RSA Journal: the future of rural work

By Professor Tom MacMillan

28th March 2019

When debating how to tackle employment challenges and skills shortages, the focus tends to be on urban centres, but the experience of rural economies can teach us a lot.

Urbanisation is so central to our idea of progress that it is hard to think of the countryside ever setting a trend.

Everywhere, from broadband to fashion, it feels inevitable that cities thrust ahead, leaving the provinces to lag behind. Yet, when it comes to employment, the reverse might be closer to the truth. Some trends that are only now gripping cities — such as the growth of the ‘gig’ economy and small businesses, and the rise of automation — have been happening in the countryside for decades.

As our working practices have shifted, trends previously seen mainly in the countryside are now making their way to the urban services sector. We might find more clues to solving the challenges they bring by talking to farmers than to futurologists.

The gig economy is at the frontline of debate about employment policy. Seasonal labour demands and the pressure on farms to diversify beyond food production have long made gigging the norm for many agricultural workers and business owners. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there are 466,000 workers in UK agriculture; of these, the House of Commons Library estimates 64,000–77,000 (14–17%) are seasonal, casual or gang workers.

Successive efforts to enforce standards for gang work have failed to win these workers a reliably fair deal, and illegal conditions remain a problem 15 years after the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. The drivers and riders of the new gig economy should take heed. Securing decent terms throughout the gig economy could be a long haul, and efforts to stamp out modern slavery in other parts of the economy will take more substantial and consistent resources than have been afforded to agriculture.

Employment across the whole economy, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), is growing almost 10 times faster in small businesses than in large ones. Again, the countryside is ahead of the curve. In England, according to Defra, 70% of rural workers are already in small or micro-enterprises, compared with 40% in urban areas. Their jobs range from start-ups to age-old farming partnerships.

That autonomy can come at a cost has long been clear in rural communities, particularly for farmers, who often work in extreme isolation. Research reveals that many city-dwellers who work for themselves or for small businesses also feel lonely and are at risk of burnout. The lesson from farming, which has evolved extensive support networks but has stubbornly high rates of suicide, is to take this seriously and act soon.

A rural perspective takes some shine off the new gig economy. It looks less like worker empowerment and more like the service sector adjusting to the lower margins and lower pay that primary production has had to cope with for decades. It is a similar story with automation, where developments in the use of AI have prompted head-scratching about the purpose of work.

What do we do when machines take our jobs? AI has fired up these debates not because the question is new — communities built on primary production have grappled with it for generations — but because the service sector, which until recently had provided an answer, is now affected.

The experience in farming suggests the real question may be different. The effect of mechanisation has not simply been to lower employment. In fact, even as the sector has shed people and labour productivity has risen, it has struggled with an ever-growing recruitment problem: how to attract people into demanding, low-paid jobs in a low-margin sector. That is where the casualisation of farm labour and farming’s gig economy have kicked in, with farmers juggling other jobs to pay the bills.

Gig work in farming has not been employment of choice: ONS data shows that, of the sixth of workers in the sector in seasonal or casual jobs, some 98% are from elsewhere in the EU.

The acute risk this dependence on migrant workers represents in the event of Brexit has put a rocket under long-running industry efforts to make working in farming more attractive and rewarding. The current focus is on professionalising the sector, formalising career paths and recognising agriculture as a STEM subject.

Beyond the core business of food production, an emerging ‘regenerative’ or ‘restoration’ economy is redefining productivity in land-based sectors.

Meaningful work

But taking the long view raises bigger questions, and suggests different solutions to the recruitment challenge in agriculture and beyond. Science writer and broadcaster Colin Tudge, for example, asks why losing jobs in agriculture is seen as progress, when more labour-intensive types and methods of farming can provide greater social and environmental benefits, whether comparing horticulture to arable cropping, or agroecology to monoculture.

To this thinking, a policy focus on driving labour productivity is misplaced, at least unless productivity is radically redefined. Research shows that young people want work that has a social or environmental purpose, and recent polling by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission bears this out. This suggests that farm businesses and other rural employers should put purpose front and centre.

According to a recent project by the Soil Association, engaging with the younger generations’ values will be vital for farms to become employers of choice. This could include more creative thinking about roles, for example combining desk work with activities outdoors.

The restoration economy

Beyond the core business of food production, an emerging ‘regenerative’ or ‘restoration’ economy is redefining productivity in land-based sectors. Financed by an increasingly explicit demand for ecological services, ranging from clean water to camping, this offers further scope to attract young people into primary production.

Farming reminds us that nature matters to the future of work. It is highly exposed to environmental change such as flooding, water shortages, volatile weather patterns and collapsing pollinator populations. These will reverberate across the global economy and should also be central to scenarios for work in cities.

The restoration economy illustrates a wider phenomenon described by Professor Tim Jackson, one of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commissioners. With increasing automation, the balance of human work shifts towards the parts machines find hard to reach, notably our growing need for care and repair. The implication is not only that cities can learn from farming and the countryside when it comes to employment, but that rural and urban sectors could team up to create good work: valued by the economy and by those doing it.

This could be year-to-year, with employers across sectors working together to balance seasonal needs, or it could be longer-term. For example, this could include gap year work schemes helping the restoration economy and giving young people the opportunity to develop varied skill sets.

A final lesson from farming is the power of the state to make or break opportunities for good work. For an industry that has never (in the UK) been nationalised, the structure, practices and current viability of farming are profoundly shaped by subsidy.

Government’s influence on employment in the sector goes far further than the reported hopes of the Department for Work and Pensions to get unemployed Brits picking strawberries. The bigger factor for most farms will be how Defra changes farm payments, from being based largely on farm size to paying for public benefits.

The mantra of ‘public money for public goods’ resounds through Defra’s current thinking, putting the emphasis on benefits that are ‘non-rival and non-excludable’, such as wildlife and clean rivers. This should help some aspects of the emerging restoration economy. Yet it risks ignoring the huge social and economic impact of changing payments, and misses the extent to which the viability of farming and the restoration economy depends on other connected sectors and public services.

As the Commission toured the UK, we heard story after story of poor access to schools, transport and other basics exacerbating recruitment problems or blighting rural lives. A more rounded goal for designing future payments would be ‘public value’, as defined by the Barber Review and accepted across government in 2017. Barber’s framework, reasserted by the Treasury in its latest spring statement, gives Defra a mandate to balance environmental public goods with social benefits, investing more strategically in building thriving, sustainable communities, including meaningful work.

With imagination and ambition from Defra, in collaboration with other colleagues across government, farming and rural communities could lead the way in designing the good work the country needs, as well as trailblazing the innovations that deal with many of the challenges it will face.

Professor Tom MacMillan is Director of Research at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, and the Elizabeth Creak Chair in Rural Policy and Strategy at the Royal Agricultural University.

Note: this report was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 1 2019