What it means to be radical

Sam Henderson, farm worker and pioneer shop keeper, argues that we need to be radical – and shows that this is possible without the mess and danger of out-and-out revolution

Food and Farming has to change. If it doesn’t, we face the very real risk of food shortages and hunger, and throughout history hunger has led to uprisings, violence and radical confrontation. As William Cobbett put it, “I defy you to agitate a man on a full stomach”. The Russian Revolution was founded on the slogan “Peace, Bread, Land”. Marie Antoinette helped spark the French Revolution with the famously naïve suggestion that if the masses had no bread to eat, well then, “Let them eat cake”.

But we can’t afford to wait for the hungry and oppressed to get radical – by then it will be too late, and a big fight is unlikely to help anyone do anything constructive or productive. It is up to us, all those who recognise the damage and imminent danger caused by the way we currently feed ourselves, to get radical now. For anyone who gives a damn about justice, about plants and animals, and about a better human future on this planet, it is hard to imagine a more important or more immediate challenge than that of creating a better way of farming.

So how radical do we need to get? What changes are needed and how can we make them happen?

The best model for a system of agriculture that is sustainable, resilient and productive is nature itself – a living system that has continued to thrive for billions of years through massive upheavals. If farms are to mimic nature they must be based on diversity, both within and between species, and on the complex integration of that diversity, without relying on any inputs that don’t form a normal part of the system. That means mixed farms that are not dependant on artificially produced chemicals (although there is no reason why manufactured inputs might not be used for occasional purposes to improve the system).

Mixed, “default organic” farms – Real Farms – are deliberately designed as complex, non-linear ecosystems, so they are necessarily complicated and require more human labour than highly mechanised monocultures, which rely on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to maintain the illusion that farming is a simple, linear, industrial extraction process like any other. Real Farms also provide only limited opportunities for economies of scale – a one thousand acre farm will operate in a very similar way to ten one hundred acre farms. So Real Farming means more small and medium sized farms, and more people working on them. In the UK, it’s a fair guess to say we need a million additional farmers (or the equivalent including part timers).

That in itself is radical enough. But to support all those new farmers we need a food system in which the money we spend on food goes directly to people who produce quality ingredients on the land, not to marketing departments, lorry drivers, shelf stackers and industrial processing plants. A food system like that has to be based on a new food culture, where cooking and knowing where food comes from are fundamental to a rediscovered pleasure of eating. And it also entails a whole rebalancing of the urban and rural, so that the countryside supports a whole range of meaningful livelihoods and is no longer a place to escape from in search of opportunity and possibility. Finally, it’s impossible to even consider making these changes without acknowledging that they require a concerted challenge to the dominant neo-liberal interpretation of capitalism, with its demand that short-term profit should be the ultimate arbiter of all decisions and its assumption that transnational corporations should be able to control and exploit whatever they want, as long as they can make money from it.

So the changes we need to make are very radical indeed. We need to change agriculture so that it is based on sound biology and the need to feed all people well, and we need to change our socioeconomic structures, our culture, and even our way of thinking, to make that possible. Taken together they amount to a whole new paradigm of human settlement and civilisation.

To achieve these radical changes there are very tangible requirements. We need access to land so that it can be farmed differently. We need new infrastructure to enable that land to be farmed differently. We need the skills and knowledge to implement a different way of farming. We need markets and their accompanying supply chains to support that different way of farming. And finally, we need a critical mass of people to make all of those changes possible as farmers, cooks, customers, citizens, investors and entrepreneurs.

So what do we need to do? The need for radical change implies the need for radical action, but the kind of actions we most readily understand as radical – mass uprisings and rebellion – are unlikely to happen soon enough, and are not well suited to the creative and constructive purposes at hand. Radical action is also unlikely to be supported by the powers-that-be, for the simple reason that they are locked in to the system as it is; their vested interests are simply too entrenched. Radical change will not, perhaps cannot, come from within the status quo, or through a simple attack on the status quo, but it might just be possible despite the status quo.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to be radical despite the status quo, which don’t necessarily entail acting either within it or against it. Farming is, at its heart, a uniquely democratic activity – we all eat, and if we eat differently we farm differently. The change we most urgently need is a shift in perception, and if we can achieve that, everything else can follow.

A good place to start is with radical examples. Already there are farms up and down the country that produce a wide range of crops and livestock, selling directly to the people who eat the food. Church Farm in Hertfordshire and Whitmuir Organics in Scotland are two great examples of farms that — according to the ‘conventional wisdom’ of Conventional Agriculture – simply should not work. Yet they do work, and there are others as well. Just listing all the farms that are already doing what is supposedly impossible would make for a pretty radical document in itself.

