The Farm Labour Force

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Photograph Courtesy of The Rural History Centre, University of Reading


 Over the last 50 years on-farm  mechanization has increased resulting in a decrease in the employed farm labour force. This was caused, to a certain extent by increases in wage payments, but more positively by the need to reduce or eliminate the hard manual work and thus the replacement of farm workers by machines. 

5 am on the dairy farm (click on cow for video clip)

The employed agricultural labour force in the UK in 2009 was 526,200 persons representing 1.7% of the total labour force (DEFRA, 2007). This figure includes spouses of farmers who are engaged in farm work. Errington and Nolan (1998) claimed the agricultural labour force declined by 11% between 1984 and 1994 and that ‘the farm workforce was levelling out to a minimum required to operate farms efficiently and maintain a viable countryside’.

UK Agricultural Labour 1984 - 2009

Source: Defra (2011) 1AWU = 1 full time equivalent (225 days/year)

The chart above shows the decline of both labour input and the number of people employed agricultural workforce between 1984 and 2009.  The total labour force is estimated to have increased by 0.7% from 2008 to June 2009. It is clear that the number of people working on farms has been declining for a long period of time. However,  the decline in labour input has been higher over the same period illustrating a move from full-time working to part-time working within the industry. Whilst the number of full time workers has declined there has been a corresponding increase in the number of part-time workers from 21% of the total in 1984 to 43% twenty years later.   In 2004, the number of part-time workers exceeded full-time workers for the first time (excluding seasonal workers and salaried managers). The proportion of seasonal and casual workers has remained relatively stable over this period. 

Left: Hand sowing oats, Langdale Valley, Cumbria (this farm is now all grassland). Right: Victorian 'Gentleman Farmer'.

Photographs courtesy of the rural History Centre, University of Reading

The Age of the workforce

The age distribution of farmers had been fairly stable, with little change in the relative shares of different age groups, until 1997. Since then the proportion of farm holders aged 65 and over has risen, with over 28% of farmers aged 65 and over in 2007. The proportion of farmers under 35 has more than halved between 1990 and 2007 with only 2.8% of farm holders aged under 35. The average (median) age of farmers in the UK was 58 (Eurostat, 2005).

Source: EC Farm structure survey 2009; Eurostat.

The chart above from the EC Farm structure survey is the latest data to be collected regarding the age of UK farmers.

CLICK HERE for details of EC farm structure survey from Defra.

Pause for thought...................List 5 skills that you perceive would be required by a competent stockperson or tractor driver in the 21st Century?    

Agricultural wages

Individual pay rates are a matter of negotiation between employer and employees subject to the terms and conditions stipulated by the Agricultural Wages Board. Agricultural wages are underpinned by minimum levels set by the Agricultural Wages board. Agricultural wages usually fluctuate within a fairly narrow range of between 70 and 80% of average manual workers earnings. The apparent difference in agricultural workers and other manual workers earnings may be accentuated slightly because the value of ‘benefits in kind’ (housing, fuel, milk etc.) received by agricultural workers is not always fully reflected in the recorded earnings figures.  The average weekly hours worked for whole-time men in England and Wales has little changed since the 1960s.  CLICK HERE for details of agricultural wages and hours.

Average Weekly Hours and Wages

5-year period

Average Weekly Hours# Average Weekly Wage
1973-1977 46.7 £42.1
1983-1987 47.0 £134.3
1993-1997 47.2 £240.90
2003-2007 46.9 £338.82
2008-2010* 47.8 £383.38

* from Sep 2008 to March 2010    # including overtime                                                    Source: Defra (2010)


Pause for thought.......Try to explain why agricultural earnings are consistently about 20% lower than other industrial counterparts.

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