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Can small-scale farming be sustainable?

Tom Kenny

The financial difficulties faced by small-scale agro-ecological farmers is a problem that needs to be addressed, not a signal that their time is over.

I recently read two interesting blogs on the sustainability of small scale farming. The first was an article in Salon by an organic farmer in the US called Jaclyn Moyer, highlighting the difficulty of making a living income. The second was a follow up by Tim Worstall on Forbes.com, arguing that these difficulties demonstrate that small-scale farming has no place in modern society, given its necessary association with low income and poverty. The latter article inspired me to write this blog, as reading the original article, I had instead heard an eloquent and passionate appeal for society to acknowledge this issue and provide support for the farmers it professes to love:

Does the notion that farming is lovable work excuse the fact that the entire industry relies on underpaid labor?… I had to wonder if this notion works only to assuage a collective discomfort provoked by an unsettling fact, a fact that should enrage us, that should disgrace us as a society: the fact that the much celebrated American small farmer can’t even make a living.

In a world experiencing a ‘phenomenon of bullshit jobs’, is it really desirable that we take people away from sustainable farming practices that are good for the environment and society? Rather than calling for the end of small scale farming, we should recognise the value that it creates and find a way to make it a more financially sustainable pursuit. Exploring how to make common good land use more financially sustainable is a key goal of Shared Assets. Some of the necessary changes may be achieved through developing practice, but major policy changes are probably needed to achieve others.

Lowering the cost of living and production for small scale farmers

It is important not to focus exclusively on income, when the key issue is actually being able to secure a livelihood. Many land-workers would certainly object to the suggestion they are living in ‘medieval poverty’ – they may for example have a relatively low income, but a relatively high standard of living. To be clear, I am not referring to the ‘lovable work excuse’ discussed above, but rather tangible benefits like cheap access to nutritious food and low living costs. Moreover, there are several ways of reducing the cost of living and production for landworkers:

  • Allowing them to live on the land: For many landworkers, being able live on the land has huge implications for lowering costs, yet planning policies make this difficult. Authorities should take steps to make ecological dwellings easier to build for landworkers.
  • Cheaper access to land: As Moyer discusses in the original article, the fact that landworkers often have to pay rent, whilst also failing to benefit from any capital improvements they make to the land is a huge barrier. This issue is perhaps even more pressing in the UK. A Scottish tenant farmer was recently in the news, having been evicted after investing £500,000 in improvements to the land. Promoting ways of increasing ownership or giving small scale farmers more secure leases and affordable rent would make a big difference.

Increasing income for small scale farmers

There are also a number of contingent reasons for the low incomes of many landworkers that we could aim to address through practice or policy:

  • Unrealistic pricing of food: the domination of several large supermarkets gives them purchasing power that forces extremely low prices. Additionally, subsidised, intensive farming is leading food to be sold far below its real, sustainable, cost and this should be addressed. The recent campaign to pay milk producers a fair amount showed that this is possible.
  • Diversifying income streams: The original article highlighted the prevalence of alternative income streams amongst small scale farmers. While this serves to highlight the difficulty of securing a decent income through farming, it can also be seen as a great strength. Innovative land-based social entrepreneurs have often found new ways to generate income, often whilst also creating extra social and environmental value. Managing small pieces of land needn’t solely be about traditional farming, and new models of common good land are evolving.
  • New ways of selling food: the Forbes article suggests that nothing changes in small scale agriculture, however this is simply incorrect. In addition to advances in production methods, there are also a number of new ways for farmers to sell their produce. Vegetable box schemes, and new online marketplaces are just a few examples.

Compensating social and environmental value

Compared to conventional farming, small scale farmers often do far more to improve the environment, and less to damage it.

When a student asked if my farm was sustainable, I told her that I was certified organic, I managed my soil fertility through crop rotations and compost applications, I didn’t use synthetic pesticides, I conserved water”. (Salon article)

Many small scale farmers also produce at least partially uncompensated social value. This might be through promoting health and wellbeing, education and recreation activities, or even just the value people take from beautiful, sustainable land use.

‘I love having an organic farm in our community’, the woman continued, ‘I just think this whole food movement it so great.’ I imagined this woman walking into my farm stand, fumbling a tomato in her palm, admiring the new-car-shine of each purple eggplant. Maybe she chooses two crookneck squash and a handful of thumb-size jalapenos. Before getting back in her car she looks out at the fields, at the tidy rows of salad mix and baby kale; then the woman drives away smiling, watching my fields rise and fall in her rearview mirror. (Salon article)

Reforming taxes and subsidies

Moving on from the above, a key strategy for helping small scale farmers would be to reform systems of subsidies and taxation. If subsidies were directed at promoting sustainable land use, social value, and/ or producing healthy food this would also make a big difference to the financial sustainability of small-scale agro-ecological farming. As the Salon article points out, the vast majority of subsidies are in fact taken by large scale intensive agri-business, supporting practices that often damage the environment.

Since the Forbes article disagrees with subsidies in general, it may be better to phrase the debate in terms of natural capital. The Office for National Statistics valued the UK’s natural capital at £1.57 trillion in 2011. If agro-ecological farming was compensated for adding to this, and intensive farming fined for detracting from it, the market would look very different.

I think it is fair to say that most people in modern developed societies would not choose to pursue what is often relatively poorly paid and physically demanding land-based labour. But this environmentally and socially sustainable pursuit remains the choice of many, and I believe we should applaud them and provide support in whatever ways we can. This means developing a system of structures and rewards that create space in our society for small farmers to deliver social, economic and environmental value.

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