Britain needs a million new farmers. This was the mantra, coined by Colin Tudge, that echoed insistently throughout the presentations and the chat at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference. In order to stave off runaway climate change and to develop food sovereignty, we need hordes of new farmers, and we need them now.
But who will they be? The median age of farmers in the UK is currently 59, and rising. And their sons and daughters, for the most part, simply can’t be persuaded to take up the mantle. It seems inevitable, then, that we need to look outside of the farming community for this new generation of farmers.
But where else can we expect them to come from? One compelling answer to this question, highlighted by Tim Lang and others, emerged at the conference: these new farmers are already coming out of the woodwork, and they’re not coming out of rural areas, they’re coming out of cities.
They’re coming to farming from inner city community growing projects, from permaculture design courses, from academia, from the health professions, from the charity sector, from anti-capitalist and social justice networks, and from the climate change movement. Some are even leaving behind years spent as spreadsheet-geeks for multinationals, and some have succumbed to the farming bug simply by watching Alys Fowler on the telly, or by reading books about food in tiny London flats.
But one way or another, in a bid to be free of starched collars and closed-in spaces, these urbanites – who’ve read and talked about food and farming till they’re blue in the face – are now convinced that they must close the gap in their lives between theory and practice, and that they must take to the land.
I’m about to become one of these new farmers. I’m in the same boat as Joe Hasell, who announced to the delegates in the discussions after the closing plenary session of the conference: “I’m not a farmer… yet. But I’m dying to be one”. But Joe was right when he said that we – the new generation of farmers – “might look very different” to ordinary farming folk.
Novice farmers like Joe and I attended the conference alongside our more experienced elders. But in spite of the fact that all delegates were committed in some way to bringing about what the Campaign for Real Farming defines as “good food, for everyone, forever”, a startling disconnect became apparent.
Many older farmers seem to be tearing their hair out, trying and failing to engage young people in their own communities, and trying and failing to attract young apprentices onto their farms. And, conversely, younger city-farmers are finding it difficult to access larger pieces of land, and are struggling to acquire the necessary training to ramp up their food-growing skills to farm-scale. It seems that these two generations – until the Real Farming Conference – have simply been circulating in different networks, for the most part unaware of one another’s aspirations and challenges.
Last week’s debates have made me see that the only way we’ll get a million people to kickstart the transition to sustainable agricultural models in Britain is if we all join forces. We’ll have to come together and actually –consciously – breed this new generation of farmers by developing ways of linking up the skill-sets of these two generations.
On the one hand, we have the ageing farmers, who have access to land as well as the traditional knowledge and skills that have almost been wiped out by fossil-fuel intensive farming practices. And on the other hand we have the young city-farmers who, I hope, have the movement-building skills and experience to bring about the sixty million new eaters that we also urgently need – sixty million engaged consumers, as well as the savvy mapping systems, innovative distribution networks, and switched-on eateries that we will also need if we are really going to make this happen.
The farming community and the urban food movement must find ways to connect. The speed and scale of escalation that we need in order to transform food production and the food culture in the UK will only come about if we work together. And if we’re going to build this mass social movement around food and farming, then we – young and old, city-folk and country-folk, thinkers and the doers – should celebrate our diversity and learn to speak the same language.
We’ve been tremendously energized by the Oxford Real Farming Conference as we bring Cultivate, our own contribution to this movement, kicking and screaming into life. And with the beginnings of a roadmap for collaborative, intergenerational and interdisciplinary solutions, I’m convinced – now more than ever – that we have the potential to catalyse something really extraordinary.
Doireann and the rest of the Cultivators