1. Trawling disturbance has wide-ranging impacts on the marine environment and is well known to modify benthic habitat and community structure. This has led to speculation about the positive and negative impacts of trawling on ecosystem processes such as production. 2. Existing theory suggests that frequent trawling disturbance may lead to the proliferation of smaller benthic species, with faster life histories, because they can withstand the mortality imposed by trawling and benefit from reduced competition or predation as populations of larger species are depleted. Since smaller species are more productive, trawling disturbance may 'farm the sea', with knock-on benefits for consumers, including fish populations. 3. We conducted the first large-scale studies of trawling effects on benthic production across quantified gradients of trawling disturbance on real fishing grounds in two regions (Silver Pit and Hills) of the North Sea. There were 27- and 10-fold differences in levels of beam trawl disturbance among the Silver Pit and Hills sites, respectively. 4. Size structure was described using normalized size-spectra, and the slopes and intercepts of these spectra were related to levels of trawling disturbance. Production was estimated from the size spectra, using a new allometric relationship between body mass and the production to biomass (P:B) ratio of marine invertebrates. The general validity of the relationship was confirmed using a phylogenetic comparative approach. 5. In the Silver Pit region, trawling led to significant decreases in infaunal biomass and production. The abundance of larger individuals was depleted more than smaller ones, as reflected by the positive relationship between the slope of the normalized size spectra and trawling disturbance. The effects of trawling disturbance were not significant in the epifaunal community. In the Hills region, where the range of trawling disturbance was lower, trawling disturbance did not have significant effects on biomass or production. 6. In the Silver Pit, relative infaunal production (production per unit biomass) rose with increased trawling disturbance. This was attributable largely to the dominance of smaller animals in the disturbed communities. The increase in relative production did not compensate for the loss of total production that resulted from the depletion of large individuals. There was some evidence for the proliferation of small polychaetes at moderate levels of disturbance, but at higher levels of disturbance their biomass and production fell. 7. We conclude that reported increases in the biomass and production of small infaunal invertebrates in the North Sea are attributable largely to recent increases in primary production that were driven by climate change, and not to the effects of trawling disturbance.