#53 - The farming crisis - big business harvests the countryside

March 2001

The rural working class - a long fighting tradition

Talking about classes in the countryside, we will start with those who are never mentioned when it comes to rural Britain - agricultural workers. And given that they form a section of our class, we will devote some time to describing where it comes from and its situation today.

Right up until the nineteenth century, when the majority of the population still lived in the countryside, agricultural labourers constituted the largest group of workers in any industry. And they have a proud record.

They are even credited by today's TUC leaders with being responsible for the founding of the trade union movement itself - at least when these bureaucrats make their pompous speeches at the annual trade union jamboree in the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle, where the so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs are commemorated. And though it may be bending the stick to give this credit to those Dorset agricultural labourers whose attempts to form a union in 1833 ended in their transportation to Australia, their story is a reflection of the times, which indeed saw the beginning of real trade unions on a large scale.

The context of the formation of the Tolpuddle union was the revolt of farm labourers which swept the Southern counties, East Anglia and the Midlands in 1830. Their main assault was directed at the threshing machines displacing already starving labourers. But their terrorisation of the landlords led to the temporary rise of wages.

In the early months of 1831, Dorset labourers got together, met farmers and landowners and presented their own demands. In Tolpuddle, farmers agreed to pay the same wages as elsewhere - 10s a week. But the farmers broke this agreement - and then cut wages down, as low as 7s a week. This was when George Loveless and his fellows decided to form a union. And having heard about the trade societies among industrial workers they asked for help to form their own such society. In this, they were doing what many workers were, towards the end of 1833. Inspired by Robert Owen's plans for a new kind of society, a mammoth union, The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, had already been founded and was to reach nearly a million members by 1834.

So in Tolpuddle, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was duly formed in October 1833 and some 40 or so labourers enrolled in the first few weeks. Within a few days the local landowners were plotting its destruction. Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, personally intervened to help in the plot, coming up with an act of law, passed in 1797 to deal with a naval mutiny, which made it unlawful to take secret binding oaths. On the morning of 24 February 1834, six of the leading Tolpuddle trade unionists were arrested and taken to Dorchester jail. Five of the six were practising Wesleyan Methodists and three of them local preachers which no doubt added to their crime in the eyes of the Establishment.

The trial was rushed forward with a hand-picked jury and in just one month they were found guilty and transported to Australia. But this time the landowners and their judiciary did not get away with it. By March 1836, a huge campaign by devoted trade unionists and radicals forced the courts to pardon them and they were able to return.

It is also worth mentioning that rural revolts had helped to arouse the reform agitation of 1830-2. Cobbett and Hunt, who later became prominent Chartist leaders, had both been farmers and helped to shape the new urban radicalism. In fact many Chartists and utopian socialists like Owen spoke of a return to the Old England, mythologising a past on the soil which had never actually existed. But in this period, they mounted the greatest coherent national agitation for the return of the land to those who toil it, coming up with many and varied schemes of land redistribution.

The first real union

Social divisions and injustices were further deepened in the countryside by the changes in the Poor Law introduced by the Whigs in 1834. The life of farm workers was one of low wages, oppression and disease made worse by overcrowded cottages and hovels. Many finished up the workhouse to die. Those who could, escaped overseas or to the industries in the towns.

And ten years after the Tolpuddle events, wages in Dorset still averaged around 7s 6d a week. In some areas they were even less. Nowhere did wages rise again until after 1850. This downward pressure on agricultural labourers' wages did not pass without revolt. Hayricks and farm buildings were burnt and there was the occasional outburst of rioting as well as a growth in poaching. For the time being, rural union organisation did not seem to be viable.

But trade unionism then began to stir again. In Midlothian, Scotland, the Farm Servants' Protection Society was formed in December 1865 and the Agricultural Labourers' Protective Association in Kent in 1866. In 1867, labourers in Buckinghamshire went on strike for higher wages. In Norfolk, new enclosures led to riots and the first farm workers union in the district, the Flaxmans' Eastern Counties Union was born. In Herefordshire a union was formed to send surplus labour to other areas of the country where jobs were available, which immediately improved wages in Herefordshire, at least.

By 1868, skilled workers in the towns had won the vote. Unskilled workers were agitating, and by 1872, town workers celebrated the victory of the nine-hour day. But the farm labourers were to make an even more striking advance in the 1870s.

At the centre of this movement was a farm worker called Joseph Arch, from Barford. Rural workers were desperate for a wage rise and they approached Arch to lead them in this fight. Then a strike of 200 farm workers began in Wellesbourne. The farmers retaliated. Families of strikers were evicted from their tied cottages. There was a decision to sack all strikers and no union men were to be given jobs.

On Good Friday March 29th 1872, farm workers defiantly held a demonstration in Leamington. Led by a drum and fife band, they sang:

"Then up, be doing, brave-hearted men,
Stand shoulder to shoulder again and again
Then ask for your rights and you'll have them when
Each man has joined the Union.
We won't be idle, we won't stand still,
We're willing to work, to plough and to till
But if we don't get a rise we'll strike, we will,
For all have joined the Union."

A Warwickshire Agricultural Union was formed with the aim "to elevate the social position of the farm labourers of the county by assisting them to increase their wages; to lessen the number of ordinary working hours; to improve their habitations; to provide them with gardens and allotments; and to assist deserving and suitable labourers to migrate and emigrate."

Joseph Arch became secretary. By April that year, most of the original Wellesbourne strikers had been found jobs elsewhere. But the landowners and farmers were determined to crush the union and began a lock-out of union men and eviction of their families. However money flowed into the union's strike fund from the town workers. After three months the farmers' resistance broke down and they agreed to negotiate with the union. As a result a substantial wage increase followed and what is more, the news spread and all over the English countryside, unions were founded. Eventually, after a conference in Leamington a national union was formed: 71,835 labourers enrolled in 982 branches and they now had their own journal, The Labourers' Union Chronicle, whose aims were to agitate for the franchise for farm workers and the nationalisation of the land.