Beyond that, there are more specific examples. Ed Hamer runs Chagfood, a three-acre market garden CSA (community-supported agriculture scheme) where he uses his horse Samson to cultivate the fields and deliver weekly boxes into the nearby town. He was recently interviewed for an article in a national broadsheet by a journalist who insisted on trying to attach labels like “neo-peasant” to what Ed is doing. His simple response was that “It’s just a horse” — and a horse is best suited to what he is doing. What makes simple good sense for Ed is near incomprehensible for the average mindset, which assumes that bigger and more mechanised must be better. In a similar twist on commonly-held assumptions, Matt Dale in Oxfordshire makes a good living for himself and his business partner milking a herd of only 20 cows, while dozens of conventional dairies with over ten times as many cows are going out of business every week. Nick Snelgar, of Future Farms in Hampshire, is even designing his own two-berth milking bale to enable him to milk just ten to fifteen cows, just once a day at 8am. His aim is to show that the life of a herdsman can be truly idyllic and far removed from the drudgery of rising at 4am to tend to hundreds of cows in an industrial shed. A crucial part of his plan is to live in a modest timber house right next to his cows – important as a way of reducing his living costs, but more important as a crucial part of the kind of lifestyle he now aspires to and is actively seeking to create.

I have seen first-hand how effective these radical lifestyle examples can be. With my other half, Lucy, I have made the transition from working as a well-paid sustainability consultant living in a nice flat in trendy East London, to selling farm boxes and learning how to look after pigs living in a knackered old caravan in the woods (admittedly with mains electricity, a gas hob, and a spring water tap outside my door). Far from the ridicule and raised eyebrows we expected from the city folk we left behind, the overwhelming response has been enthusiasm, excitement, perhaps even a touch of envy, and a chorus of “we must come visit”. The farm is just outside the M25, and I coordinate a delivery round that drops weekly boxes to collection points in cafes and community centres in North London. Our customers, or members, make their own way to the drop point to collect their weekly shop, they only have limited choice over the contents, and they can change their order only if they give more than 24 hours’ notice. Yet they are proud to have a personal connection to a farm, they value the experience and learning it provides for them and their families, they recognise that they are eating food the likes of which they could not get anywhere else, and they enjoy coming for a chat and a cup of tea instead of trudging up and down fluorescent aisles. Suddenly the ubiquitous supermarkets start to look like nothing more than a bad habit.

A closely-related way of being radical is through radical communications. The leaflets promoting our farm box membership have a banner saying “Escape the supermarket!” emblazoned across the top of them. There may still be plenty of people who don’t hold any desire to escape the supermarket, but there are also plenty who do, so why hold back from telling them that that’s precisely what we’re offering? Colin Tudge has told me a similar story about speaking to MPs. He was determined to tell it like it is, linking the worsening food and farming crisis directly to the flawed economic dogma of neo-liberalism. He was expecting to be summarily dismissed, but lo-and-behold, in this age of bailouts and bonuses, he spotted a glimmer of recognition in the eyes of more than a couple of the gathered parliamentarians.

Communication can also be radical on a larger scale. Another project I have been involved in, FARM:shop Dalston, turned an empty shop into a farm. Rather than confining urban agriculture to city farms and community gardens, which represent a little haven of countryside in the midst of the city, we determined to grow food in recognisably urban spaces – there are chickens laying on a flat roof, a polytunnel in the paved back yard, mushrooms in the basement, and a range of aquaponics, hydroponics and soil-grown systems producing thriving plants and edible fish in rooms with white walls, wooden floors and a recognisably modern aesthetic. The result has been truly “viral” – we’ve been featured in national TV programmes, newspapers and magazines without ever issuing a press release, and we now receive regular emails from around the world enthusing about what we’ve done. We’ve brought farming back into the reality of city life in a visual and compelling way, in a similar way to the French farmers who turned the Champs Elysees into an agricultural showground for a few days last summer. Projects like these are easy to engage with, so they attract the attention and shift the perception of the huge numbers of basically sympathetic folk who are never going to read reports or enter into policy debates (as important as those activities remain, in their own right).

Direct Action and what I’ll call “clever law breaking” use the same sort of methods to draw people even deeper into the knotty issues of our agricultural plight. Anti-GM protesters recently dumped a trailer load of traditionally-bred blight resistant potatoes onto the steps of the John Innes centre, where they are still toiling in laboratories to achieve the same results with genetic tinkering. A clear point was made and the researchers were drawn out to have a proper debate with the campaigners, which was duly featured on the national news. Pig clubs are forming up and down the country, flouting EU regulations by feeding safe, properly prepared kitchen waste to pigs, resulting in cheaper, tastier, and far more satisfying sausages than could ever be found wrapped in corporate packaging. Heritage seeds and mediaeval grains, which often work better than their modern descendants in ecologically-designed systems, are being swapped and traded at the potential cost of a two year jail term – John Letts, who excavates thatched roofs in search of long-forgotten local landraces, is actively hoping to get incarcerated, but much to his frustration the authorities seem already to acknowledge the absurdity of outlawing such a worthwhile and valid activity. In Todmorden, Yorkshire, Incredible Edible storms abandoned plots and plants them up overnight, without whisper of a by-your-leave or with-your-leave. Grow Heathrow have squatted the site of the proposed, though currently postponed, third runway and turned it into a market garden, and a group in Scotland have occupied an old airport near Aberdeen for agricultural purposes. In almost every county across the land there is surely at least one example of people returning to the land and building themselves appropriate low impact dwellings so that they can create a decent livelihood working on the land, regardless of planning law or the relevant authorities’ preconceptions and official procedures.

