Eight Steps Back to the Land

“Farming must compete actively and vigorously with other potential employers to attract the best people” — so says a report, New Blood, just published by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE, July 2009). Over the next ten years says its author, Alan Spedding, “Farming needs 60,000 new entrants”. A key problem, we are told, is that agriculture worldwide “is struggling with an outdate image”.

Well — up to a point. In truth, as things stand, farmers might echo the words of Henry V’s foot-soldiers on the eve of Agincourt — “even as men wrack’d upon a strand that seek to be washed off at the next tide”. New Blood came out just before this year’s Royal Show in July which, I found, was upbeat as ever, but is scheduled nonetheless to be the last. The image of farming is indeed “outdated” — but not simply in the way that the RASE author intended. To be sure it is perceived to be too rustic, straws in the hair and rolling rrs — but it is also rightly seen to be too ruthless and too industrial; and it’s the ostensible modernity, built on cheap oil and borrowed cash, that is truly the anachronism. We need farming that can actually feed people without wrecking the rest of the world, and go on doing so. We need a radical shift — away from mere rusticity no doubt, but also away from the industrial and commercial hype.

As for the putative 60,000 — well: that would simply restore the status quo. But the status quo is a disaster. Successive British governments these past 30 years have cut the ranks of farmers to 150,000, with an average age of 60 and with thoughts of retirement. In truth we need about a million more farmers post haste to re-create the agrarian base that is so obviously necessary.

It’s clear, too, that the powers that be — the NFU, the food industry, the government, and even RASE — are not going to do what’s needed. They are not on the case. So again we see that if we give a damn about the future then we, ordinary Joes, have to do what is needed for ourselves — despite the powers that be. Outlandish though the notion may now seem, we have to get back to the land in droves, and on our own initiative. It’ a tall order. But it is all theoretically do-able — and a great deal is happening already.

Successive British governments this past thirty-something years have left British agriculture in disarray – and those of us who give a damn now have to pick up the pieces. We need nothing less than an agrarian renaissance and in practice only we, ordinary Joes, can bring this about: a people’s takeover. So where do we begin?

In truth, everything now needs doing. The infrastructure needed to make farming work well and in the public interest – not least the network of publicly owned scientific research stations, and Experimental Husbandry Farms, (EHFs), and university departments and colleges of agriculture – have largely been closed down or privatised. That alone might reasonably be seen as the greatest act of government-inspired vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries. But we have also lost an entire generation of farmers, so that we now have far too few – only about one per cent of the total workforce now work full time on the land, although for a strong agrarian base we surely need at least 10 per cent, and perhaps nearer 20 per cent; and the average age of the remaining few is now approaching 60. But then, until very recent months, some people highly placed in government actively wanted British farming to go the way of its mining. Two years ago I shared a public platform with a leading civil servant who argued just that (and had been knighted for his services to agriculture).

At the same time, of course, official policy has linked our agriculture – its practice and its economy – to the oil market, which was bad at the best of times and is now disastrous; and as the climate changes we are left with a system that has become less and less diverse, and less and less capable of adaptation; and the whole fate of farming is largely determined by the whim of the supermarkets, while the agrochemical, seed, and biotech companies, each with their own agenda, are huge players too. All these big commercial forces are supported directly or indirectly by the government, which is to say by public money, and by the law, which in practice is on the side of the big guys. As the coup de grace, the paper economy of the city on which New Labour has pinned its faith, now looks very sick indeed. Only supreme optimists believe it can recover and if it did, it wouldn’t be for long, and the next relapse, in a world that by then will be even more depleted, could take us all with it. But alas! Those supreme optimists apparently include the government, whose only coherent policy in the face of collapse is to restore the status quo ante with all possible speed. Oh dear.

