Agriculture As Though the Earth Mattered
Julian Rose, June 2007
Almost everything that has gone wrong with food, farming and our environment over the past three or four decades, has done so because of an unswerving allegiance to market forces and what is described as ‘The Free Market’.
Agriculture, as the origin of the word conveys, is ‘a culture of the field’ and is not an industry and therefore should never have been subjected to the competitive and often aggressive cut and thrust of commerce. Once under the influence of the market economy, it became transformed into an industry in which ever greater productivity at ever lower costs became the all pervading mantra.
Only 35 years ago the average UK dairy herd had fifteen cows and the farmer made a reasonable living from selling his milk to the Milk Marketing Board or as a producer retailer. His/her fields supported a rotation involving mixed cropping and virtually all such farms kept some hens, three or four pigs and a bit of fruit and veg around the farm house. A very civilized life style.
In 1972 there were some forty five thousand dairy herds in the UK. Now there are just thirteen thousand and the rate of decline is still accelerating. An organic farmer I know has recently increased his milking herd from eighty cows to two hundred and fifty in a desperate attempt to keep his farm economically viable under the intense competition generated by an almost constant downward pressure on milk exerted by the inexhaustibly consumptive supermarkets.
In 1995, when milk sold in supermarkets for around 42p/litre, the retailer made 1p margin per litre and the farmer made 5p margin. By 2005 the milk price had risen to 51p/litre, but the farmer’s return had remained too small to cover costs, necessitating some drastic action.
This same price squeezing exercise has been applied to all main UK farm supplies, not just milk.
The end of the road for most UK mixed family farms has thus been ushered forward by the sheer greed of the big retailers and their relentless pursual of profit at any cost.
On my own farm, in South Oxfordshire, I decided to bottle and sell my own unpasteurized organic milk. Mainly because I love the quality, texture and flavor of this food, but also to avoid getting sucked into the fickle price fluctuations of the bulk market.
Things went well at first with a small but healthy demand for our rich flavorful Guernsey milk and cream. But, on expanding my milk round into Reading, I ran into an intercernine supermarket price war for the ‘white stuff’ they sell. Tescos, Sainsbury and Asda all going for each others jugular – succeeded in dropping the retail price of milk by 8p/litre in less than one month. My newly aquired customers, still largely unaware of the outstanding difference in quality between the white stuff and real milk, complained that my price was uncompetitive and ceased their orders. It had the effect of undermining the economic viability of the delivery round and led on to the sad day (in 1998) when there was no option other than to sell my herd of sixty lovely Guernseys.
However, I am proud to have stuck to the principle, since converting my farm in 1975, of selling as much of its’ fruits as possible locally. And to this day, in the hands of colleagues, the tradition continues, with all the beef and lamb produced sold through home counties farmers markets, and all the fruit and veg. On a box scheme to surrounding towns. I have now turned my concentration more onto the farm’s woodland enterprise, including the maintenance of a fire wood round to local residents, as well as a small scale planking operation for local D.I.Y enthusiasts.
As some readers may be aware, the supermarket led globalized food industry is run by a small, but powerful club. A club composed of the chief executives and chairmen of the main agrichemical and seed corporations, pharmaceutical companies, most banks and insurance companies as well as senior officials of the World Trade Organisation, the United States Dept. of Agriculture, the European Commission and most national governments.
Being a member of this club implicates the individuals concerned in a criminal activity; namely the destruction and decimation of virtually all rural, human scale activities, and particularly the most honorable task of nurturing and sustaining our precious soils, crops and animals.
The long standing tradition which established mixed family farms as the backbone of British agriculture, has been ripped to shreds by this modern day cowboy culture – and it is hard to comprehend how ‘organic food’ could ever have become so closely associated with such a devious regime.
Many modern day organic farmers hitched a ride on this inglorious bandwagon, waving cheerfully as it drove off into the brave new world of mass produced cling film wrapped mediocrity.
