How do you find a million more farmers? A view from Reclaim the Fields

by Adam Payne

Let’s not be shy about the matter; the dominant picture of agriculture in this country is pretty grim. Set upon the foundations of unequal land distribution, the expansion of neo-liberal policies into agriculture since the 1950’s have accounted for a halving of agricultural employment, the systematic industrialisation of farming techniques, the consolidation of larger farms and the tightening of corporate control on food markets. We have been left with an economy in which new entrants to farming can expect to pay up to £10,000 an acre for land but receive less than 10% of the money spent on food by consumers

As a result of these historical processes, Britain holds the smallest percentage of agricultural workers in the world. Less than one percent of the population, some 557,000 people, work the land. Of these, the average agricultural worker is pushing 62 year, earns a wage of around £4.50 an hour and farms a plot of 56.6 hectares. It is clear that we need more farmers, more food growers, and more land based workers if we are to reverse the food crises we face to create more just and sustainable food economies. From the conservative disaster-management estimate of 60 000 to the more visionary 1 million the evidence is irrefutable. The question is how will we find the new farmers we need?

My interest in this question has been growing since I was a boy. I grew up on a small holding in North Devon, amid an agricultural sector that was suffering the inevitable fall out of neo-liberalism and the large farm focused subsidies of the common agricultural policy. However, it was not until I settled in London that I really became conscious of the politics and history that surround the current state of agriculture. Neither was I aware until then of the many grassroots projects seeking to reverse the tide and put a spade in the current food system.

For the last four years I have been living in London, working to create growing spaces in the city, and to build networks that bring together food producers who are working towards a vision of food sovereignty. Through this I became active in Reclaim the Fields, a European wide movement of young people wishing to return to agriculture in a sustainable, politically conscious fashion.

It is from this background, as a young and budding grower with a range of experiences in urban and rural contexts, that I want to offer my analysis of the key structural and cultural changes that must be made if we as civil society are to support new entrants to agriculture. To do this I have chosen to highlight a series of structural and cultural changes that are inhibiting the processes as well as introducing the work that reclaim the fields is doing on these issues in other parts of Europe.

Structural obstacles facing new entrants

It is not hard to see that there is a growing interest in sustainable food production. A glance into any of the blossoming community gardens, a look at the allotment waiting lists or a walk round the new farmers markets will testify to this. The critical question is what must happen for this developing counter culture to become a substantive change? And what can we as civil society do to support and encourage new entrants to agriculture?

Without doubt, access to land remains the single greatest structural obstacle facing the new generations of farmers and growers. A combination of concentrated land ownership, property speculation and unequal wealth distribution has seen land prices inflated by an average of £2,000 per acre over the past 10 years, and up to as much as £10,000 in places. Volatility in the agriculture sector has also left many farmers reluctant to lease even the smallest area of productive ground and encouraged short term tenancies for others. This process is even more marked in urban areas where property speculation and caution on behalf of city councils makes securing land with good tenure extremely difficult.

However, it is not just land that must be made cheaper and more affordable. People looking to set up in agriculture also need access to affordable dwellings. This is an often overlooked element that is central to the issue of access to land. Young people, especially those expecting to live from agricultural wages need to have to option of building themselves affordable housing on or around the land they work.

Alongside gaining access to land and affordable rural dwellings we must also regain access to markets for locally grown food by making structural changes to economics of the free market. This means limiting the powers of corporate players in our food systems and introducing tariffs that will protect and incentivise small-scale sustainable production. The small number of corporations wielding power in food retail and distribution are relying on the mechanisms of the free market to force down the price paid for agricultural produce. Regulations on competition, the reintroduction of tariffs and the prevention of further concentration through limits on mergers and acquisitions may be first vital steps toward reducing corporate abuses and ensuring that farmers can earn a sustainable living.

These three elements, access to land, dwelling and markets, are the main structural issues facing new entrants to agriculture. However, alongside these there are a number of cultural challenges that it is extremely important to address and overcome. It is these cultural obstacles that inhibit our capacity as members of civil society to work for the manifestation of a common vision. The political system will only yield to structural changes when its hands are forced by a popular movement powerful enough to demand a hearing. Discussing these cultural challenges and finding ways to apply them to our own lives are a first step in broadening that movement.

Cultural obstacles facing new entrants

Much of the experimentation, training and innovation that propels new entrants to agriculture is coming from urban areas and it is inevitable that the majority of new farmers will be from cities. I see the biggest cultural challenges surrounding new entrants to agriculture in the issues created by differences around ways of working, living and thinking between these groups.

In this sense, supporting new entrants to agriculture means learning to understand that many new farmers and growers want to explore collective and co-operative ways of working; that they feel excluded by discrimination of any kind be it based on race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or class; and that many of them come to agriculture from idealistic positions.

Finding a sense of place for these new growers and farmers is going to be a challenging process. The potential for misunderstanding and distrust between traditional farming groups and new entrants with new ideas and ways of working must not be underestimated. The task that faces us is to ensure that we can create an atmosphere of support and respect for these new entrants.

