Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Allotments vs commercial farms

Contrasting those two is a good way of illustrating how taxes and subsidies affect the way that people combine the three factors of production: land, labour and capital.

Commercial farms

- Land is heavily subsidised (CAP payments, inheritance tax breaks etc).
- Capital is taxed (the tractor manufacturer pays tax on his profits and wages; farm buildings are liable to business rates) and  moderately subsidised (VAT refunds for new equipment and income tax deductions for capital allowances)
- Labour is heavily taxed (income tax and NIC)


- Land is heavily taxed i.e. the local council charges a vast multiple of what a farmer would be prepared to pay per fraction of an acre.
- Capital is more heavily taxed (VAT on new equipment and no income tax deductions)
- Labour is not taxed at all as allotment gardening for 'own use' counts as a hobby.

The results are immediately obvious if you just look at them.

Commercial farmers use a lot of land, a fair amount of capital (tractors etc) and as little labour as possible per unit of food produced. When did you last see somebody actually working in a field?

Allotment holders use as little land as possible, barely any capital (it's all bits and pieces held together with twine) and a lot of labour per unit of food produced. A lot of them maximise their growing area by building frames for climbing plants, cloches and so on.

(Some commercial farms tend more towards the allotment model, i.e. the farmers who grow things like mushrooms, tomatoes and strawberries in polytunnels or greenhouses, which have to be hand picked, but let's not get bogged down in that.)

Ergo, to maximise food production and employment (for a given land area), we should get rid of farm subsidies and collect taxes from land instead of from labour and capital. Again, I cheerfully admit that very few British people want to work on farms, that's a cultural shift that has taken place over the last century or so, but so what? If demand for farm labour increases and wages go up accordingly, who's to say the cultural shift can't be reversed slightly?
The other wrinkle here is that farm land is barely worth taxing as its value is so low compared to developed and urban land (perhaps 1%-2% of the total UK land value), plus it's difficult for a non-expert to value (unlike urban land).

But at least we could e.g. scrap the farmland subsidies and the VAT refunds and exempt farming wages and profits from income tax, corporation tax and national insurance (assuming that the current subsidies and taxes approximately net off, which I think they do, so that the food growing industry as a whole is not a net loser in the short term).

The only real argument for taxing agricultural land at a nominal amount (£20 per acre per year, let's say) is to discourage the use of very marginal land, which can then be re-wilded (The George Monbiot argument).


L fairfax said...

A lot of allotments (at least where I live) are on land prone to flooding which no one - unless we had a radical new housing model - would want to live on.

Mark Wadsworth said...

LF, is that relevant?

L fairfax said...

Well many farms could be built on but many allotments could not be.
It was more of an interesting (I hope) aside though)

Pablo said...

very few British people want to work on farms

Under present circumstances, probably, but with a less automatised, more natural approach as is exemplified here:
I think many more would eagerly return to the land.

Dinero said...

Runner Beans are a good use of land area. The plants have a large vertical area with a small footprint.

Mark Wadsworth said...

P, it's all very marginal, but if you're headed in the right direction, it doesn't matter how far you get.

Din, good example.

Bayard said...

Din, there is a limit to how many runner beans you can eat. I know, because my mother used to grow a lot of them.