Agriculture: British Farming since 1931 (2000), p. 131:

Number of agricultural holdings, 2-20 hectares (1 hectare is roughly 2.5 acres)

1960: 139,000

1970: 89,000

1986: 61,000

Number of agricultural holdings, 100+ hectares

1960: 20,000

1970: 23,000

1986: 25,000

Now, there are a number of interesting things one could look at even with these assorted figures, such as the rather substantial amount of comparatively large-scale farming during the Victorian period, which then dropped off before rising again in the era of modern agriculture.  But the simple point to be made here is that there was a steady decrease in small farms during the twentieth century (the smallest farms actually experienced a brief bump in numbers after World War II), accompanied by a trend toward what was usually referred to as “farm amalgamation”.

Around 1960, the government began to take a sustained interest in “farm structure”, which generally referred to size.  This was not strictly a case of modernization versus tradition.  Mechanization was making it increasingly possible to farm larger areas with fewer people, contributing to drops in price.  This generally meant that smaller farms simply could not produce enough to remain financially viable.  One resulting trend, which the civil servants at MAFF viewed warily, was attempts to farm smaller holdings with increasingly intensive techniques.  It was assumed that these economic and technical pressures would only increase in the future, particularly if Britain were to join the European Communities (which it wouldn’t for another decade).

During World War II, there had been serious talk of land nationalization.  That, of course, did not happen, but in the first several years following the war, heavy-handed policies like forced purchase were still on the table.  By the early 1950s, under Conservative government, even these policies disappeared, leaving regulation, advice, and financial incentives (subsidies, price guarantees, and improvement grants) as the available policy tools.  This left the government few politically viable options for facing the particular problem of farm structure, especially since the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) had already declared its interest in protecting smaller farmers, who were, of course, a highly sympathetic constituency.

This led to what I view as a particularly interesting situation concerning how expertise can operate in government.  In cases such as the Agricultural Improvement Council, what typically happened was the government would consult not only traditional “expert” classes, such as scientists and economists, but also more prosaic kinds of experts like high-profile regional farmers, and representatives of organizations such as the NFU and the National Union of Agricultural Workers in order to determine best practices that integrated a variety of perspectives.  However, because the policy question in this case was politically dicey, the civil servants knew their deliberations could cause embarrassment to the government if they were unable to respond to criticisms.  In order to respond to criticisms, it is necessary to have a strong basis of knowledge of the issues at hand.

So, in order to prevent it from getting out that they were deliberating the issue at all, the only way to establish a strong basis of knowledge was to deliberate in relative secret.  This basically meant cutting off the consultation networks that would otherwise inform policymaking from the official working group responsible for suggesting policy, in this case led by the high-level MAFF civil servant P. Humphreys-Davies (the document photo at the top of this post is the beginning of the minutes from their second meeting).  Incidentally, Prof. Harold G. Sanders was MAFF’s chief scientific adviser for agriculture, and Leonard Napolitan was MAFF’s head agricultural economist.  Hugh Gardner was a civil servant a level below Humphreys-Davies, and MAFF files indicate the real force behind attempts to establish a farm structure policy.  Also, note the “confidential” label placed on the document — this isn’t something you need clearance to see like a “secret” military document, but it does indicate that it was deemed inappropriate to discuss these issues publicly, because of the prospect of political embarrassment.

Now, things weren’t necessarily as bad as this point may seem, because there were also discussions going on in public, which the civil servants could observe unfold.  I’m not sure if the term “blue ribbon” is strictly American, or not, but the basic idea of having an independent, government-sponsored group of bigwigs contemplate an issue of policy relevance is certainly common enough in Britain.  In this case, the standing Natural Resources (Technical) Committee had already published a white paper in 1960 titled “Scale of Enterprise in Farming”.

The Natural Resources (Technical) Committee was a high-level, “independent” advisory group that reported to members of the Cabinet, composed mainly of scientists (click on the image to the right for the full-scale list).  Its original incarnation was as the Imports Substitution Panel under a Committee on Industrial Productivity (chaired by notable scientific adviser Henry Tizard), which had been established by the postwar Labour government in 1947.  That committee was dissolved pretty quickly, but the panel was reconstituted as its own committee in 1950, and, remarkably, it survived until 1967.  This new committee was chaired by the zoologist Solly Zuckerman, who, in 1960, also became the nation’s chief scientific adviser for defense.  In 1964, he would become the first scientific adviser to the government as a whole.

This is getting tangential, but Zuckerman spent a chapter of his autobiography — Monkeys, Men, and Missiles — discussing the committee, and actually has some remarks with respect to the issue at hand.  He judged that “the only area where the Natural Resources Committee did help significantly was in forestery and agriculture”.  He recalled, “Our enquiries became so specialized that I appointed an agricultural subcommittee, with subsidiary working parties.  We took advice wherever it could be found.  Officials in different departments were unsparing in the help they gave, as were landowner and farmer friends up and down the countries” (p. 125).  At the Twelfth Oxford Farming Conference in 1958, he addressed the “problem of the small farmer” arguing that subsidies mainly benefitted bigger and more successful farmers.  “On the occasion of that address I had a feeling that I was making a plea that should have been made by the Ministry of Agriculture itself” (p. 128).