In the later 1870s strikes broke out up and down the country for higher wages. By that time farm workers were already organised in two national unions. But conditions were so bad that one of the main activities of these unions was to help its members to emigrate - and in the ten years between 1871 and 1881, it is estimated that 200,000 men, women and children did so.

This meant a loss to the union and a loss to the countryside and villages. After a bitter dispute and lockout of 6,000 workers in Suffolk and Essex, the unions suffered some further setbacks - but now they had been established and they survived. What is more, farm workers won the vote in 1884, and they sent Arch to parliament on the Lib-Lab ticket.

By the end of the 19th century, strikes again broke out - eventually leading to a settlement with the farmers who cut the hours of work to nine hours. As a result, the union movement revived. In 1906 under the leadership of George Edwards (who later became a Labour MP for Norwich) the local eastern counties union became the focus for the relaunching of the national union, and became known as the National Agricultural and Rural Workers' Union.

The impact of war

World War I stopped the forward march of farm workers, not least because almost half a million of them joined up to go to the trenches. But the consequent shortage of labour during the war allowed the union to press for a minimum wage of 25s and indeed, later, a Wages Board was formed in every county to enforce a minimum 25s wage for farm workers. This was the forerunner of the Agricultural Wages Board which still today fixes wages for farm workers.

Unionisation after the war went from strength to strength so that by 1919 NALRWU had 170,000 members, while an additional 100,000 were organised in the Workers' Union.

But once farmers lost the wartime guarantee on prices in 1921, they also scrapped their workers' guaranteed wage. As thousands of acres of tillage went, so did farm workers' jobs. Union membership fell once again - this time drastically, to around 37,000 members by 1923.

Norfolk farm workers were not prepared to accept the wage cut. In 1922, a strike began and 2,000 workers were locked out. The strike grew to involve 10,000 men. They organised a mobile picket system against strike breakers and gained the help of the town trade unionists whose wages had also been cut. A strike fund was built while police were brought into Norfolk in their hundreds and summonses taken out against leaders of the strike. The strikers' determination eventually forced the landowners to back down. However, although a victory, it was a bitter one, because many strikers were victimised and never got work again in Norfolk.

The short-lived Labour government in 1924 passed legislation which benefited farm workers - establishing a central Wages Board and re-establishing County Wages Committees. The Central board was made up of an equal number of farm workers and farmers as well as appointed representatives. The boards raised the minimum rate everywhere and regularised working hours. And for the first time farm workers won the right to public holidays with pay. But the Tory government which followed did away with these gains.

When Labour won the election in 1929, farm workers hopes rose again. But this time the world economic crisis intervened. Vast quantities of foodstuffs choked the markets, while millions went hungry. Farm workers were not entitled to unemployment insurance. Falling prices for farm produce caused farmers to cut wages and lengthen hours in 30 counties. The union however increased its membership and fought for and succeeded in getting unemployment insurance extended to farm workers. They also got seven days holidays paid, though some farmers included public holidays in this and it wasn't until 1947 that this practice was abolished and proper wages boards were reinstated.

The wartime years meant expansion of agriculture under government control. These were the so-called "Dig for Victory" years. After the war, the minimum wage had risen, an overtime rate was paid, and hours regularised to 48 hr/week winter and summer in every county. Union membership rose steadily till in 1947 it was 162,533.

The post-war years

Since the war, and unlike other sections of waged workers, farm labourers managed to retain the fixing of their wages by their own wages council in the form of the statutory Agricultural Wages Board - and even after the onslaught against such bodies by Thatcher.

But the degree of exploitation they were subjected to throughout this period can be illustrated by just one example: they had to wait until 1976-7 for that iniquitous feudal remnant known as the "tied cottage" to be abolished.

Today, there are an estimated 170,000 workers who are employed directly on farms, in horticulture and forestry. The labour force employed in agriculture fell considerably between 1975 and 1997 - when the last statistics were published. In fact for the whole of the European Union this was a drop of 40%!

This fall was linked to a change in the structure of farming - which we will discuss later. In the UK alone, the number of people employed all year round fell from 544,000 in 1975 to 397,000 in 1997. The number of those employed seasonally or irregularly fell from 233,000 to 197,000 in 1997. The decrease in the numbers employed overall in British farming was around 27% over these two decades alone.

Of course part of the reason for this fall is the fact that many processes previously carried out on farms and indeed new processes connected with the development of farming are now done by outside contractors. In other words what has happened in farming is not unlike what has happened in industries such as the car industry, where the use of subcontractors has reduced the directly employed workforce considerably and of course had the effect of pushing wages downward. And subcontractors almost by definition make use largely of part-time, temporary and casual labour. In some of the harvesting, crop-picking, food processing and packing companies is has become commonplace to bring in immigrant labour to do this work - using agencies that arrange for workers from Eastern Europe and other countries to come in illegally. They are therefore able to subject these workers to the worst conditions and pay them the lowest wages.

However, even taking into account the hidden jobs in the allied industries and the casuals who are not counted, it is the case that in the last two years, as in other industries, jobs have been cut. Many farmers, being squeezed by agribusiness on the one side and falling incomes on the other, have "saved" money by getting rid of hired labour. By the government's own figures 51,000 jobs have been lost in farming over the past two years alone.

The early emergence of industrialised agriculture

The fact that agricultural employment has gone down the same way as in industry over the past period is not fortuitous. Just like manufacture, agriculture is dominated and shaped by capitalist interests. Farmers do not produce for the consumption of the local population but for a capitalist market, which is itself dominated by a handful of very big companies. And agricultural production itself is dominated by a relatively small number of large farming companies.

