I posted a couple of weeks ago about the high tech farming of the future. Little did I know that the planning officers at Mendip District Council already have their own distinctive vision of high tech farming, which they’re ready to roll out right now.
In refusing our planning application for agricultural residence the officers stated that theft and vandalism on the site are better deterred by “increased site security from gates, floodlights, alarms etc”, that crop protection can be taken care of “by an alarm system triggered by a thermometer, allowing workers to respond according to conditions” that predator attacks can be neutralised by “automatic doors for poultry houses” and that wind damage is “unfortunate but avoidable”.
I must admit that the frustrated superhero in me is quite taken by these proposals. Picture me brooding in my Frotham City mansion. The red phone rings. Emergency! I slide down the pole into my Spudmobile and race off to the smallholding (it’s not clear why the planners think this results in less travel than if I lived on site – perhaps they’ve already developed a zero energy transporter, Star Trek style).
Upon arrival, I flick a switch – the security gates roll open, the floodlights blaze into action. Kerpow! Oof! I make short work of the thieves and vandals. They won’t be coming here again for a while, no sir. “Calm yourself”, I yell to the wind, which dies down at my command before it can unseat the polytunnels or the packing tent. The poultry door slams down on a marauding fox, decapitating it instantly (of course it would never think to come out during the day before the timing switch kicks in). I pick a few hundred slugs off the cucumbers in the polytunnel – tomorrow I will sell the cucumbers for 86p each, thereby funding all this high tech gadgetry, with enough left over for Mrs Spudman and I to go to the pictures on Friday night. I drive home slowly, tired but satisfied from my night’s work. Girls swoon as they see me driving past in the Spudmobile.
An attractive vision for some, perhaps. But here’s an alternative one. I wake up in the farmhouse early in the morning. Mrs Spudman has already left for her job in Bristol – thank goodness at least one of us earns a decent wage. Before I make the kids’ breakfast, I nip out and check everything’s OK with the livestock and the seedlings. After the kids are in school I spend the morning working in the market garden. At lunchtime I go into the farmhouse and cook something for myself, do a few domestic chores and then go back outside for the afternoon’s work. After the kids are back from school I do a bit more work in the market garden, then cook dinner. After they’re in bed, I go out and check the livestock, chase away a fox, wave angrily but not entirely ineffectually at the pigeons, feed the cat after its day of roaming in search of rodent prey, check the temperature in the propagator, pick some slugs in the polytunnel, sit and read for a bit, then go to bed. If a strong wind blows up in the night, I get up and make sure everything’s OK. If a frost comes down, I make sure the tender plants are safe. If it starts raining heavily, maybe I get up and sow the cover crop that was just waiting for the rain. If I find somebody creeping around the barn who’s “just looking for their dog” I tell them to bugger off. So it goes on.
It’s a radical vision, I admit, but it just might catch on if only there was a good name to sell the idea with. Hey, why don’t we call the place where I’m growing the food a “farm”? And we could call the person who lives there a “farmer”. So much less energy use, driving and hassle than the planners’ preferred option. It’s a wonder no one thought of it before.
Of course, people used to grow vegetables on peri-urban sites like ours to feed the local population. But then it turned out it was cheaper to buy it all in from other places in the world where there’s more sunshine and fewer trade unions. It was more worthwhile to sell off all the old farmhouses and outbuildings for non-farm residences, to push rural land prices up beyond any possible returns from agriculture, and to create big, energy-guzzling farms growing subsidised commodity crops for national or global markets. Cheaper, but not sustainable in the long run. If only we could somehow reclaim that small farm vision. If only people were allowed to become farmers again. If only…if only…