Yet there are even bigger targets that are being taken on in radical ways. Entrenched ways of thinking can be robustly challenged on their own terms. Tom Curtis of LandShare works with large farmers to show them how they can reduce their exposure to risk by diversifying their farms. Rather than seeing rationalised monocultural production for a single market as a good bet, they are starting to see that it actually leaves them brutally exposed to the whims of global commodity markets which can see the cost of their inputs double, and the price paid for their crops half, in a matter of months. Other farms are realising that diversifying their production can create economies of scope, so that they can employ good staff and always have jobs for them to do, rather than having to rely on a transient labour force that is oppressed and demotivated by short term contracts and output-dependant pay.

This kind of radical thinking starts to lead to truly radical possibilities. The vast majority of land in the UK is tied up in large private estates. But as the logic of diversified production takes hold these large estates are beginning to see the basic good sense of growing more than two or three different crops over their thousands of acres. The obvious next step, which some estates have already taken, is to invite independent enterprises onto the land to complement existing production – providing income for the estate and synergistic benefits between the different enterprises. Good business sense could potentially open up Britain’s green and pleasant land to hundreds of thousands of new farmers in a matter of years, while armed land grabs remain the stuff of crazed dictators and neo-Maoist nutters. Once these business models become more established, they start to look like a good investment. An investment that promises a reliable return, backed by land and infrastructure, sounds like a good place to put your pension savings, especially in an age of volatile stock markets and minimal interest rates. To take over the pension funds and big estates without need of government edict or armed rebellion… now that really would be radical.

Perhaps the most vital factor in making all this possible is to prove that there is a market for these new kinds of food and farming enterprises – if the food can’t be sold, then it’s all for naught. And taking on the supermarkets is a daunting prospect if ever there was one. But there is a school of thought that sees saturated markets, which are dominated by a few gigantic players locked in a cycle of diminishing returns, as fertile ground for new entrants. Disruptive Innovation is a generic term for innovations which enter a well established marketplace and entirely reimagine it, transforming it almost instantly and often leaving supposedly invincible businesses struggling to catch up. Probably the best known example comes from the world of computers. IBM dominated the industry for decades – no-one even thought about computers without IBM being involved somehow, until Bill Gates turned up and suggested there should be “a computer on every desktop”. IBM thought he was mad, and then only a few years later found themselves perilously close to bankruptcy, which is no small feat for a company backed by Nazi gold! I would never suggest that Real Farming needs its very own Microsoft (far from it!) but I would suggest that there is a similar power in the suggestion that “Every household should have a direct, personal relationship with at least one farm”. It’s a suggestion which is already being made a reality in all sorts of different ways, which the supermarkets see as basically ridiculous, but which nevertheless already achieves the kind of customer loyalty, guaranteed cash flow and minimal waste that the “multiple retailers” can only dream of.

So there are already radical new takes on our relationship with food and farming that are finding a sympathetic and enthusiastic audience amongst a growing section of the population. There are emerging models for radical ways to gain access to land, implement the infrastructure to farm it, and establish a market to support it. Forgotten wisdom, traditional knowledge and rediscovered skills are mounting a radical challenge to the assumed dominance of industrial chemistry and corporate laboratories. And people everywhere are taking it upon themselves to just start doing things differently.

As a final thought, perhaps it’s worth considering that all of this, from self-defeating monocultures to food that makes people sick to the neo-liberal idiocy that supposedly justifies the lot of it, has its roots in a peculiar metaphysical madness that has dominated the Western psyche for well over a century. We have somehow come to believe that the world is made of mere stuff, molecules and things made from molecules bumping up against each other in blind self interest, hoping to outlast the rest. A cursory look at the wonder of symbiotic evolution and the magical history of spontaneous creation that has created the world we live in shows that this is far from the full story. And as Winnie the Pooh said to Christopher Robin, “Everyone’s alright, really”. So perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to simply be nice. To each other and to the rest of this miraculous creation.

Sam Henderson, Church Farm, Hertfordshire, July 28 2011

5 thoughts on “What it means to be radical

  1. i can’t tell you how inspiring this article is. I’ve posted 10 links to it already which is pretty unusual for me. I’d love to hook up and discuss how this might fit with the disruptive innovator iDE (international development enterprises). Imagine 2bn farmers producing 5-10 times more food with simple irrigation tools and market access via the web. Poverty & Poverty Inc. vs GM. It’s doable and it’s radical.

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