In brief, County Farms are farms owned by local authorities, which were set up originally at the end of the 19th century to provide a way into farming for cash-strapped young farmers during a long agricultural depression, and were sometimes rented out at below market rates. Along with other pieces of council farmland, County Farms remain a powerful lever for helping new people into farming and cover 200,000 acres in England alone.
However, as our joint research revealed, more than half the area of County Farms has been lost in the last 40 years, often as a result of budgetary pressures on councils, which has only increased with the last decade of austerity. At the same time though, some councils have decided to go against the grain and retain and invest in their County Farms, and there is much to learn from their approaches in how County Farms could be revitalised to serve a range of public needs.
As a team we reviewed official data on county farms, conducted a survey with council officers involved in administering County Farm estates, and interviewed some key council representatives. This culminated in the production and dissemination of a report which put forward some recommendations for developing a national approach to reviving one of the most powerful methods for helping to deliver a diverse, thriving and ecologically abundant farming system for the next generation.
This project was funded by Farming the Future, and we are now continuing this work through another project called ‘Reimagining County Farms’ with NEF and CPRE, through which we aim to co-create a holistic vision for the future of council farmland.