One of the most pronounced trends in British agriculture over the last several decades has been a decline in the number of farms and, even more pronounced, a decline in the number of people involved directly or indirectly in agriculture. In the UK, there are now about 200,000 farms and 500,000 people working wholly or partly in farming. The number of farms has declined by 17% over the last 25 years and the total labour force by 50%.
These trends do not imply a reduction in farm production but a continuation of a process that has been happening since the Second World War, when mechanization began to transform farm operations and also made it is necessary for farms to get bigger in order to utilize increasingly more sophisticated machinery.
We are fortunate, therefore, that within the parish we have a varied selection of farm enterprises with almost all types of farming represented. On the livestock side there are dairy cows, suckler cows and calves, sheep flocks, pigs, turkeys, chickens, and ducks. On the higher flatter land there is wheat, barley and maize, to the west there are cider apple orchards and, of course, we have a vineyard. Just beyond the parish boundaries there is horticulture and deer farming. Sheepwash remains a parish where farming is the single biggest activity. Nevertheless, many of the smaller farming businesses have disappeared sometimes leaving traces, sometimes not.
For example, walking up South Street from the river a few years ago you would have passed several dairy farms. On the left was Lakes Farm (milk churns still on the stand outside) Post Office Farm (now Lime Court) and further up more dairy farms at Lukes, behind what is now Lymath and Moyes and Court Farm at the corner of South and East Street. Heading north there were further dairy farms at Old Court, Swardicott and Beara, Upcott Barton and Lake Farm. To the west, Westover, Gortleigh and Down Farm also had dairy cows at one time. Even the Half Moon had some cows. All of these have now gone and the only dairy farms are at East Gortleigh and Newcourt Barton. Some of these farms never re-stocked after the devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 1991. Others simply became unviable as margins became tighter and the necessary capital equipment more and more expensive. The daily grind of milking dairy cows doubtless deterred others.
Supporting these farms were a number of other businesses based in the village. The Forge was a forge and blacksmiths shop. There were two slaughter houses and butchers shop, one in North Street, and one in East Street. There was also a wheelwright (who was also the undertaker) in East Street and Upcott Mill did indeed grind wheat and sell flour in the village. The wooden buildings on the right as you leave Sheepwash along West Road were once a substantial egg laying unit.
Farming will continue to adapt to changing circumstances, and this will affect the physical appearance of the parish, but we can be reasonably confident that despite some interesting innovations like the vineyard, livestock farming will remain the predominant form of land use and we will remain a predominantly pastoral parish.
June 2010 (Summer issue)