You also had people like William Slater, the secretary of the Agricultural Research Council (and a member of Zuckerman’s subcommittee), being very explicit about the need for amalgamation in the press:

No tip-toeing around the NFU here!  Slater’s address to the British Association is unusual in the stridency of its technocratic appeal:

This pattern [of farm amalgamation] must ultimately be that of all successful industries in which a chief executive or group of executives is responsible for the running of the business with a highly trained staff.

Such a system would place the control of farming in the hands of a relatively small number of the abler and better educated men engaged in agriculture.  This would result in the speedy application of new techniques, in rational decisions, based on factual records as to the type and intensity of production and in the best use of the available capital.

Needless to say, this was not the MAFF line.  Scientists like Zuckerman and Slater were appointed by the government, but acted independently, which both gave them some freedom, but limited their power.  They could embarrass the government, but only to an extent since their statements did not represent actual policy.  Reports like the 1960 white paper could inform government policy, but, ultimately, policies had to be constructed based on ministers’ and civil servants’ independent appreciation of what they could and would do about an issue, and in this case, because they had to keep things on the DL, they mainly had to rely on their own research to answer their more specific questions pertinent to that task.

I gather the civil servants’ most important guidance came from precedent.  Continental nations exercised varying kinds of power over farmers, up to and including compulsory purchase; and, on the whole, they had greater problems to overcome.  (Average farm size in Britain was something like 60 acres, where it was more like 15 in Germany.)  I haven’t worked out the full policy history, but it seems like MAFF basically ended up trying to avoid actively hindering the transition in the structure of the farm economy by subsidizing uneconomic farms, and, I think in 1967, began offering farm amalgamation grants, designed to help medium-size farmers take over neighboring land, while trying to also avoid subsidizing large-scale farmers who did not need assistance.

So, ultimately, farm amalgamation was not clearly a major event in the history of the state use of expertise, since it didn’t really result in any sort of major, expert-driven policy initiative.  Nevertheless, I think it’s worth discussing, because it reveals some of the interesting ways that policymaking and expertise intermingle in the face of controversial policy questions and a limited interest in government intervention.


1. William Burns - May 25, 2012

Interesting post, Will. I’ve heard talk now (2012) of farms being too big – too big for an individual farmer to keep track of, and therefore likely to promote a decline in husbandry standards because the farmer doesn’t know his or her crops well enough. This ‘Farming, Inc.’ article covers some of the ground, but not all: http://magissues.farmprogress.com/FFU/FF02Feb12/FF01%20to17.html.

On another note, good to see Leonard Napolitan on the list, and to learn a bit more about him – as you probably know, he wrote an informative economic account of the Kent apple industry (‘The Fruit Growing Industry of Kent’, publ. 1947 by the University of Bristol, Department of Ag. Economics). That’s where I came across him.

2. Will Thomas - May 27, 2012

Hi William — interesting regarding the new concerns about large farm size. I do not have a strong biography of Napolitan, but he seems to have been a MAFF economic adviser for quite some time in the postwar period. I think he was a protege of the geographer and land use adviser L. Dudley Stamp.

By the way, in the Farmer and Stock Breeder clipping above, note the presence of the ubiquitous Frank Rayns in the picture.

3. Alex Oikonomou - November 16, 2012

Hey Will
I am posting the connection I have already mentioned to you.
The Natural Resources (Technical) Committee above has as a member an E. Brundrett, who appears to be the only person not from an official body, but an owner of a farm in Ashford, Kent. This led me to think that this might be Edward Brundrett, one of Sir Frederick Brundrett’s (Chief Scientific Adviser, MoD, 1954-1959) six brothers (Philip, Walter, Edward, Charles, Robert and George). A Cambridge wrangler (1916), this career government defence scientist had developed, along with one of his brothers, I seem to remember Edward, but I would need to verify this, one of the largest poultry breeding establishments in the UK and was president of the Agricultural Co-operative Association and “devoted much energy to the development of co-operative marketing for poultry and eggs” (ODNB entry). He was also chairman of the council of the Red and White Friesian Cattle Society, and “an authority on the management of contagious abortion in cattle” (ibid). I haven’t been able to research this at all, but the Kent connection is very much there: the father of both was Walter Brundrett, who was general secretary and accountant of the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron, and Coal Company (South Wales). He was from Hinxhill, Kent, 10 miles from Ashford, where he also retired. Even if this detective work is not accurate and E. Brundrett is someone completely different, the senior government defence scientist’s preoccupation with the co-op movement and hard-core farming in 1950’s and 1960’s is, I hope, interesting.

Will Thomas - November 16, 2012

Thanks a lot for writing that up, Alex — I bet you that the connection is real. It’s a really remarkable and unexpected intertwining of the agricultural and defence communities, and, as you say, a very interesting picture of F. Brundrett, even if the connection to this committee turned out to be spurious.

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