The agricultural economy is the corner stone of rural communities (see our ‘cultural well-being goal‘ summary for further information) and is important when looking to improve local and national sustainability in the context of climate change, and continuing to conserve the open countryside to ensure environmental security, food security, and access to open countryside for the enjoyment of all (see our ‘resilient well-being goal‘ summary for further information).
Farmers grow the raw ingredients that underpin the UK’s food supply chain, whether providing produce for the local organic market or big supermarkets. Their crops and livestock contribute to our local and national food security, as well as providing export goods. Locally sourced produce supplies many of our food producers and restaurants which are important to the wider economy. A thriving local food economy also helps support and promote healthy eating initiatives (see our ‘cultural well-being goal‘ summary for further information) . The links between farming and tourism are very strong. Many of our areas of outstanding natural beauty are maintained and managed by our farmers, and are in big part responsible for attracting millions of visitors to Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire each year.
Based on the latest data, produced for 2019, 13,800 people were employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing across North Wales, and over 4,600 people are directly employed in agriculture in our area – 2,400 in Conwy and 2,200 in Denbighshire. This accounted for 20% of people of working age within rural Conwy in 2017. Based on research in rural England, every job in farming creates another job in the local economy which could suggest the impact of farming on the rural economy is much higher. Agriculture, forestry and fishing make up over 16% of all VAT and PAYE registered businesses in both Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire, the biggest proportions (though not the highest number of employees) in both areas.
Whilst agricultural and food sectors experienced changes to their labour force in 2020, there was significant change in the agricultural sector in particular. Across Wales, the number of principal farmers fell by nearly 6% from 2019, but farm workers increased by nearly 18% from 2019. This is attributable to the sector employing more casual workers, which may be a consequence of the changes in working practices caused by the combined effect of Brexit and Covid-19. The sector has also faced significant disruptions in exporting meat and fish products since the end of the transition period. It is not clear whether these disruptions will continue indefinitely.
Farmers also manage over 75% of the total land in both Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire, with the average farmer spending two and a half weeks per year maintaining hedges and walls. Management of agricultural land, common land, forests, water courses and other landscapes by farmers and agricultural workers can contribute to environmental goals, and helps maintain the countryside as the lungs of the UK.
Environmental concerns have prompted huge changes in agricultural practices over the last thirty years – and more radical change is inevitable with the advent of new public goods subsidies. As a county, Denbighshire is determined to be in the vanguard of this green revolution. On Moel Famau, work has begun on transforming clear-felled conifer plantations into heathland as part of a major conservation grazing programme. Ultimately, around forty sites across north east Wales will be brought into sustainable management.
 UK business: activity, size and location, Office for National Statistics
Though overall numbers working in agriculture have fallen only slightly between 2003 and 2013 (from 4,655 to 4,624), the number of full-time principle farmers has dropped. This is balanced out by comparable level of increase in the number of casual agricultural labourers, suggesting a significant shift in the security of employment in the agricultural sector, and a probable change in the tenancy/ownership of agricultural land.
Succession planning remains a key issue for the sector. Traditionally farms and related employment in the sector would pass from parents to children, but in recent years, younger generations have tended to pursue different career choices. This is partly due to changing expectations, but also in response to the changing national economy, which makes farming less profitable than in previous generations. Family farms are no longer guaranteed to provide employment for all the farmer’s children, and even where work is available the income it provides is not sufficient to keep pace with current living costs (including housing). Financial pressures in the agricultural sector also mean many farmers are having to continue working until older ages, which further reduces the opportunities for younger farmers to enter the industry.
To meet the demand for food in 2050, it is estimated that global agricultural production will need to increase by 50 per cent from 2012 levels. While projected increases in food production may reduce global levels of hunger and malnutrition, growth in agricultural emissions, food waste, and obesity are also to be expected. The global food system is responsible for between 21 and 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Based on current methods of food production, processing, storage, transport, and packaging, these emissions are expected to increase to between 30 and 40 per cent by 2050 alongside the potential additional ecological degradation they currently entail.
Rural depopulation, particularly amongst people of working age is a concern (see out ‘outward migration‘ topic for further information), impacting on the viability of public and private sector services such as rural schools, public transport, village shops and community groups. In turn this can lead to reduced employment and social opportunities, which further fuels depopulation. However, it is possible rural depopulation will be less of a concern in the future as connectivity improves and more working-age people are able to work from home.
Young people are leaving the rural areas for education and employment, and are and not taking up farming jobs. This means that the rural population as a whole and especially the agricultural workforce is ageing.
The Wales Centre for Public Policy expects Brexit to have varying impacts on different aspects of the agricultural and food sector, which means its effects will be felt differently across different areas of Wales. For example, sheep production is likely to become less economically viable, due to changes in market access and public funding restrictions. Some researchers argue that land currently used for sheep farming in Wales will most likely be converted into forest. These changes will have consequences potentially for cultural well-being, as food related-events are increasingly connected to local food production.
The impact of Brexit on the area’s rural economy has the potential to be very significant. Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire’s agricultural sector used to receive tens of millions of pounds each year in direct payments as part of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, and rural areas benefited from various other EU funding programmes and initiatives. There are opportunities however.
New agricultural subsidies that replace the Common Agricultural Policy could enhance environmental well-being by prioritising sustainable land use and supporting cultural well-being by recognising the contribution of farmers to rural economies and communities. Environmental and cultural well-being could further be supported through programmes aiming to ‘build back better’ from the Covid-19 pandemic, including emphasising a ‘green recovery’ and building on the voluntary sector’s response to the pandemic to support community action.
The growing desire for natural, healthy food with a low carbon foot print will continue to grow as a trend over the longer term. These changes will have consequences potentially for cultural well-being, as food related-events are increasingly connected to local food production.
Ongoing business support for sectors with job creation potential and a competitive advantage to mitigate the impacts of Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic will be important in the medium-term. Support for inward investment should target these sectors, and there should be support for home-grown businesses to innovate and change their product market strategies.
There may be some long terms effects associated with Covid-19 recovery as some businesses will have used savings to keep their business afloat.
 Covid-19 and rural economies, Briefing note prepared by staff of the Centre for Rural Economy1 and Rural Enterprise UK2, Newcastle University, April, 2020. Jeremy Phillipson, Matthew Gorton, Roger Turner, Mark Shucksmith, Katie Aitken-McDermott, Francisco Areal, Paul Cowie, Carmen Hubbard, Sara Maioli, Ruth McAreavey, Diogo Souza Monteiro, Robert Newbery, Luca Panzone, Frances Rowe and Sally Shortall
People have told us that they value access to the natural environment, and appreciated clean and safe spaces. They have said they wold like to see more environmental action to protect and support nature and biodiversity, including the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Denbighshire.
People feel more help could be given to support communities to become involved in protecting and respecting the environment, and that we should take a cautious approach to building on green spaces if there are other alternatives.
People have also told us that they would like to see education, training and employability support for people of all economic activity levels, especially for young people; together with sustainable employment (not just seasonal work). They would like to see different types of private employers attracted to the area to increase jobs and support the economy. People recognised that tourism was of key importance to local employment and that it needed support to flourish all year round. Linked to this, people would like more done to encourage local shopping by offering affordable fresh locally grown food, which has clear linkages with the agricultural sector. Although not explicitly mentioned, people locally value the cultural links and opportunities associated with agriculture.
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