This concentration in farming is, of course, a reflection of the concentration of land ownership which, in fact, goes back a long way, to the days of the bourgeois revolution, when the feudal system of land tenure was replaced with the modern system of private land ownership. And the political context of this revolution played a decisive role in shaping the concentration of land ownership.

In 18th century France, for instance, the abolition of the feudal system was carried out against the background of a revolutionary mobilisation of the poor masses. Not only did the French revolution abolish all feudal titles, but, to a large extent, it also stripped the feudal lords of their rights over the land - and the poor peasantry often went on to implement these decisions by taking over the land themselves.

But in the English revolution of the previous century, there no such revolutionary element. The replacement of the feudal system was carried out in 1660, after the radical phase of the English Revolution was already over, by an alliance of the feudal landlords and the emerging capitalist class. Feudal titles over the land were indeed abolished, by an act of parliament, thereby freeing the land from the authority of the King. But instead of the feudal landlords being stripped of their land, they remained the exclusive owners in the modern sense of the term, while the status of the independent peasants, who had been the backbone of Cromwell's army, remained as insecure as before.

But once the post-revolutionary reaction had settled in with the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, the new landowners, together with a caste of merchants and lawyers with good government connections, went on a land-grabbing spree. The vast Crown Lands were appropriated, as well as many of the Church estates. These form the basis of the landed estates of the aristocracy, old and new, today. The capitalist merchants of the time viewed this whole operation with approval, when they did not join in themselves.

Indeed, this large scale theft went hand in hand with the brutal enclosure of common land and gave birth to the enormous estates which made capitalist farming, aimed at the national and European markets, possible. But the independent peasants were unable to resist such competition and those who tried were forced out. Within less than a century they were ruined, their land taken over by the large landowners and rented to tenant farmers or leaseholders. From then onward, all that remained in the countryside was the landowner class and a layer of dependent peasants, tied to the landowners by various forms of leases which imposed on them all kind of duties not dissimilar to those imposed on vassals in feudal times.

By 1875 one third of British land was in the hands of fewer than 1,000 persons. But by then the dominant section of the ruling class in Britain were the industrial magnates and the commercial traders. So when at the end of the 19th century, imports from the colonies began to flow freely into Britain - as the British Empire reached the height of its prosperity - many farmers just went out of business. The next fifty years, up until 1920, saw land under crops fall by 4m acres and half a million farm labourers left the land.

The importance of large landowners

To identify who exactly owns what in terms of landownership in Britain has always been a privilege denied to ordinary folk. The land register, which is voluntary, is only accessible within strict limits to the legal profession when conducting searches in connection with sales or transfers of deeds or titles. So assessing the size and ownership of agricultural land is difficult and the figures one has to rely on are bound to be inaccurate.

But what is evident is that a change in the type of land tenure took place this century - and that the pace of this increased in the post-war period, reaching a peak in the 1970s, especially in 1972 when an unprecedented boom in land prices caused a run on the market in agricultural land.

Of course to assess change one needs to be able to compare statistics. Unfortunately, the last time a survey was done was in 1872, initiated by the Earl of Derby who wished to counter the widely-held view that very few landed aristocrats owned the vast majority of the land. But this survey only served to prove that this was still the case: there were found to be one million landowners in all, but just 7,000 people owned four-fifths of the land and 20 peers owned more than 40,000 hectares each! And by 1900 land ownership was still very concentrated though 90% of the land was rented to tenant farmers with only 10% classifiable as "owner-occupied".

Today 66% of the land is classified as "owner-occupied". In other words it would seem that over 50% of the land has changed its occupancy. Indeed, compared with 1966, when 51% of the total agricultural land was occupied by tenants paying rent to a landlord, today's figure of 34% for tenant occupancy shows that one thing is certain - tenant farmers have been squeezed off the land.

But have the old class of hereditary landowners really lost 40% of the land they previously owned, and if so who has obtained it?

The theory goes that this land is now owned by a new layer of modern, scientific, "yeoman" farmers, which has developed since World War II and has changed the face of British farming. There is no doubt that the evolution of the farming industry from a labour intensive to a capital intensive industry accelerated under postwar state protectionism and that this was accompanied by a huge fall in the number of workers who toiled directly on the land, due largely to the introduction of technology and the turn once again to arable farming.

But the small percentage of the working population actually engaged in farming today - 2.3% - is supplemented by another 10% who work in the industries which supply farmers' production needs. Farmers are now customers, if not victims of the multi-million pound agrochemical industry as well as farm machinery manufacturers. And along with this change in the nature of farming, so too has the nature of farm ownership changed. The amount of capital required to employ expensive technology and the latest agrochemicals could not have been accessible to small farmers or tenant farmers. And just as capitalists in manufacturing have to increase the scale of production in order to maintain their rate of profit, so does capital in agriculture. So the trend is for farming capitalists to increase the size of their land by buying out their tenants and smaller farmers.

Thus, in 1975 the average farm size increased to 40 hectares. 25 years later it had increased to an average of 72.6 hectares, the largest in Europe. In the context of the EU, British farms are on average twice as large as Denmark and three times as large as the average of all European farms. In fact over the twenty years from 1978 to 1998, the size of the average farm increased by 150% for pig and potato farms, and by 40% for cereals and sugar beet.

Who owns these big farms today? The fact is that many of the largest properties are still owned by the remaining landed aristocracy - the Duke of Argyll owns 34,000 hectares; the Duke of Northumberland 33,300 hectares, The Duke of Devonshire 31,000 and so on. The Crown estates alone come to over 192,000 hectares of which 162,300 are farmed.