So our present position is very bad indeed. If our food supply wasn’t being propped up by foreign trade and imported labour we’d already be cap in hand to the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, like many a beleaguered African country this past few decades. This is not a plea for little Britain-ism – far from it. A food trade conducted fairly and sensibly should be good for everyone. But the present approach – where rich countries use their political and economic muscle to encourage poorer countries to dedicate their fields to the needs of outsiders, while Britain throws its own farming to the winds – is grotesque. It does immense harm to the poorer exporting countries and leaves us in a precarious state indeed. Other countries have problems of their own and very few of them – any? – feel that they owe Britain any special favours. Indeed, such status as we now have in the world depends not on our present achievements but on our past glories: that we once had an Empire, and were on the winning side in both world wars and in the cold war. But the world after oil and in the throes of climate change is a whole new place.

But let us not dwell on negatives. Let’s just accept that our plight is now at least as desperate as it was after World War II and get on and do what needs to be done, just as we did then. The main difference lies with governance: for while the government of the late 1940s and ‘50s was far from perfect it was at least focused on the task in hand, while the collective head of the present government is somewhere in cloud cuckoo-land, along with that of the Tories. So let us also accept that this time round we, people at large, just have to do the job ourselves – starting with farming, which of all our enterprises is the one in most urgent need of repair.

This article does not attempt to deal with everything that agriculture needs. It addresses just one prime issue: how to enable and encourage people to get back on to the land; how to increase the present force of expert farmers by at least ten fold; and how to do this without government help, and indeed in the face of policy and law that get in the way.

The general task is to create a career ladder – a route whereby people born and bred in cities who don’t know that potatoes don’t grow on trees or that milk comes from cows, come to realize that farming is what they always wanted to do, and then start doing it.  It would be pretentious even by my standards to point out that the Buddha defined an eight-fold path to enlightenment – but it happens serendipitously that in this context too we can envisage eight plausible steps that could achieve what’s needed. Thus:

STEP 1: A NEW GENERATION OF FARMING WANNABES

First we need a critical mass of wannabes: people (especially young people) who really do want to farm. In truth a critical mass does not have to be large. About 10 per cent of the whole will do – and I reckon that that 10 per cent already exists. It’s just a matter of identifying them.

Crucially, we need to raise the status of farmers – again to make it a respected, high kudos pursuit. Necessity is a great spur, as shown in the siege economy of Cuba, where farmers and growers now rank with doctors in the social pecking order. Fashion is at least equally powerful, perhaps more so – as shown in Britain by the social rise of the chef, albeit inspired in large part by the celebs. In traditional France, as Jane Grigson was wont to recall, every small child wanted to own a restaurant – just as every small boy in Britain wanted to be an engine driver. Both jobs offered autonomy: the sense of being in charge of one’s own destiny, which in this alleged age of choice and freedom becomes increasingly rare.

Tony Blair’s great adage is relevant here – “Education, education, education”. As an innovative farming friend said to me recently – “When we show people round the farm the kids get the point immediately, while the adults tend to look blank”.  (And to paraphrase Max Planck, you can’t teach new ideas to old physicists. You just have to wait for them to die).

Once the wannabes exist, what can they actually do?

STEP 2: THE CONCERNED OBSERVER

A conserved observer could just be an informed consumer.  I hate the word “consumer” and the idea of the consumer society (we used to think we were citizens) – but consumers qua consumers are powerful nonetheless. It really is true that if no-one went to Tesco, then Tesco would disappear. It’s also absolutely the case that if enough people cared enough about food to buy good stuff from excellent farmers, then excellence would flourish – while at present best practice is punished by the mania for low prices. So a discerning consumer is not a bad thing to be. More generally, we need to resurrect the food culture, so that people take it for granted that good food is worth paying for. The Slow Food Movement is surely of supreme importance in this. It has become a major force in Italy and is catching on worldwide.

