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Ed. note: This article will be published in the Autumn 2016 issue of STIR magazine. Please go here to subscribe. 
How far back in your family history do you have to go to find someone who made a living working the land? The chances are you will find it difficult unless you are from a farming family. Our disconnection to the land goes back many generations and we are still feeling its repercussions today.
This fact was brought home to me when I started working on a European-wide project on access to land. All the partners, from countries including France, Germany and Italy talked of the influence on their lives of farming parents or grandparents, the land they felt connected to and often still owned. I know of no one in my recent family who has a direct connection to the land. The only ancestor of note is a Lancashire mill owner, a link to my industrial rather than my rural heritage, and this illustrates my point.
Our disconnection has its roots in the enclosures of the 18th Century that essentially stole land from the peasantry, the industrial revolution and subsequent rapid urbanisation of the population. All of which has significantly influenced our relationship to food, farming and the land, with ensuing damage to our health – we have the highest level of obesity in Europe.
Yet, there are many lessons that we can learn from our continental neighbours, whether we remain part of the EU or not.
One of the most inspiring is Terre de liens, a French land trust that over the past decade has raised over €48 million from public shares to buy 122 organic and biodynamic farms. Central to their work is the idea of ‘decommodifying’ land – taking it off the market so that it cannot be used for financial speculation, and can be safeguarded for local, sustainable food production; re-establishing land as a common good. Terre de liens mobilises people to support local farms and farmers. It operates a solidarity investment company, with citizens encouraged to invest in shares that are used to buy land and farm buildings.
In Germany, Regionalwert AG, a citizen shareholder corporation in Freiburg has used community investment to develop a ‘value-added supply chain’, injecting capital at the most appropriate point in the whole farm to fork chain. They have invested over €3 million, not just in farms but also in the processing, distribution and retail structures to support local organic production. With farming incomes low, investment in these additional structures and enterprise networks has huge benefits and helps to create thriving local communities.
It is important that we also understand the current threats to land, both in the UK and more widely. Since 2010, 12% of EU farmland has been lost. The French term ‘artificialisation’ used to describe loss of land to infrastructure, perfectly captures the irrevocability of concreting over of our soil. Small family farms are consolidated into huge farms including thousand hectare mega farms and in Eastern Europe, we find legitimised land grabbing. The issue of an aging farming population is a concern across Europe, as the lack of a successor often leads to small farms being sold and amalgamated by neighbouring landowners.
However many European countries benefit from regulation on land, that sets both sale and rental values or ensures that farmland can only be bought or rented by farmers. While not infallible, these structures contrast deeply with the UK’s unregulated land market and in the countries where they exist, they have helped to keep farmland prices more closely linked to production.
Without any regulation, UK land values have doubled in less than a decade and tax and subsidies benefit landowners rather than sustainable production systems. We are entering an era when land ownership may well be as out of reach for farmers as home ownership is for most of the population.
Yet new approaches are being trialled in the UK that mirror our European neighbours. The Soil Association Land Trust and Biodynamic Land Trust, the phenomenal success of Fordhall Farm and the Ecological Land Cooperative demonstrate new models of ownership and a valuing of land in perpetuity, safeguarding it for new, young and ecological farmers. There is also a rise in ethical investment, and initiatives like Funding Enlightened Agriculture are harnessing wider sources of finance.
However they all have to operate within the constraints of the UK’s unregulated land system and while we need to celebrate and support these initiatives, we need structural reform to address our archaic land ownership and inequitable subsidy systems. Daunting as this may seem, there are rays of hope from Scotland, described as having the most inequitable land ownership system in the developed world, which has recently passed a Land Reform Act. So perhaps as well as looking across the Channel, we can also look north for inspiration.