The biggest landowners in England and Wales belong to the Country Landowners Association (CLA) which today boasts 50,000 members, has about 350 landed aristocrats in its ranks and about 700 landed gentry who control the larger estates. Just 21 dukes own 400,000 hectares, and no more than 20 owners the next 400,000 hectares.

It is worth mentioning a few facts about the CLA and a parallel organisation, the National Farmers' Union (NFU). The CLA was founded in 1907, just a year after the refounding of the Agricultural Workers' union. This is no coincidence. The decline in farming incomes at the end of the 19th century not only put pressure on the rural workforce to fight against the severe deprivation they faced, but it also affected the landowners - who both feared workers' organisation and were determined to get parliament to implement some form of protection for them against cheap imports.

In fact the following year - 1908 - the National Farmers' Union was founded having been initiated four years previously by nine Lincolnshire farmers. No coincidence either, since at this time a rural workers' movement was developing in the eastern counties - a part of England that had seen the most bitter struggles of farm workers in the past.

The landowners, whether they themselves worked the land or not needed to organise themselves. Of course many of the CLA members are also NFU members. But despite the declarations to the contrary on the part of the CLA there remains a historic class division between these two organisations.

The CLA, from the moment of its formation - when half the members of the House of Lords and 100 MPs had joined it - has been able to pull strings for landowners from within government. Not only that but the membership also includes the Church Commissioners who still own vast lands, the Duchy of Lancaster and also County Councils, not to mention the new corporate landowners, Pension Funds and financial institutions. Behind the claim that it is devoted to improving the countryside, the CLA remains the organisation of large landowning interests against those who might threaten them - be they small farmers or workers.

The reality behind the relative increase of "owner occupiers"

Outside the old traditional landowning interests, the same economic forces which operate in industry play a decisive role in shaping farm ownership.

Finance capital, for instance, has become directly involved in the countryside. Indeed, when it became apparent in the early 1970s, that Britain's joining the EEC would inflate land value, major City institutions started investing in farmland. In the 8 years up to 1978, the City's direct control over farmland in fact increased from 50,000 acres to half a million acres. In most cases, contract farming companies were brought in to manage these new businesses. They were able to do this because the boom in land prices was an incentive for smaller less viable farmers to sell up.

This trend was reversed somewhat in the 1990s when farmers' profits rose and they were able to expand their farms. But the large institutions also expanded their interests. In 1991, Royal Life Insurance bought 22,500 acres in eastern England and also bought a contract farming company called British Field Products (BFP) from Guardian Royal Exchange for £34m! In 1995, it sold 19,500 acres of this land and its company, BFP to the investment group, Lands Improvement Holdings (LIH) for £55m. When LIH was listed on the stock market in 1996, it owned 27,000 acres of mostly tenanted farmland and its BFP subsidiary was farming 6,500 acres of its own land plus 8,500 aces of land owned by others. In other words it had subcontracted its land to tenants on new terms.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, sharing arrangements and contract farming have developed significantly. Under sharing arrangements, farmers and landowners agree to share risks, investment and profits, within certain limits. In contract farming, the landowner contracts out part or all of his land to a specialised company. As a result, farming companies which are technically not associated with any particular farm land in any register, run dozens of farms on behalf of so-called owner-occupiers who do no actual farming themselves. But they of course still appear as the owner occupiers in official statistics. In other forms of contracting, the farmer himself can act as subcontractor to big companies. For instance, in 1999, 28% of all pig "finishing" was done by farmers who were subcontractors to large landowners or animal feed companies. Pig breeding stock suppliers such as the so-called Pig Improvement Company which is a "pig" multinational offers a similar arrangement to farmers, who are paid per head of pig reared.

In 1995, a City consultant predicted that by the year 2000, 80% of all agricultural production would be in the hands of just 12,000 decision makers, whether landowners or not. Today, contract farming is big business, and one of the biggest players is the Herefordshire based company, Velcourt, which farms 60,000 aces on behalf of owners. Another of the big players is CWS Farming, which is the farming and food processing division of the Co-op and manages 60,000 acres, owns 28,000 acres and employs 55,000 people. It has annual sales of £4bn.

JSR Farms, based in Yorkshire and dating back to 1957, manages 15,000 acres across England and Scotland, growing wheat for seed, milling and animal feed, barley, oilseed rape, and potatoes, both for seed and consumption. It produces peas for Birds-eye and others, like Sainsbury. As this company points out, "JSR managed farms are showing a healthy return on capital for their owners. This has been achieved in part through the cost savings derived from the economies of scale of working with a large agricultural business."

The role of finance firms

In the UK in 1975 there were 93,000 medium and large-sized farms. Seven years before the figure was the same - however, this disguised the fact that there had been an increase in large holdings by 5,000 and a decrease in medium-sized holdings by 5,000. The movement towards abolition of small farms and the enlargement at all levels of those remaining was a main feature of British farming for thirty years. This concentration slowed down somewhat after 1975, but it still goes on.

With the change to capital intensive farming, farmers became more and more indebted to banks and mortgage corporations. The price of agricultural land has stopped increasing and indeed in real terms has fallen to 1969 levels, around half of what it peaked at in 1973. But in 1986, the total burden of farming's debt to banks and mortgage institutions was £853m, having increased from £64m in 1970!

Long before that, in 1928, the government had legislated for the setting up of an Agricultural Mortgage Corporation to help provide long-term finance for farmers who where in very dire straits at the time, at low interest. The Bank of England and most of the major clearing banks held the shares in the corporation but it was under state control. However this legislation was quietly repealed by the Tory government in 1991 "to meet the demands of a changing marketplace". Lloyds Bank bought out the other shareholders in 1993, and now as it boasts, it operates in the market place on "commercial terms". But of course there were long term borrowers who went with the sale. And certainly their interest rates are no longer protected.