The next conceptual step is to become the kind of person who supports some version of CSA – “Community Supported Agriculture”. An outstanding example is the Stroud Community Agriculture project in Gloucestershire (again with excellent information on Google). Another excellent model – which we hope to be reporting on at length – is that of Tim Waygood at Agrarian Renaissance, based at Church Farm, in Hertfordshire (just type “agrarian renaissance” into Google). As soon as things can get organized, Tim intends to invite people at large to invest directly in Agrarian Renaissance with all kinds of benefits – a true business partnership with people at large, with a strong social purpose. (Business can work for the public good. It doesn’t have to be an exercise in predation). My own outfit, currently called LandShare, is trying directly to influence events, and will need money sooner or later. In general, the present economy is not good, and we need a new one. But the point of Renaissance is to use existing resources – including existing cash – to create something better.

Anyway: the “concerned observer” can take many forms – and is a good and useful thing to be. It is of course highly regrettable that many people who would be concerned observers just don’t have time to be discerning. Or else they live in places where it’s Tesco or nothing.

STEP 3: THE ALLOTMENTEER

Get an allotment. Or grow vegetables and fruit in the garden. If you haven’t got a garden, grow things in a patio. Put up a small conservatory. Or a balcony. Or a window box. All schools should have school gardens, not just for vegetables but for plants in general. I was lured into this whole business largely by cacti, which in the mid 1950s were still rare and expensive (sometimes costing as much as three shillings and sixpence).

The point is not, actually, to grow all your own food. You can’t feed a family from a window box but it is still worthwhile. What matters is to get the hands dirty. All good experimental scientists as opposed to pencil-pushing theoreticians speak of the need for feel. In food above all in this age of packaging and freezing we need to recapture our sense of feel for what food is and how it grows. There is no understanding without feel.

Again, there are many movements afoot of many kinds to get people growing (not least the one developed on Channel 4 by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, also confusingly called Landshare, though our own LandShare was established first).

Step 3, in fact, is well in hand – but needs building on!

STEP 4: HORTICULTURE-PLUS

At present, in most societies including Britain, horticulture is still seen as a nutritional side-line: a way of providing micro-nutrients, some fibre, and texture and flavour for aesthetic purposes. The burden of nourishment is left to the staple crops, grown on the arable (field) scale – cereals plus tubers (potatoes) and pulses (peas and beans); and livestock.

But the emphasis should shift. Many horticultural crops are or can supply macro-nutrients too (energy and protein) – and some crops that are now generally grown on the arable scale began as horticultural crops and still play a huge part in gardening, or should do so again. Thus the small-scale grower can produce very useful quantities of potatoes and pulses. More interestingly, Oxford-based farmer and scientist John Letts (who I hope will be writing for this blog) argues that cereals can and should be grown as allotment crops, as well as in the field. In all cases, of course, the gardener can focus on the rare varieties that often have special merits, while the conventional arable farmer feels obliged to focus on yield and uniformity (which is necessary for mass harvesting). In short, we should not reflexly assume that serious nutrition means arable and livestock. Horticulture has far more to offer than is commonly supposed.

One further refinement. Martin Wolfe, Suffolk farmer and scientist, argues that all farming should be seen as an exercise in agro-forestry – meaning that all farming should integrate trees not simply for adornment or as pheasant cover but as a serious component of the whole system. Again, this blog will be looking far more closely at Martin’s work (and try “Wakelyns Agroforestry” on Google). Indeed, one of the few encouraging signs worldwide is the apparently increasing emphasis on agroforestry in all regions – upland, lowland, tropical wet, tropical dry, temperate. Once growers start to integrate trees or shrubs in whatever form, they have crossed a barrier into a more intricate and integrated form of husbandry.

STEP 5: LIVESTOCK

There is no compulsion to expand from plants into livestock. Many professional farms and small-holdings are plants-only. But despite what the vegans tell us, there is no farm enterprise that could not be made more efficient and resilient by including a few animals of the right kinds, in the right numbers. Small-scale livestock – first poultry, then pigs, and then perhaps aquaculture (from tilapia to catfish to carp, depending on climate – and many more) work beautifully with horticulture; while the grazing animals – mainly sheep and cattle, the ruminants – integrate beautifully with arable and horticulture on the larger scale. With livestock, too, we see the real advantages of agroforestry – for most of the domestic species began as woodland animals (the sheep is the only possible exception) and all benefit enormously, and demonstrably, both from the shade and from the micronutrients offered by browse.

