Can Britain ever again be fit for farming?

Colin Tudge fears that Brexit could mean the end for agriculture that truly aspires to produce good food for everyone

Our excellent friend Nick Snelgar who writes regularly on these pages is among the relatively few who has shown that small farming really can work – and in particular, that there is an important place even in obsessively industrialized Britain for small dairy farms, aka micro-dairies. Over the past six years, with innovation, enormously hard work, some privation, and at huge financial risk, he has built up a herd of twenty cows near the village of Martin in Hampshire and – even more importantly – has established a plant to process milk from like-minded farms nearby. On the back of all this he has built up a more than viable business, supplying a regular beat of local shops with fresh milk from local pasture-fed cows of known provenance, very much appreciated by the villagers. He has had a timber house built on his own land for him and his wife and visiting family which, the planners said, had to be sawn in half (lengthwise) so the two halves could if required be stashed on a lorry and towed away. This was duly done.

Now Nick and his wife are being booted out. Neighbours have complained. They have fled to their country idylls but don’t, apparently, like the sounds or the smells of the countryside, and some of them don’t approve of livestock farming in any form. Nick appealed against the eviction but the appeal has now been turned down.

I was born in England – in South London, for what the information is worth, though with strong connections with Lancashire (through my father). I have been lucky enough to spend time in lots of wonderful places worldwide but England is home, where I feel I belong (in Oxfordshire now). I fear, though, that England in particular, among the countries of the British Isles, has become vile.  Neoliberalism has ruled these past 35 years and short term wealth is now the measure by which all things are judged. Justice is in serious danger since the country is dominated by whoever is richest and everything – including the countryside, and indeed all land, including the finer parts of London – is up for sale to the highest bidder, whomsoever they may, howsoever they came by their wealth (despots and oligarchs – bring ‘em on!).  I fear, too, that in these post-Brexit days, things are bound to get worse. We do in theory have a chance to re-group, to re-think our values, and to re-design England and indeed Britain for the benefit of people at large and of the biosphere. But we won’t.  We will be thrown with ever-rising desperation into ever-more speculative trade-deals, clinging to whatever economic lifelines are thrown our way, taking whatever we can from those who are even more desperate and can offer no resistance.

Every well informed person in the highest places, including various branches of the UN, and organizations like the Millennium Institute in Washington, now agrees that the world is best served by small farms of many kinds, with low inputs (minimum fossil fuels and their derivatives), and managed along organic lines with plenty of TLC (needing plenty of skill). Such farms can be more productive per unit area than the high-input industrial kind; they are more people-friendly (plenty of jobs, higher quality food); and are more wildlife friendly (and far more sustainable!) than the industrial kind. But such is the mind-set of those in power – neoliberal; urbanized – that all this is ignored. High-tech and industrialization are equated with “progress” and everyone knows that progress is good. Ergo, traditional practice must be an anachronism — an elitist, woolly-minded exercise in nostalgia. This – the unquestioned virtue and need for unfettered markets and high tech – is the modern mythology; and all societies, through all of human history, including those that have claimed to be “rational”, have lived primarily by their mythology.

It is part of the modern myth that our decisions are “evidence-based” – but evidence does not mean “fact”. Evidence in reality means facts that people with most influence choose to take seriously. The fact that small farms demonstrably work when they are not actively done down (they feed 70 per cent of the world’s people, even though they are actively done down) is ignored, or suppressed by those with influence. The non-fact – the lie, indeed – that high-tech industrial agriculture is needed to “feed the world” and that it can do so sustainably, is convenient to those with most influence, and so, in most “modern” countries, it is the basis of farming strategy. The “evidence” that supports the prevailing myth is copious but highly selective. The evidence that small, low-input farms are better, when well-managed, is left on one side or, when it does surface, is routinely derided. Smart, urbanized people, though they may live in the countryside and keep Labradors and make sloe gin, go along with the myth. The mythology is seen to be “responsible” even though it threatens to kill us all. And besides, smart modern people don’t like the sounds and smells of cattle (any more than the smart, refined people of the 18th century liked the view of mountains).