Indeed, the crisis in British farming today is serious for those farmers who actually are real "owner occupiers" and farm their own land. In today's conditions they are a bit like the corner shop, squeezed out by the supermarket opening up nearby. The NFU claims that farming incomes have dropped by 72% since 1995. Of course, even the poorest farmers are not in the same situation as the urban homeless, for instance. They have a house, land, and maybe even expensive machinery. But on the other hand, their only capital is their land and they cannot use this asset unless they give up their livelihoods, sell up and leave farming altogether. But even then, they have usually mortgaged themselves to the hilt and would gain little after this debt was settled after selling their land. So they are caught in a catch-22.

The irresistible attraction of state subsidies

Contrary to a common illusion, the process of economic concentration in farming was not (and is not) softened by the wide range of government subsidies which were granted to farmers for many decades. Indeed, the subsidy system was consciously designed to assist and even accelerate the process of concentration. Of course this was not the official justification given for the subsidies. In rural heartlands like Winchester ministers claimed their aim was to help the so-called "rural community", thereby making out that subsidies benefited farm workers and smaller farmers as much as they did the shareholders of the industrial farms. In Islington, on the other hand, the same ministers claimed their aim was to help consumers. But both claims were pure hypocrisy.

As in every other sphere, state intervention in agriculture was not designed with the interests of the majority in mind. Its aim was primarily to boost capitalist profit. And what the big City firms and agribusiness companies wanted to see in the countryside was more giant capital-intensive industrial farms. Whether this meant that thousands of small and medium-size farmers would be squeezed out of business, together with those they employed, was none of their concern. Nor was the way in which consumers' health might be affected by the methods used in these agricultural factories. Such things do not show on companies' balance sheets!.

And indeed the subsidy system caught the small and medium-size farmers in a trap. It led them to adopt farming methods and specified production which made them not less but more dependent on subsidies. The only way to get more subsidies was to produce and invest more. The only way to produce and invest more was to turn to high-yield crops and resort to larger bank loans. But the higher the yield the more bitter the competition from the industrial farms which concentrate on the same products. And the larger the loans the more farmers had to pay back to the banks. Thus began a vicious circle which ended up in bankruptcy for tens of thousands.

Not that these farmers took it lying down and they were right to resist. But militant or not, the farmers' resistance was above all constrained by their social outlook. Because in this society the farming system is based on the private ownership of the land, the solidarity between farmers was always undermined by their ambition to develop their individual farms, if necessary at the expense of their neighbours. And the same social short-sightedness limited their ability to seek allies among the other layers of the population which are at the receiving end of capitalist greed, that is mainly the working class.

In fact, their property-based individualism has made farmers easy prey for big business and for their trustees in government. While each crisis in agriculture was met by some form of militant response on the part of the section of farmers threatened with bankruptcy, they were never able to achieve the momentum necessary to force big business to foot its share of the bill. Nor in most cases, did they even dream of achieving this. In the end, their resistance fizzled out and was easily bought off with some new form of subsidy which only made them more vulnerable to the next crisis.

The BSE epidemic provided a graphic example of these limitations. The drastic culling measures were a terrible blow for many cattle farmers, who felt punished for no wrong-doing on their part. But what was their reaction? They did not blame politicians for their lies and cover-ups, but only for the "intolerable" cost of their belated decision to impose tighter controls on herds and abattoirs. Nor did the farmers' associations turn against the three big companies- BOCM, Dalgety and ABN - which, due to their virtual monopoly of the animal feed market, were largely responsible for the epidemic. Instead they turned to the government for "compensation", i.e. more subsidies from public funds. As a result, while the smaller producers were pushed out of business, being incapable of finding other sources of income fast enough, the real culprits for the spread of BSE got away with it scot free.

Today, of course, the use of state food subsidies has gone out of favour with Labour and Tory politicians alike, who claim that farmers should be competitive enough to face the world market without the help of the state. So when farmers demand more subsidies to make up for the collapse of market prices, they are accused of being "greedy", and of indulging in a "culture of dependency". And to add a measure of good old British nationalism, the CAP, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which has been the framework for farming subsidies in Britain for nearly 30 years, is identified as the real culprit. Yet who made agriculture dependent on the state in the first place, if not the British governments which introduced and maintained the subsidy system, not when the CAP was first launched, in the 1970s, but in fact four decades earlier, in the 1930s!

The 1930s - the state's bailing out of capital

State subsidies were introduced into British law by the 1931 Marketing Act, just before the Great Depression reached its highest point. And for the following 70 years or so, the main principles remained almost unchanged regardless of the party in office, both before and after the introduction of the European CAP.

The 1931 Act set up an agricultural administration which was to be managed in close cooperation with both the Country Landowners' Association and the National Union of Farmers. Its official aim was to keep farmers on the land, by protecting them against the threat of bankruptcy due to the drastic drop of agricultural prices caused by the Depression. In the longer term, the purpose of this administration was to keep food production at a high enough level by combining price regulation with protectionist measures against imports. The mechanism to achieve this was to top up the prices paid for farmers' produce by capitalist buyers and by rationalising the collection of their produce from their farms.

On the face of it, this Act seemed quite progressive, in that by guaranteeing farmers a minimal price for their products, it appeared to be providing them with a more stable income and therefore a degree of independence from the ups and downs of the market. However it should be recalled that this Act was introduced by Ramsay McDonald, the same Labour prime minister who, within a few months, was to join ranks with the Tories and a minority of the Labour party to form the so-called National government, in order to cut unemployment relief. The fate of the little guy was the least of McDonald's concerns. His objective, if anything, was to bail out the landowning capitalists by getting the working population and the unemployed to foot the bill.

