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Rural Economy

Rural Economy - Introduction

Report Segment: Introduction

The rural economy encompasses a diverse range of industries whose common denominator is that they exist outside of cities and urban conurbations. In this report the term rural economy is used to describe businesses which have a reliance on the land, as opposed to businesses which simply locate in the countryside for other reasons. Land ‘dependent’ might be a useful descriptor, but this is usually used to refer to businesses whose activity is directly land based rather than those further down the supply chain. This report focuses on business activity ranging from growing food to processed product. Various definitions of self sufficiency have arisen over the last the last century and in an international market place with high demand for foods which can’t easily be grown here, a pure self-sufficient food economy is too simplistic to countenance, but it is sometimes acknowledged that Britain reached something approaching self sufficiency in the 1970s, although food imports have certainly increased since then and one might conclude that we are less self-sufficient now than 40 years ago (see Food Security and the UK: Defra 2006). However, self sufficiency is a misleading concept. In previous centuries the food that was consumed by a rural community was likely to have been grown in the same community. Now it is much more likely that rural communities purchase food from retail outlets which display foods originating from many different countries. So, a more important measure of sufficiency is probably food security, defined by DEFRA as “consumers having access at all times to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an active and healthy life at affordable prices.” (Ensuring the UK’s Food Security in a Changing World – DEFRA 2008) This broad sector study then, starts with the farm and ends with food being processed ready for retail or wholesale.

The farming sector is characterised by some very large businesses and many very small businesses. The number of people working in farming has declined over the last century, as mechanisation has taken over the work of farm labourers. Much farm equipment (e.g. Combine harvesters) is extremely complex and requires specific training (provided by the supplier); even tractor drivers now need specialist skills. So the farming sector is smaller but more highly skilled. However there is still a significant requirement for low level skilled labour which appears to be unattractive to the local labour market and so much of the work in the fields is undertaken by non-UK European workers. Staff turnover is relatively high but labour supply has been plentiful in recent years. The extent to which the recession will affect the movement of labour across Europe is not known but one can assume that people from less developed countries within the EU will continue to seek work in more developed countries whatever macro-economic conditions apply.