Nick may be seen just as one small farmer among – literally – hundreds of millions, worldwide, swept aside by the relentless march of modernity which, although it may not be picturesque, is taken to represent the only possible future for humanity. Or he may be seen as the victim, yet another, of a myth that suits a few people and others are prepared to go along with. Yet, if there is anyone around in the future to write the history of humankind, this myth will surely be seen as the greatest of all our follies. Humanity and indeed the living world as a whole are being sacrificed because of a few daft ideas – dogmas, algorithms — which some find convenient, and people who really should know better, including some who are called intellectuals, rush to support.

In practice, neoliberal-industrial farming – huge, high-input, high-tech, minimum-to-zero labour monocultural estates, dotted with pony-paddocks and helicopter pads – is the precise opposite of what humanity and the biosphere really need; yet this is what receives government support, meaning it is paid for by us, with the backing of the NFU and of course of industry and industry-dependent  academe. Meanwhile the kind of farms we really need, like Nick’s, are swept aside with equal zeal and somewhat sickening self-righteousness. So it is that in Britain and much or most of the world these days it is relatively easy to make a fat living by doing things that are obviously destructive; and very hard, going on impossible, to make a living by doing good, whether you’re a farmer or a nurse or a teacher or a social worker or what you will. All this sounds like a recipe for a seriously dysfunctional world, which indeed is what we have got.

Truly, we need a Renaissance. Certainly we need to do all that’s possible to defend individual small farmers and others like them. But even more to the point, we need as a matter of urgency to re-think everything that we do and take for granted. Nick in truth is the victim of a world that is seriously off-course.

I and others are now trying to do kick off the Renaissance through the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, which has sprung out of the Campaign for Real Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Please do take a peek at progress so far

2 thoughts on “Can Britain ever again be fit for farming?

  1. (Writing from Canada.)

    How distressing!

    I’ve just finished re-reading your ‘Famine Business’, something I seem to do every decade or so, and I must say it holds up beautifully. I had it in mind to write and ask for your opinion on what Brexit might mean for your aims, but came to ‘Colin’s Corner’ first and found that you have already posted your opinions, and this article.

    I wish I had words of comfort, but at present things seem to be going in exactly the wrong direction. I’m living in an area of so-called ‘redevelopment’, which translated means that a rather sweet 1950’s suburban subdivision of large lots with small, sound little houses surrounded by gardens packed with fruit, flowers and vegetables (and the occasional still-illegal chicken, and the very occasional very-illegal lamb being raised for Easter), is now being torn apart and replaced with fence-to-fence McMansions. Speculative money certainly does rule, and our town fathers are impervious to our protests; their response? “But your own property values are being enhanced by this development.” Confusion here, between price, which they understand, and value, which they probably do, but choose not to acknowledge.

    A philosopher on US public radio was recently asked “Are you a pessimist?”, to which he replied “Only on a good day”.

    But I’m an optimist. Our young people are emphatically not being seduced and sidetracked, as some of us Boomers were, by a relatively easy job market and a true living wage. They have a good deal less to lose than we had, and are living (perforce) quite differently and more co-operatively, and seeming not to mind material modesty so much. A young friend of mine is just back from Cuba, which a bag full of notes on farming; urban, organic, mixed, practical, and definitely designed for the feeding of people.

    And, be assured, the fact that you (plural) continue to write, practise and fly the flag is thoroughly encouraging to the rest of us still struggling, not to keep the faith exactly, but to keep trying to spread it.

    No surrender!

    With all best wishes


  2. Hello Ruth and Colin: for what it is worth, & just for the record ~ I was rather surprised to see this…not ideal, but certainly a well-packaged nod to empirical reason; certainly a tentative fox-trot away from the exasperating, ramped-up corporate driven, ideological PR insanity…or actually, maybe a best example of it! nevertheless & notwithstanding, what do you think?

    BBC Radio 4 (Tom Heap) evidently picked up on this subsequently, in a very interesting episode of Costing the Earth that you have doubtless already heard

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