Not surprisingly, therefore, this system of subsidised prices came too late for small farmers. In the ten years up to 1940, over 30,000 farms under 50 acres disappeared. Meanwhile, however, total farmland acreage remained more or less the same with a sharp increase in the surface occupied by the big industrial farms.

The big landowners were not the only ones to benefit from the subsidy scheme, however. So did the food companies and wholesalers, thanks to the various marketing boards and similar bodies which were set up at the same time for a number of products such as milk, potatoes, hops, sugar beet, etc..

At the time, these institutions were presented both by ministers and farmers' organisations as a major advance for small farmers. But the reality was rather different. Even today, in its official literature, the National Farmers' Union still describes the Milk Marketing Board which was set up at the time as representing "the right of milk producers to control the marketing of their own supplies". Such enthusiasm is understandable as the Milk Board did provide the NFU with a certain status and a number of comfortable jobs which it had never enjoyed before. But as to upholding the interests of the majority of small milk producers, this was quite another thing. The small farmers had a statutory obligation to sell their milk to the Board at the price set by the government and it was the government who had the final say in the price negotiations between the Board and the big dairy companies. So that the Board was merely an instrument to keep farm gate prices steady, maybe, but at a low level, while guaranteeing cheap and regular supplies to dairy companies.

The other marketing bodies created at the time followed the same pattern. The example of the British Sugar Corporation, which acted as a monopoly buyer for all sugar beet in Britain shows this graphically. The original reason for the setting up of the BSC was the dire state of the 18 existing sugar-beet processing factories. These factories, which were privately-owned, had all been built with the financial help of the state in the decade following World War I. But their owners had been wearing them out without reinvesting any profits for maintenance. So, in 1936, to avoid the closure of these factories and the likely end of sugar-beet production in Britain, the Baldwin government set up the BSC as an umbrella state-controlled company in which the sugar-beet capitalists were offered a share. Not only were state funds used to refurbish their derelict factories, but the BSC became, by law, the only legal buyer of sugar beet in Britain, thereby turning beet farmers into tied subcontractors of the Corporation. And those who rebelled against the diktats of BSC were simply pushed out of business.

The explosion of intensive farming

Wartime provisions brought major changes in British farming. As soon as it became clear that imports could no longer be counted upon due to Hitler's blockade, the Food Administration set up under the Ministry of Agriculture took over. The embryonic machinery already set up in the 1930s was turned into a major bureaucracy in which the NFU and the CLA played key roles. Farmers were paid to increase output in the areas required by war conditions. But, of course, since the aim was to increase production, these subsidies were proportional to the amount produced. Once again, the big farms made enormous profits while the small farms struggled to meet the production targets that were set for them.

But in addition, this policy had two other immediate consequences. On the one hand, mixed farms, which had been in the majority before the war, were reduced to a minority by 1945, meaning that farming as a whole became specialised and therefore utterly dependent on the fluctuations of market prices. On the other hand, the process of concentration which had began in the 1930s was accelerated with the number of farms classified as very large (280 hectares and more) increasing by 25%.

But far from ending a policy which was already threatening tens of thousands of farmers with catastrophe, the 1947 Act adopted by Attlee's Labour government was merely a peacetime translation of the previous wartime policies. Its official aim was to promote "by the provision of guaranteed prices and assured markets... a stable and efficient agricultural industry capable of producing such parts of the nation's food and other agricultural products as in the national interest it is desirable to produce in the UK, and of producing it at minimum prices consistent with proper remuneration and living conditions for farmers and workers in agriculture and an adequate return on capital invested in the industry." Once again the emphasis was on increased production, regardless of the social cost, this time in the name of ensuring Britain's food self-sufficiency - a convenient cover for the City's wishes to reduce the country's current account deficit and boost the profile of the pound on the world market. But the emphasis on capitalist agriculture was just as clear.

So farm gate prices were once again subsidised and the British market was duly protected from foreign competition. Once again, subsidies were worked out on the basis of acreage and tonnage, thereby favouring the larger farms and encouraging further the on-going process of concentration and specialisation. In addition new kinds of subsidies were introduced - for ploughing up grassland, for developing field drainage but also for using the newly-developed artificial fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers produced by ICI.

Replying to the critics of their agricultural reform, Attlee's ministers boasted of having introduced the first "democratic" organisation in agriculture. Indeed the appointed committees which ran the wartime administration had been replaced with partly elected ones - in each county, 2 elected representatives for the landowners, 3 for the farmers and 2 for the agricultural workers, sat with government officials. But the role of these committees was not to represent the interests of those who elected them. It was to enforce the productivity and production targets set by the administration - even to the extent that, in theory at least, these committees could order the evictions of farmers who refused to toe the line (however, in fact, there were very few such expulsions).

Significantly Labour's postwar policy was never really put into question by subsequent Tory governments, at least not until Britain joined the EEC in the mid-1970s. Until then there was cross-party agreement that this policy which suited so well the interests of agricultural capitalists was the best choice. As to the small farmers, who could not find the capital necessary to really benefit from these subsidies, they were left high and dry.

Extended protectionism in Europe

Britain's final entry into the European Economic Community did not change the official policy in the countryside very much. The first objective for setting up the EEC had been to free its internal market from the straitjacket of its ancient national boundaries while protecting it from foreign competitors. And the means to achieve this extended protectionism was the Common Agricultural Policy or CAP, launched in 1962, whose aim was both to stabilise agricultural prices across Europe and to boost agricultural production by means of incentives for higher productivity. So, to that extent, and despite all subsequent claims by British politicians, switching from the postwar subsidy system to CAP was not that much of a change. All the more so because British governments were able to blackmail their European partners into accepting all kinds of exceptions and dispensations to suit their needs. Besides, one should remember that while each member country receives an agreed share of European subsidies, it is ultimately up to each government to decide how these subsidies are to be used in their own countries. There was (and there still is) no European body invested with the authority to monitor the use or misuse of European subsidies by member states.

