Grim toil as third of farmers earn less than minimum wage

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Almost a third of British farmers are earning less than the minimum wage, according to new figures from the Government which reveal the ongoing hardship of those trying to make a living from the land.

Statistics released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) yesterday suggest an estimated 31 per cent of farmers in the UK take returns from their business which work out at less than £6.08 per hour.

The true picture is likely to be markedly worse, as the statistics do not take full account of the fact most farmers work far longer hours than their urban counterparts.

Rachael Gillbanks, of the Yorkshire branch of the National Farmers’ Union, said the situation is slowly getting better but that life remains tough for many British farmers.

“While overall, the picture in terms of farm incomes has been an improving one, with Defra figures suggesting a 27 per cent increase across the board in 2011, these figures highlight the fact that for significant numbers of farmers making a living remains a real challenge,” she said.

“Increased costs of production are well documented, as are long-standing issues facing upland livestock and dairy farmers.

“The industry generally may be showing increased confidence for the future, but the fact remains there is still a long way to go to achieve fairer returns for many of Yorkshire’s family farms.”

Last year the Yorkshire Post revealed average pay levels in the region’s rural parts had fallen around 35 per cent behind high-earning urban areas. With house prices having soared across much of Yorkshire’s picturesque countryside, the problem has sparked fears of a new urban flight as young people move away from their rural communities to find better-paying jobs.

Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh is chairwoman of Parliament’s environment select committee, and has spoken extensively about the problems of low incomes for farmers.

“Things have certainly been quite hard for farmers both locally and nationally,” she said.

“They have lost a lot of people who used to come and help on the farm, and are working longer and longer to compensate.

“I don’t think people know how competitive the industry has become.

“As a committee we are actively looking at novel ways to boost farm incomes through bed and breakfasts, through payments for water storage, and looking at the Common Agricultural Policy.

“But we need to make sure they have a viable future for their most important work as well.”

The latest figures on low pay were released by Defra following a Parliamentary question by Stockton MP Alex Cunningham. They show low pay has been a problem for around a third of farmers for at least the past five years.

“It’s clear there are a number of people still working the land earning quite a meagre income,” Mr Cunningham said. “It is to their credit that they do not abandon their farms.

“What we need in this country is a proper supermarket regulator to ensure people are receiving fair prices at the farm gate.”

For many farmers, benefits are required to supplement incomes.

Sally Connor, York-based organiser of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, said her organisation spends much of its time trying to make low-earning farmers aware they are entitled to extra support.

“They are often very proud and don’t like to think of themselves of being able to benefit from benefits,” she said. “But it is money they need and that they are entitled to , and so it’s important they are able to access it.”