Eight Steps Back to the Land

3 thoughts on “Eight Steps Back to the Land

  1. I guess we fit into the category of a ‘new generation of farming wannabes’, being city folk for whom the realisation dawned that the global food system was in trouble, and wanted to do something about it at the grassroots level. We bought an 18 acre field in Somerset, on which we’ve established a market garden & box scheme, allotments, fruit and nut orchards and trees/agro-forestry enterprises with complementary livestock (see http://www.vallisveg.co.uk and also our article ‘Land Use Options for Sustainable Farming’ at http://www.vallisveg.co.uk/landuseoptions.html which – based on data from our holding – complements Colin’s arguments in his excellent posting).

    So we’d like to think that we’re part of this ‘people’s movement’ of farmers trying to reform the system from the bottom up. But it’s not an easy thing to do – there are lots of idealistic small-scale growers like us who start up only to come unstuck after a few years, and we may well yet join their number. Here are some of the main obstacles we’ve experienced:

    Food & Labour Costs. Food prices are at a historic low as a result of the (unsustainable) fossil fuel subsidy, the economic power of retailers, exploitation of agricultural workers and so on. Labour costs are extremely high as a result amongst other things of the artificially high price of housing. ‘Enlightened’ agro-ecological farming can be very productive in terms of output per unit area (whilst preserving biodiversity and other public goods), but it’s hard to compete with agro-industry in terms of output per unit labour. Virtually everything that helps reduce fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and ecological degradation on the farm involves substituting labour and other biological inputs for fuel and mechanical inputs. In our view this isn’t a bad thing, because a sustainable economy shouldn’t be trying to maximise labour productivity. But so long as the real world economy continues to reward gross labour productivity it remains difficult for enlightened agriculture to develop and prosper.

    Land, Planning & Farm Infrastructure: Most people getting into farming will probably rent or buy (if they’re lucky) small plots of agricultural land like ours, which are most suitable for intensive horticulture rather than field agriculture (we very much agree with Colin’s comments on the importance of horticulture vis-a-vis agriculture). The planning system throws up enormous obstacles to anyone wanting to live on such land in the so-called ‘open’ countryside, and even sometimes obstructs the erection of agricultural buildings, without which it’s difficult to make a farming enterprise flourish. Also, small plots often lack the infrastructure of an existing farm – not only buildings, but also tracks & access, utilities etc. This adds enormously to time and fiscal costs for start-up farm enterprises.

    Bureaucracy & Local Infrastructure: producing standard agricultural staples has to be the long-term aim for agro-ecological farmers but for now artisanal ‘value-added’ products is probably the best market niche for us to try to occupy, but even this can be difficult when there isn’t a local infrastructure to support it. Excessive food & hygiene regulations that favour large-scale producers, the closure of small local abattoirs, CAP and agri-environmental schemes that favour large landowners, and the generally hostile fiscal environment facing small businesses all make even these market niches difficult to occupy.

    Research & Extension: Virtually all the funded agricultural research is geared to the large-scale industrial agriculture approach. For those of us busy trying to develop alternatives, there are few people to turn to for advice, certainly at the local level, and few models of successful small farms. Smallholding isn’t regarded as ‘proper’ farming, and there is as yet no serious debate about agro-ecological smallholding as a solution to our environmental problems in ‘developed’ countries.

    Consumer knowledge: we have some excellent and supportive customers, but generally people have grown accustomed to a wide range of cheap food choices. A lot of people are vaguely aware of ‘food miles’ and so on and are genuinely supportive of local small-scale farmers up to a point, but there is very little public awareness of the underlying issues affecting farm sustainability such as peak oil, climate change, sources of fertility, pest control and so on, and the reasons why an ‘enlightened agriculture’ means dearer food. CSA schemes are an excellent idea, but they require a lot of local activism to undergird them – generally it’s quite a struggle to recruit & retain customers when they can so easily go elsewhere in a ruthlessly competitive market. Few people realise how much agriculture has changed in the last fifty years, and how much genuine struggle and misery lies beneath the stereotype of the moaning farmer.

    The above isn’t intended to dwell on the negatives or question the importance of a ‘people’s movement’ to rejuvenate real farming – it’s just an honest appraisal of the difficulties we’ve encountered as we’ve tried to put it into practice. We’d be interested to hear the views of others. We agree that it’s no use waiting for the Government to act – we need to take matters into our own hands. But at the same time, that’s difficult to do when the entire economic and social infrastructure is based on a different model, so ultimately we do need to engage with policymakers to try to effect political change. We really need the Campaign For Real Farming and similar organisations to help provide us with a collective voice. But how do we move forwards from here?

    1. Sirs,I have stumbled upon this btiswee and am encouraged that somebody realises that there are younger people out there that desperately want to farm, but have no easy way in. I am one of those. I currently work on a small sustainable family farm in the US. I LOVE it. I wake up each morning at 0430 and can’t wait to start work with the dairy herd. The farm has a natural grass-fed system, the cows are happy, healthy and long-lived. The food produced is of the highest quality with outstanding proven health benefits. The farm runs in wonderful symbiosis with precious little input. This is exactly what I want to do. I have to leave the US for personal reasons, and am trying to find a similar organisation in which to put my energies in the UK. I simply cannot afford to buy a farm, much as I would love to be able to do so. I work very hard and am not afraid of work, no, actually thrive on it. On a regular basis I hear statistics quoted in the media about how many farmers are leaving the profession each week, however, I see none of these commentaries offering a way to replace these lost farmers. Researchers and producers simply want good stories, not to do anything about the situations on which they report. I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of openings, despite the tales of woe for farming in the UK. I wonder if you have any suggestions as to how I can become part of the farming community in Britain? I am a farming wannabe. Very truly yours, Elaine

  2. One huge obstacle to farmers (young or not) wanting to start up an enterprise is the access, or lack of it, to land. Although schemes such as Landshare flag up small parcels that are in need of people to work them, there is, in most of these cases a lack of autonomy for the worker. The recent Real Farming conference in Oxford flagged up instances of farmers with land who couldn’t find anyone to take it on and work it. Perhaps a new scheme is needed whereby people with land can be put in touch with those looking for land. If something like that could be operated under the auspices of the Campaign for Real Farming then I would be happy to help in someway.

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