From small seeds

Chris Smaje describes how a new alliance of small-scale farmers is shaking up UK food production

June 1, 2014
4 min read

Small-scale farming isn’t just yesterday’s food fad, it’s a crucial part of a just and sustainable food system for the future. In 2013 a group of farmer-activists formed the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA) to represent the UK’s small-scale farmers, who felt existing mainstream organisations such as the National Farmers’ Union didn’t speak for them.

The point wasn’t simply to create another sectional interest group. By affiliating with the international peasant farming movement, La Via Campesina, the LWA can work in solidarity with small-scale farmers around the world towards the wider goals of food sovereignty. This concept includes the provision of nutritious food for all and the use of environmentally sustainable farming methods. Crucially, food sovereignty also means protecting food producers from exploitation by reclaiming local and national control of the food economy – a shift from the status quo of global agribusiness and food commodity speculation.

In the UK, it is widely agreed that the farm sector needs to recruit more new entrants, but the concentration of land ownership, coupled with the historic decline of agricultural infrastructures, stands in the way of would-be farmers.

‘At a time when small farms are prohibitively expensive for new entrants, setting up a farm from scratch on a bare land holding is often the only option,’ says LWA member Rebecca Laughton. ‘Over 12 years I’ve helped numerous smallholders in their struggle to gain residential planning permission. The expense and stress of this process, on top of the other demands of establishing a new agricultural business, are immense. If, as a society, we want to encourage a new generation into farming, provide satisfying rural employment and care for the landscape, its biodiversity and its soil, this has to change.’

Disproportionate levels of government support go to large-scale farmers and non-farming landowners. The LWA is campaigning to establish start-up capital funding for farm businesses and to restructure the European Common Agricultural Policy towards agri-environmental stewardship and the support of community-based agriculture.

Globally, governments struggle to control carbon emissions, address unemployment, tackle under-nutrition, as well as diseases of over-nutrition (caused by the excess of commodity-crop carbohydrates and fats in the diet), and optimise the intensity of energy use across industrial sectors. Small-scale farming can help deliver all these objectives through its focus on labour-intensive, energy-light, land-optimising production for local food needs rather than export commodity crops.

The UK currently imports the majority of the fruit and vegetables we consume (in inadequate quantities!), much of which could be grown domestically. Local farmers could meet the need – given a modicum of encouragement from policymakers, rather than the indifference or active hostility they receive today.

There has been a widespread presumption across the political spectrum that a food system based on large-scale, capital-intensive farming is more productive, efficient and bio-secure than a proliferation of community-oriented farms. This is scarcely borne out by the facts, and research suggests that despite their long-predicted demise, small-scale peasant and family farmers are still safely producing the majority of the world’s food. We need a more sophisticated debate: small-scale or artisanal production needn’t be the niche sector geared to the whims of the well-to-do, as agribusiness mythology often portrays it.

Although the organisation is in its early stages, it’s an exciting time for the LWA, which has emerged to meet a serious need. Many new members are buzzing with enthusiasm, relieved to have found a collective voice and support network after working hard to maintain their farms alone. Notable successes include demonstrations this year at the Oxford Farming Conference and at DEFRA on the International Day of Peasant Struggle, which garnered positive press, and engagement with national and EU-level policy makers. Meanwhile, the LWA has built links with trade unions and other farming groups, and used farmer-to-farmer discussions as a means of self-education.

The barriers are high. Among European countries the UK has an unusually concentrated system and provides comparatively little support for small-scale, traditional farming methods.

Change won’t happen overnight. But the LWA’s growing membership, combined with increasing public consciousness of the failures of agribusiness, is grounds for optimism.

To get involved in this vital movement, start by finding your nearest local producers. That could be via a farmer’s market, independent shop or veg box scheme. LWA growers are also involved in a range of community initiatives, so there are plenty of opportunities for volunteering while finding good food.