Like the agriculture industry in other european countries, farming became dependant on economic ups and downs of the world market during the twentieth century. The first world war brought dramatic price rises and then a huge drop in prices in the twenties and thirties, followed again by price increases during the second world war. From 1947 annual price reviews were introduced, to try to stabilise the market.
In the fifties, sixties and seventies there was a drive to make agriculture in Scotland more productive, which brought about intensive farming. Agriculture became increasingly mechanised, for example with the combine harvester, and as a result became less labour intensive. More marginal land was included in agricultural land to produce more crops.
In 1972 the UK became a member of the European Economic Community (ECC) and later the European Union (EU). This brought about an ongoing change in Scottish farming, where hill sheep farming and some other sectors became unsustainable and was heavily subsidised. A series of reforms in the nineties were devised in an attempt to discourage intensive farming, reverse environmental damage and control over-production.
In Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands, a dual farm structure developed, where farming was divided between pluralised and diversified smallholdings, based on the traditional crofts that grew out of the Highland Clearances, and large commercial farms.
Since the late twentieth century the agriculture in the Highlands and Islands has been classified by the government as severely disadvantaged, due to topography, soils and climate. Yet the crofting counties received the lowest subsidiaries. Most crofters can’t survive by farming alone and usually subsidise their income by alternative full time employment in various areas. A number of crofters have also gone into business in the tourism industry and operate holiday lets and bed and breakfast accommodation. Crofting is a traditional way of life in the highlands, that is based on small scale food production and livestock rearing.
Although there are a number of challenges, crofting is still important to the economy of the Highlands and Islands and due to their small size and the care of the crofters their produce is better quality than that of the large commercial farms. Around ten percent of the population of the Highlands and Islands lives in crofting households. Of all the households in rural areas of the Highlands, thirty percent are crofting households. On the Western Isles, the Isle of Skye and the Shetland Isles the number lies by up to sixty-five percent. Crofters hold about forty-five percent of all breeding ewes and twenty percent of all beef cattle in the crofting counties.
Although crofters were originally tenant farmer, the Scottish Land Reform Act 2003 gives them the right to buy their crofts.