Ultimately, however, the aim of the European countries was to help their capitalists, in agriculture as well as in industry, to build up the muscle they needed to sell their products on the world market outside Europe, particularly against the strong competition of the giant American farms. To that extent the CAP's alleged aim of ensuring Europe's self-sufficiency and a constant flow of cheap food for the benefit of the consumer was deliberately misleading. In fact, long after Europe's self-sufficiency had been achieved, the subsidy system was kept with the same emphasis on increased production.

Splashing out on subsidies for European agriculture did not make it more competitive, however. The famous "food mountains" which started to pile up from the 1970s onwards merely reflected the combination of the CAP's productivity targets, duly endorsed by successive British governments, and the inability of European producers to sell their goods on the world market despite the huge export subsidies they were awarded to undercut their competitors.

The result was a huge increase of the cost of the CAP, which threatened to destabilise the financial balance of the EEC. In the early 1980s, European governments reacted to this situation by changing tack: instead of subsidising farmers against shrinking prices caused by overproduction, they sought to increase prices artificially by imposing cuts in production of certain goods, like milk and dairy products in particular. Production quotas were introduced, based on the volume of each country's production during 1981. British dairy farmers were allocated quotas which added up to 80% of national consumption and these quotas were enforced proportionally on each producer, large or small. This soon turned into a catastrophe for small producers who got increasingly into debt.

A mad system

However it was not Brussels but Thatcher's British government who added a particularly vicious twist to the quota system: a so-called "quota market" which allowed a farm to buy, sell or rent milk quota. This quota market immediately generated considerable interest both among the big farming companies which had capital to play with, but also among land agents and City firms. The price of milk quota rocketed and soon small producers, who were threatened with repossession by the banks, began to sell their right to produce milk - which postponed the date of their bankruptcy, but made it even more inevitable. Meanwhile the very big farms were able to rent quota while shifting their activity to other production.

Ten years later, in 1992, the trend towards the phasing out of subsidised prices gathered momentum as in each European country, the capitalist classes were increasingly seeking ways of using public funds for their sole benefit. Subsidised prices were partly replaced with direct payments to farmers, while the set aside policy was introduced: from now on farmers would be compelled to set aside part of their land, and they would be compensated if they were willing to set aside even more than the minimum required.

Obviously the main beneficiaries of this policy were, once again, the larger farm companies. In fact that very same year, the then Tory agriculture minister, John Gummer, boasted of having "defeated" single-handedly a proposal to reschedule CAP payments so that small farmers would have a larger share. Gummer's logic, as he cynically explained, was that this would have "discriminated against Britain" because of its large-farm structure!

In any case, the British government ensured that the capitalist farmers would get the lion's share. Two years later, in 1994, it was estimated that 97% of the £5.6bn spent on farm subsidies went to the 55% largest farms. As to set aside payments made during that same year, 11,000 farms (or less than 10%) received at least £30,000. Among them nearly half got over £50,000, a dozen got nearly a million pounds and four over £5m - all that for doing nothing! Meanwhile small farms went on disappearing, literally digested by the rollercoaster of the subsidy system.

After the systematic destruction of Europe's food mountains during the previous decades, at a time when large parts of the Third World were on the brink of starvation, the set aside policy of the 1990s exposed yet again the reactionary logic and exorbitant social cost of capitalist profit. But this reactionary logic does not stop there.

Thus in April last year, Blair held a "summit" at Downing Street with the farmers' and landowners' organisations. What came out of this meeting was a government plan aimed at boosting farming concentration even further, because, in the words of Agriculture minister Nick Brown, "farm business has to be more market focused". But the real implications of this were spelled out in a paper published by his own ministry which predicted the loss of 100,000 jobs in farming within the next five years - a prediction that Nick Brown dismissed by claiming hypocritically that jobs created by riding schools and golf courses would more than make up for the job losses in farming! Obviously, this government's objective is above all to ensure "an adequate return on the capital invested in the industry" to use Attlee's 1947 language - proof that contrary to a common illusion, there is definitely not all that much difference between "old" and "new" Labour when it comes to defending the interests of capital.

Milking the countryside

Small and medium sized farmers are not only easy prey for the farming companies who sell to them and their trustees in government. They are also exploited - and again with the benevolent help of the same ministers - by the big monopolies who buy from them.

Milk is a case in point. In the early years of the Thatcher government, in 1981, the old Milk Marketing Board was forced to split up into two independent divisions. The Board itself remain as the statutory collector of milk at farm gates, while its milk processing facilities (set up in the past to process surplus milk) formed a new private limited company called Dairy Crest. Eventually milk was deregulated completely in 1994. Two years later Dairy Crest was floated on the stock market, before becoming, by last year, Britain's largest dairy company after taking over Unigate's dairy division.

In the meantime, a voluntary dairy cooperative had been formed to replace the defunct Milk Marketing Board under the name of Milk Marque. At its launch, in November 1994, Milk Marque included over 60% of all milk producers, representing 45% of all milk production - meaning that the biggest farms remained outside the cooperative. But almost immediately it came under fire from the four main dairy companies: Dairy Crest, Express Dairies, the Irish group Avonmore Waterford and the Danish company MD Foods. The four, who form a de facto monopoly on the dairy market, actually had the nerve to denounce what they called Milk Marque's "monopoly position".

That the dairy companies form a monopoly which exploits both consumers and farmers is hardly questionable. The figures speak for themselves: between 1995 and 1998, the farm gate price of milk fell by 22%, but consumers' prices increased by 2%. Shops and supermarkets certainly took their own cut from this super-profit, but the real beneficiaries, thanks to of their position, were these dairy companies.

