The steady step toward largeness in agriculture is a relatively recent phenomenon. Bending toward ‘streamlining’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘global market opportunities’ farming in the UK is increasingly taking on the characteristics of ‘gigantism’ — Schumacher’s prognosis of a culture where bigger equals better even if it means disconnection and an oppressive economic system.
So why does this matter today?
Many appreciate where food comes from, championing seasonal, fresh and local food. And as we learn more about how our food is cultivated the appetite for good, lovingly produced food grows. Yet mass-market economics still swings its lumbering limbs, strong arming producers and swaying markets to favour the over-production of cheap food with detrimental effects on the biosphere and on ourselves.
What about small-scale producers who wish to grow food in step with nature? There are many issues at play here, but two stand out as key factors. The historical (and contemporary) nature of land ownership and the ties that bind us — market forces.
Nearly half of the UK’s land is owned by less than 1% of the population. Such land ownership favours big agriculture. In the UK the number of farms has declined by around 14% in the last ten years. This is largely due to the decrease in the number of small farms, where many, no longer considered viable, are consolidated into larger farms. The price per hectare and concentration of land ownership in England is among the highest in Europe. Eight supermarkets control almost 95% of the food retail market and farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce sold in supermarkets.
A litany of woeful facts. All this would seem to indicate that the notion of small-scale, agro-ecological farming in 21st Century England is a preposterous idea. But this isn’t the case. Resistance to ‘gigantism’ is fertile, especially in the fields of ecological agriculture.
Forward-thinking, stewardship-minded and ecologically based, small-scale farming is injecting creativity and care into agriculture.
But what about those wishing to get into agriculture? The average age of a UK farmer is 59 years. The high cost of land, the history of land ownership and the precious nature of growing food has meant getting a start in farming is very difficult.
Despite the obstacles, what unites beginner farmers is their enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
And this is where the ELC step in. Their community share offer is aimed at helping new entrants to agriculture access land.
The ELC is the only organisation in England to offer affordable residential smallholdings for ecological land users. Their approach aims to overcome two key barriers to accessing land: high land prices and the planning system. The ELC creates clusters of smallholdings by purchasing parcels of agricultural land and dividing it into smaller units for future farmers. Providing shared infrastructure, shared planning applications – as well as site monitoring – the ELC helps to keep costs down for those applying for a plot. Sites are also protected for affordability and ecological agricultural use in perpetuity.
Small-scale farms make a distinctive contribution to rural life and economies. Providing local food, generating income, such farmers are moving from being ‘price takers’ (as dictated by supermarkets) to ‘price makers’ (connecting with consumers). Scaling back, not scaling up can thereby provide a model for a truly ecological agriculture.
Many studies have shown that the smaller the farm size the greater the yield per hectare. This is due to the diversity of crops, species rich polycultures and sound ecological land management. This and the fact they are labour intensive. This translates as a higher quality of work inspired by an ecological ethic to produce good food.
The industrial farming model has led to an ecological crisis in the UK. And we’ve a lot to answer for in our pursuit of more and more. Biodiversity loss, the degradation of soils, environmental contamination from agrochemicals, disease and antibiotic resistance, high greenhouse gas emissions, and huge amounts of food waste. According to the UN 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. This narrowing and specialisation is prone to the shocks and challenges of a changing climate.
For small-scale ecological agriculture, biodiversity is the cornerstone of farm life. Such an approach can help create a more diverse, ecological healthy countryside which provides employment, provides good food and can even be a positive contributor to wildlife and the natural world — the ultimate store of our natural capital which drives the planet.
And the ELC seeks to create such ecologically based stewardship-minded farms to make small-scale agriculture a viable reality for the 21st century. The ELC develops and retains the skills, experience, and expertise necessary to show planning authorities why such small-scale farms make sense financially and culturally. As a co-operative retaining the acquired knowledge around planning and policy is crucial; a way of both replicating the small clusters of farms model and in dealing with planning law thereby allowing future farmers to focus their energies on growing their business.
As a not-for-profit community benefit society the ELC largely relies on public financing to carry out their work. The ELC is running a community share offer until 12th June inviting members of the public to invest from £500 to raise between £120,000 to £340,000 for the creation of two new clusters of small farms. Investors are offered up to 3% interest on share capital annually. This isn’t simply a one-off charitable cause but a business-minded approach that looks toward the public for financing. Community Shares allow people to directly support enterprises that matter to them.
Helping get new entrants into ecological agriculture is part of wider movement to bring back democracy, an ecological land ethic and fairness in farming fit for the future.
To find out more and invest: https://www.ethex.org.uk/ecologicalland
Teaser photo credit: Walter Lewis.