Real Farming, Real Towns

Last week I went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference. When I got back I discovered that our packing tent had blown away in the gales, which just goes to prove that you should never, ever leave your farm for any reason, least of all conferences and other such trifles.

But leave the farm I did, so I thought I might as well make the most of it by reporting back on the conference – which actually was excellent in many ways, and well worth attending (packing tent excepted). My admiration extends as ever to Colin Tudge and Ruth West from the Campaign For Real Farming for making it all happen.

I don’t have the space to summarise everything I heard at the conference, but fortunately I don’t have to because the critical issues were mostly all encapsulated at the very end in a barnstorming 15 minute closing speech by Professor Tim Lang of City University. It was provocative stuff which seemed to offend some of the farmers in the audience. Certainly, it raised some challenging issues that all of us – consumers, food activists, policymakers, academics and the corporate food industry as well as farmers – need to ponder. In the rest of this post I’m just going to offer a few first blush responses to some of the things Professor Lang said from my perspective as a local agroecological grower.

Here’s a very condensed summary of Professor Lang’s injunctions to the conference multitudes: focus on food, forget about farming – only ½ a percent of the workforce is directly involved in farming, and few people outside it understand the issues it involves. Earlier in history, people left the land in droves because they didn’t like being ripped off by the landed classes so they moved to the cities where they engaged in urban food activism – allotments, and so on. The most innovative thinking about food today is still being undertaken by urban activists. Them, and the transnational corporations, who can see the writing is on the wall for the present food system and are busy inventing the next one. The alternative farm movement is behind the game. To catch up it needs innovations, one of which must be to shift away from arable and stock farming and towards horticulture.

Actually, writing this down now I can see why some of the farmers were annoyed. But since I’m essentially an urban food activist turned small town market gardener (a glorified allotment gardener, really) can I award myself a pat on the back for seeing some years ago the way the world was going and getting involved in urban market gardening, just as Lang enjoins? Maybe, but somehow my sympathies lie more with the struggling farmers than the with-it urban food activists.

Let’s look at some figures. The town of Frome where I live has a population of about 26,000, and an area of about 830 hectares. Let’s suppose, generously, that a full quarter of that (gardens, parks, allotments) can be given over to food production, and let’s suppose that everyone exclusively grows potatoes since this is the most efficient crop in terms of calorific output per unit area (see previous post) – though we’ll leave a 30% fallow because we may not be able to rely on the NPK gravy train forever. On this improbably generous basis, by my calculations the spud-eating denizens of Frome could grow at an absolute maximum around 25% of the food they need within the city limits. In reality I’d be surprised if we grow even 1% of the food we consume here inside the town.

So while the most innovative thinking about food may be going on in towns, the actual production of food is mostly going on elsewhere. There are lots of good reasons to support the urban allotment movement, but urban food self-reliance isn’t really one of them – so maybe as well as defending tiny patches of green space within our towns, we should all be thinking a bit more carefully about the acres of green space surrounding them.

What’s going on in this peri-urban zone? Here in Frome, a bit of woodland, some horseyculture, some arable and dairy farming, and my market garden. Now, I think Tim Lang is right that we should be shifting the balance away from agriculture and towards horticulture – a much more labour and land intensive form of production. Indeed that was the main point of my previous post. If we were to do so, in order to feed itself Frome would have to spill out of its current bounds and become a garden city of urban peasants, or else it would have to fill its hinterlands with veg box peasants serving the city, which amounts to much the same thing (interestingly, Hugh Ellis of the Town & Country Planning Association has pointed out that the idea of urban green belts, when it was first mooted, was to create space for farmers serving local markets to live and work, and not to prevent ‘development’ as such).

I think it would be great if this happened. But it would involve many people returning to small-scale agriculture – and I think the potential for that is there, not least because historically most people didn’t jump from the countryside but were pushed. We’ve never yet experimented with a society of independent smallholders, but there remains a palpable hunger in this country for land to make productive.

The reason that I feel more akin to the farmers than the food activists, though, is that before we can make any of this a reality we need a much more thorough public debate about where our food comes from and its true cost – financial, environmental and social. In the absence of such a debate, a small commercial market garden on the edge of a town served by a plethora of supermarkets can be a pretty cold and lonely place to be – trapped as it is between the vicious race to the bottom of global food commodity competition going on within the farms in the surrounding countryside, and the noble but ultimately limited food activism in the town. Consumers and even food activists rarely understand the commercial pressures facing agroecological market gardeners, whereas the corporate food sector understands them only too well – which is why they have tried and largely succeeded in trampling them into the dirt.

A sub-theme of the conference that Tim Lang only touched on was how to find the big political narrative that can drive this debate forward in concrete detail. A reformist, enlightened capitalism – agricultural renaissance – or a true revolution in landownership and farming? I sensed the anger of some delegates at the way the current property regime denies people access to land (aspiring entrants to farming often think that getting access to land is the major problem; those of us lucky enough to have surmounted that hurdle often ruefully reflect that our battle has barely begun). But I heard few nuanced proposals charting either path. Some people said there was no need to go back to Marx – we just need a properly functioning market in food. Personally, I think we do need to go back to Marx – partly for his ever-relevant critique of capitalism, but also by way of witness to the pathological twist that his thought took in the hands of followers who invented the collective farm. We also need to go back to the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo to understand how fresh and promising capitalism might have seemed in its early days as it battled with landed wealth, but also again to witness the pathological turn it’s taken in modern transnational monopoly capital – the worm that was already present in the seed. I’d like to have heard more from Professor Lang about the innovative thinking going on amongst the transnationals. I find it hard to imagine that the future they’re charting will assign a role for any citizenry more noble than that of house slaves in the giant manor of monopoly capital, but perhaps I’m wrong. Manor, collective farm, smallholding – I know which one I prefer. I hope that at next year’s conference we may have started to chart in finer detail the route for getting there. Perhaps that’s a task I’ll set myself in my future posts on here – once we’ve got the packing tent sorted.

5 thoughts on “Real Farming, Real Towns

  1. Tim Lang has let his left brain run out of control. The idea that I need urban activists to do innovative thinking for me makes my skin crawl! …..He is right though.

    • Thanks for this Chris – stimulating and readable as ever.
      I don’t get the logic of this statement though: “Consumers and even food activists rarely understand the commercial pressures facing agroecological market gardeners, whereas the corporate food sector understands them only too well – which is why they have tried and largely succeeded in trampling them into the dirt”. Does the corporate sector need to do anything active to ensure the demise of the agorecologists? Surely just by existing and operating a low price = everything ethos, the future of the agroecologist is one of struggle?

      • Yes, I think low checkout price (different from actual price!) operates ‘by default’ to limit the possibilities for agroecology, though underlying those prices I’d say there’s a lot of active effort by the corporates on many different fronts globally. No doubt some of these efforts only incidentally disadvantage small agroecological growers, whereas others I suspect deliberately target them. Small local businesses and corporates tend to get bracketed together as ‘businesses’ distinct from the social/community sector in the public eye and legally/bureaucratically, but really they’re utterly different beasts. I’ll try to post some more on this in future.

  2. I have found your blog after your excellent post on the Dark Mountain page. I am now going back and reading all of your blog posts.

    It is heartening to read of your life and work and I greatly admire it. There are so many issues interconnected to food production. As you point out, access to land is the main one. I look forward to reading your posts up to present day and beyond.

    • Martin – I’m glad you’ve found my work & my blog of interest. Do feel free to post your further thoughts here – comments help me to keep the show on the road!

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