However, this process is a positive one and all these groups, along with all that exist between them have a lot to learn from each other. New farmers in rural areas will help overcome the cultural isolation that drives so many young people to the cities, and the voice of experienced farmers can teach new entrants so much about the beautiful land and traditions of rural Britain. The critical issues is remaining open to changes in what the farmers of the future will look like, sound like, and farm like.

The world’s largest peasant movement, La Via Campesina, argues that the most important relationship in the struggle for food sovereignty lies between the small farmers and the landless workers. In Britain this message holds true. Although talking about landless workers has fallen out of favour, we still exist. From the horticulturalists looking for land to establish community supported agricultural projects, to the urban market gardeners working on short term tenancies, the million new farmers will begin as landless farmers, and their success depends on the support of the farming community. It is essential that we take their contribution to the future of farming seriously and find ways to support their work.

Popular movements supporting new entrants to agriculture in Europe.

Reclaim The Fields is one grassroots movement established to support new entrants to agriculture. It is a network spread across Europe that is composed of farmers, land based workers and urban food growers. It exists to link people from different cultural and legal contexts who are involved in struggles and issues surrounding food sovereignty. The movement is democratic and has no membership or internal hierarchies.

The movement was established in 2007 when a mixed group of young people involved in food growing got together with activists from La Via Campesina at the anti G8 protests in Germany. Many of the people involved in that meeting recognized the need for a grassroots democratic movement that could provide a meeting and mobilizing space for people wishing to return to a politically conscious and sustainable agriculture.

From this meeting Reclaim the Fields was born. It is an open network operating by consensus decision making. This means there are no leaders and no formal membership to the group. We have no funders and no political obligations. Instead people and projects participate by agreeing with the vision expressed in the ‘who we are’ text and contributing an active presence in meetings.

Reclaim the Fields operates through gatherings which take place every 6 months, and camps which happen every 2 years. In these forums people from different places come together to share their projects, lend energy to others, work on common issues and inspire one another. Through these meetings relationships are built that continue beyond them. Because there is no formal membership structure it is impossible to tell how many people are involved in the movement at any time. However, this form of organizing is an appropriate one for people who are engaged in agriculture, where it is often difficult to ignore the demands of the land, and allows a participation that equals available energy.

The stance of the group is anti-capitalist and its members are actively involved in creating alternatives to the environmental and social degradations of industrial agriculture. Besides sharing experiences and ideas, the group acts as a forum for the researching and campaigning and organizing direct action on issues of seed saving and distribution, GM crops, access to land, security of tenure, resistance to neo-liberalism, spreading appropriate technology and establishing collective farms.

It is through movements like Reclaim the Fields that people wanting to return to agriculture can come together, build relationships, see other ways of making agriculture work, and form more political understandings of the issues that they face. Of course not all new entrants to agriculture identify with the form or outlook of Reclaim the Fields. However many of its elements as an interpersonal, diverse and mutual aid orientated network can be used to create and inspire popular movements by other groups.

We recognise that demanding socially and ecologically equitable food systems means demanding massive structural and cultural changes.  To create sustainable land based livelihoods means challenging the logic of competition, accumulation and profit maximisation, and creating a society that values agricultural work. It means finding alternatives to notions of freehold property ownership and exploring forms of collective stewardship so that land can be used by those who want to work it, rather than those who profit simply from owning it. It means finding ways of organising that do not suffer the constraints of hierarchies and that value co-operation in work.

We can create a living, working agriculture where social and environmental integrity are valued as priorities, and where profit at the expense of nature and people is disregarded as a symptom of a discredited system. Our freedom is not measured by our power to uproot ourselves, but by our capacity to work against the obstacles we face and grow new worlds from the ground beneath our feet. It is in this creation that we come into contact with our own power.

Adam Payne is an urban food grower and a member of Reclaim the Fields

2 thoughts on “How do you find a million more farmers? A view from Reclaim the Fields

  1. The question of affordable dwellings is a key one. I have been looking into food growing as an option for my future and this is a key barrier for me. There is a wealth of courses and voluntary opportunities I can participate in – all of which is encouraging and will help me build the knowledge and experience I would need to become one of the million real farmers we need.

    But every community project I have come across relies purely on voluntary labour – now and for the forseeable future.

    (Call me a dirty capitalist, but…) the question I have is: Can we develop a population of ‘young, townie’ farmers in the context of urban dwellings and exorbitant property prices? Or do we have to live on the land (in a sustainable dwelling) to work on the land?

    Merely posing the question invites a series of grumbles from the died-in-the-wool volunteers, allotmenteers, trainers and project leaders… the message is clear – don’t expect a living that will sustain you in today’s society. Just keep giving your labour for free and things will come good in the end….

  2. Good analysis Adam, and thanks for your contribution at the ORFC, it was really interesting. Those structural barriers are massive, it’s difficult not to admit defeat, so all who work at making change are much to be admired and encouraged.

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