But livestock are a bigger commitment. You can let plants die with a fairly clear conscience but you can’t let animals die.

Again there are established routes in, showing how the great leap into hands-on farming can be made. One such is the farm run collectively by the villagers of Martin in Hampshire, masterminded by Nick Snelgar (and again there are many intriguing articles on all this on Google under “Nick Snelgar” and “future farms”). Again we will have more to say on Future Farms in the future (and it would be good to learn of comparable exercises elsewhere. The whole point is to spread the word).

STEP 6: FROM ALLOTMENTEER TO INFORMAL FARMER: THE ABSOLUTE IMPORTANCE OF MARKETING

Of course, anyone who grows things can decide to stay where they are any time they like. There is no compulsion to expand. But at least with a following wind the allotmenteer who really gets the bug might grow by degrees until he or she are raising far too much for family and friends. If the expanded allotmenteer can only arrange to sell the surplus then by any definition that is not simply legalistic, he or she is a bona fide farmer.

At this point, marketing becomes a key issue. Small-scale farmers cannot realistically sell to the supermarkets. Some supermarkets sometimes buy some stuff from small local farmers but this is not what their business is about, and such concessions in truth are window-dressing. The people’s takeover requires an alternative food chain. Farmers’ markets may provide a short-term option – indeed at present they are very important.  But in the long term they cannot be the answer.

The alternative food chain requires a whole separate study and will be a prime concern of this blog.

STEP 7: THE COMMITTED PART-TIMER

Once formal marketing begins, the enthusiast de facto is a part-time farmer.  Part-time farming is, I reckon, the key to a great deal. Much of the best farming in the world has been and is by part-timers. Part-time farming is a serious business. We can already see all kinds of precedents, from the hobby farms of Germany to the dachas of Russia to the crofters who form most of Scotland’s agriculture (in terms of personnel and land), plus countless other examples from all continents. Google again – please try The Scottish Crofting Foundation. I like the idea in passing that some of the Founding Fathers of the United States were farmers, generally excellent farmers, when they weren’t being lawyers and politicians – and providing one of the greatest ever examples of what a people’s Renaissance can be.

Again, part-time farming needs to become a major theme of this blog.

Again, too, there are various moves afoot to help interested parties to get moving. These include the FarmStep initiative at the Northmoor Trust in Oxfordshire, and LandScope, being set up by Julie Richardson of the Dartington Trust, in Devon (try Dartington Hall Trust — LandScope on Google). Again, we hope to write about both of these projects (and more) in this blog.

STEP 8: THE FULL-TIME FARMER

The world will always need a core of full-time farmers. The key – which is a prime component of the “the new agrarianism” is to make full-time farming agreeable and desirable.  This requires input at every level – practical, theoretical, social, legal, economic, administrative. This is one reason why absolutely everyone can be an active player.

Overall, the world has a crying need for a new economy that is not geared simply to cash and short-term profit, and is not designed simply to be maximally competitive. Such, indeed, is not the economy of serious people who want the world to be a better place. It is the natural arena of spivs and gangsters. But again, serious economists are on the case – and have been for decades. In particular, I hope we will refer again and again in this blog to the work of the New Economics Foundation, in London (which again is eminently Google-able). Again, although economic theory cannot be a major theme of this blog, we need at least to keep a weather eye on events.

The whole shift, from an obsessively urbanized and industrialized society to one that has a proper balance of urban and agrarian, and with an economy designed to secure that balance, may truly be called The Agrarian Renaissance.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, July 8 2009


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3 Responses to 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?

    • Zohair says:

      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. Vix Osborne says:

    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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