Mixed Farming - The Pros and Cons

Not so long ago mixed farming was the norm. Most farms were small, family run affairs, much of whose produce was sold locally. This meant that farmers were also retailers and the profitability was such that a very good living could be made on relatively few acres. The family had a few dairy animals and raised beef crosses; they had sheep, pigs, chickens and some arable land. On the downside, the whole family also worked very long hours, but farming like this required few inputs; the family lived off the farm and the surplus provided cash. Before the rise of the supermarket it was also sustainable and, excluding the use of some very toxic chemicals, mostly eco-friendly.

Today the profit margin of food production is split between the producers and the supermarkets - with approximately 80% going to the supermarket. Leaving aside the morality issues, this means that farms are now bigger, more mechanised, more specialised and more indebted; they have to run faster just to stand still. The following quote shows that we in the UK are not alone.

'Farmers are just the hamsters in the wheel that powers the expanding agribusiness empire. And government's solution to the farm crisis is for the hamsters to run faster'

Darrin Qualman, National Farmers Union (Canada) [34]
Most farms that have intensified would find it difficult to go back. Big, conventional cereal farmers are now locked into the high input system, dependent on chemicals and synthetic fertilisers, because they have no livestock. Their fields are bigger, largely unfenced and their buildings are geared for machinery and grain storage. For most of them mixed farming is no longer an option and the long term downside is that they are mining the organic matter from the soil. Solutions to this problem need to be found one of which could be the use of digestates from the expanding number of anaerobic digestion plants.
Field Science is a partner in an AD research project aimed at augmenting digestate to produce a fully sustainable fertiliser high in organic matter and all nutrients. We see this as an avenue with great potential to reduce nitrate and phosphate run-off and atmospheric emissions, but the technology needs to be refined.
For the smaller farmer, one solution is to mix agriculture and horticulture to become specialist retailers, selling local, high quality produce to local customers from farm shops, markets and local co-operatives. Co-operatives have been very successful in France, where local food from a group of producers is sold in covered markets by full-time staff, releasing the farmer to concentrate on production. It is possible for small mixed farms to thrive with this business model.

Improved biodiversity and sustainability.
Increased rural employment prospects.
Reduced energy inputs and emissions.

Low wages, long hours and lack of affordable housing for workforce.
Price competition from discount retailers.
Poor economy of scale.