And yet it was in January 1998 that the Office of Fair Trading, inevitably with the explicit or tacit agreement of Blair's government, decided eventually to bring in the Monopoly Commission - not against the monopoly of the dairy companies but against the alleged monopoly of Milk Marque. One can only wonder whether this decision might have had anything to do with the "special relationship" between Blair and Christopher Haskins, the chairman of Northern Foods, a company which is closely associated with Express Dairies.

In any case, after 18 months of inquiry, the Monopoly Commission found against Milk Marquee and ordered it to break up its operation. Since then the cooperative has split into three independent regional bodies in return for being allowed to develop profit-making milk processing facilities. The new companies can hardly be described as cooperatives any more. In any case the interests of the smaller farmers will certainly carry very little weight against the aspirations of the new companies' managers to become main players in the dairy business. Hence a sort of privatisation by stealth of the old Milk Marketing Board has now been completed.

Much the same can be said of British Sugar, the old British Sugar Corporation which was finally privatised in 1981 and eventually taken over by Associated British Foods. Today it is universally known in Britain due to its Silver Spoon brand. But what is less known is that it has retained its total monopoly of the sugar-beet market. The only difference is that today, those who are turning the screw on producers are private shareholders rather than government-appointed officials.

Subsidised poisoning

Since World War II, using chemicals of all kinds is part of the daily routine of most farmers. And the reason for this is not necessarily because it is useful for the quality of their products, but because it is the only way to increase production to a level where subsidies can pay.

In fact, the use of artificial herbicides, fertilisers, etc.. has been heavily subsidised by the state - and in Britain more than anywhere else in Europe. Major companies like ICI, Shell, Zeneca, etc.. built fortunes thanks to the state-sponsored market which was thus offered to them. The extent of the profits this market represents can be gauged by the fact that between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s the use of nitrogen fertilisers increased by 380% and the size of the land concerned doubled, to reach 85% of arable land today.

Leaving aside the huge environmental cost of these products - which still remains to be measured accurately as their effects may only start to be felt long after they have been used - the intensive use of chemicals in agriculture also had a social cost. Indeed it was one of the factors which turned farming into a capital intensive activity. And this not just because of the cost of the chemicals themselves although it is far from negligible: in 1996 it was estimated that the cost of the fertilisers and pesticides required for one hectare of wheat was almost the equivalent of the £270 subsidy paid for the same hectare under CAP. But in addition, using all these chemicals - some of which are very dangerous when kept in large quantities - requires special equipment, buildings for storage, etc.. which represents just that much more investment - which many small farmers could not afford to make.

All these products are dominated by a handful of very large companies. Fertilisers are dominated by ICI and Hoechst-Aventis; seed production is the realm of Shell, ICI and Ciba-Geigy; weedkillers are controlled by ICI and Zeneca; pesticides by DuPont and Rhone-Poulenc-Aventis; animal feed by BOCM Pauls, Dalgety and Associated British Nutrition. These are the major companies which have built their success on playing with public health across Europe, thanks to public subsidies.

No harking back to past illusions

Many among the militant farmers' groups which claim to fight for the interests of small farmers, demand a return to some sort of glorious past in which British farmers "ruled" the British countryside. And to drive home their point of view, they insist on waving the very symbol of their own demise - the Union Jack - every time they protest.

But as history shows, British farmers never "ruled" the British countryside, in any case not the small farmers whose discontent these groups claim to express, and least of all in periods when protectionist measures of the "buy British" kind were in force. In fact when protectionist barriers are raised in the name of British interests, it is usually because the British capitalist class needs to be able to increase its plunder of the national market. And in such circumstances the capitalists are even less likely to make any allowances whatsoever to small farmers, whatever their plight.

It may well appear to small farmers that foreign competition is the cause for the fall of prices on the British market. But they should think twice. Who dictates these prices? Is it French or German producers, or is it the Sainsburys and the Tescos of this world? And who benefits from these low prices? The French and German producers who have to face more or less the same degradation in their incomes, or Tesco's and Sainsbury's shareholders?

What plagues the countryside, as much as the towns, is the invasion of capitalist profit and its ruthless exploitation of any opportunity to increase itself, regardless of the social cost. It is the banks, the competition of the finance-driven capitalist farms, the greed of the large landowners and the diktats of the retail and industrial giants which have to show a 20% return on capital on their balance sheets, which drive farmers to the wall. To that extent, the capitalist system has - objectively at least, finally united the towns and the countryside under the same yoke of exploitation. And those who are at the receiving end of this exploitation must be lucid enough to forget their prejudices and their illusions so as to identify both their potential allies and their real enemies.

Ultimately the countryside suffers from the old disease of capitalism - the private ownership of the means of production, and particularly of the land.

It is a very long time since the aim of nationalising the land had any currency in the British working class movement. This is due, in particular, to the many decades during which this slogan was retained as a mere token by the Labour Party, but never acted upon. Then Blair succeeded in dropping even the vague hint of nationalisation which had survived in the party's constitution.

And yet in the face of the destruction of the countryside and its human and material resources by capital, in the name of the private ownership of land, what choice is there for society but to take this most precious wealth out of the hands of the capitalist sharks? How else can the rational rebuilding of farming resources be achieved? Not on the basis of over-exploiting labour or over-pricing food as some advocates of organic farming propose, but on the basis of pooling together scientific knowledge, technology and natural resources, according to a rational plan aimed at saving human labour while meeting the real needs that exist. Only the nationalisation of the land under the collective control of the working population could achieve this.

It will be the task of the working class of this country to revive this fundamental aim.