CLA Nostalgia: Farming in the 80s

A nostalgic look back to 80s farming and how the work the CLA did back then continues to impact our members through until today
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The 1980s kicked off with an air of confidence and pioneering spirit. In the years before, humanity had put man on the moon, invented fancy new kitchen appliances, such as the microwave oven and chunky-looking mobile phones, and society was continuing to embrace this innovative spirit.

Unable to relate to this period for my ‘gen z’ credentials, I am nonetheless intrigued by it because it was an era characterised by much social, economic and environmental change.

Therefore, when I discovered the 80-year-old archive of CLA journals and magazines in our London office recently, I was fascinated by what was happening at the CLA in the 80s.

Taking a focus on farming, an area I relate most to having grown up on a beef and sheep farm in Cumbria, I share a few discoveries and highlight how the work the CLA did then continues to have an impact on our work and our members to this very day.

Farming in the 80s

Much like society at the time, 1980s farming in the UK embraced change.

This decade saw the first true reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This came about after financial incentives for food production and investment led to a mass overproduction of food.

The 80s era also welcomed the infamous milk quota - a change that triggered the start of major restructuring in the dairy industry. Many farmers were forced to cut costs in order to maintain profit, with some farmers selling off whole quotas and exiting the dairy industry altogether.

Most interesting to me, though about this era is the growing concerns over environmental degradation, which followed a period of excessive production, chemical use, and heavy machinery use.

Evidently, articles such as ‘Treating the soil with respect’ became a more common feature across the CLA’s magazine as members’ concerns shifted towards how the modern farmer would need to mitigate the growing problems with the environment.

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Treating the soil with respect, CLA magazine 1983

Co-operating in the countryside

Another interesting theme that emerged in this era from the pages of the magazine was the increasing need to co-operate in the countryside.

In a 1984 speech, CLA land use committee member and president of the Westmorland branch Steele Addison, spoke of the vital role that the farmer and landowner were having to play in the prosperity and appearance of the countryside “more so now than ever”.

Such a task, he said, would require a balancing act between town and country, and an understanding of the fact that farmers and landowners were now the minority, albeit an important minority. Though the responsibility of caring for the land was to be with the farmer and landowner, “we as farmers need education” too. Steele encouraged farmers that they now must take the trouble to mix, meet and discuss with the ‘city dweller’, and hosted farm walks regularly on his farm in support of this viewpoint. “Co-operation is key, not confrontation”, Steele notes, nodding to the forward-thinking spirit of the 80s.

Looking back

If we agree upon a constructive and progressive policy we shall have nothing to fear in the future.

Lord Onslow, the CLA’s first chairman

Farming and landowning are both long-term occupations, not measured in months or years, but decades.

With the industry changing so rapidly now and with it, the uncertainties that farmers are facing, it is a welcome reminder to see the resilience of farmers throughout history and the ability that many have shown to adapt and endure up to today.

Along the way, the CLA has been a constant committed supporter and voice for the farming community, being both influential and forward-looking. As Lord Onslow, the CLA’s first chairman summarises fittingly, “If we agree upon a constructive and progressive policy we shall have nothing to fear in the future”. Such a philosophy no doubt remains a useful tool to take forward into the coming decades.

What are your memories of farming in the 80s?