Some thought that it was the only way to ‘grow the organic movement’. However, the reality is that while millions now flock to the supermarkets to purchase organic food, the amount of land being converted into organic production has risen by just over 2% in the past twenty years. A fraction of what was confidently predicted two decades ago.
The rapidly growing volume of organic food sales are largely made up of imports from every corner of the world, revealing a very ‘inorganic’ food miles equation and heavy carbon footprint.
Organics is thus subjected to the same market forces that fuel conventional mass production systems that were supposed to be shunned in favor of local, fresh, seasonal and flavorful food.
So what is to be done?
For the past six years I have been spending much time in Poland; having, in November 2000, been invited to become a co-director of The International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside.
ICPPC’s founder, Jadwiga Lopata, grew up on a small peasant farm near Krakow and was drawn back to the countryside after a brief spell working as a computer programmer.
Our task is to try to help to secure the survival of some one and a half million small family farms averaging approximately seven ha., that range across the length and breadth of the Country.
These farms are the guardians of an extraordinarily rich natural biodiversity which places Poland at the top of European species rich regions.
The small peasant farms utilize only the very minimum of sprays and nitrates – and mostly none at all. The owners can’t afford them. They are, if you like, organic by default. All biodegradeable materials are returned to the soil as a matter of course and regular crop rotations are always followed. Most of these farms have a cow or two, a work horse, a few pigs and a flock of laying hens. Typical is also a small orchard of apple, cherry and plum. They are subsistence farms whose essential role is to feed the family and sell any surplus locally.
Because such farms don’t fit the formula devised for European Union Common Agricultural Policy, they are currently under intense pressure to ‘conform’ or give up. Conforming means complying to Brussel’s plans to ‘restructure and modernize’ Polish agriculture: another way of saying ‘get big and go for maximum agrichemical assisted production. It also means accepting the pitiful subsidy which only converts into a worthwhile economic return if one has one hundred hectares or more.
Once any subsidy is taken however, the farmer quickly becomes a slave to the countless obsessive hygiene and sanitary regulations that eventually brake the back of even the strongest resisters. Brussels holds the whip hand, eating from it invites the consequences.
The future of the Polish countryside and of the thousands of varieties of indigenous seeds still freely swapped between farmers, depends upon an absolute resistance to this highly seductive EU trap. A trap which every other Country in the European Union has so far fallen into over the past three decades. A trap which has led to the ruthless decimation of our human scale, diverse, community based farming cultures and the establishment of the almost all conquering agribusiness empires.
What I have learned, in observing and sharing with these peasant farmers, is the unique importance for us Westerners of retracing our steps; retracing them until they come to a sufficiently solid foundation from which to build anew.
Firstly, our priority should be to feed ourselves. When one starts a small fruit and vegetable garden , mixed smallholding, or allotment patch, the objective is to enjoy the fruits of this land and to supply one’s family, extended family, neighbors and friends with any surplus. It is not to try and make a profit. This is fundamental – yet for many, illusive. If one’s main objective is seeking to make a profit the pressure will be on from the beginning to expand, invest capital, cut labor, mechanize and find new markets.
It is ‘the profit urge’ that marks the progressive symptoms of a disease which fuels the cut throat market economy of to-day. And it delivers exactly the wrong message to all regions of the world where community still forms the foundation of food sovereignty.
But if one stays small, moves slowly, eats well and pleases one’s neighbors with the fruits of the land, one will not suffer the often tragic demise of so many of to-days overstretched farmers, always struggling to keep up with the brutal forces of global competition.
In Poland, most of the small (7ha) mixed farms are kept going on a part-time basis. Family members may take outside work (if they can find it) to help the cash flow. Often, either the man or woman of the house will seek work to supplement the small farming income. But before you jump
up and declare ” I told you – part-time farming – that’s not real farming!” I must insist that it is real farming! It is just that the objective is not be become rich, but rather to maintain a way of life passed down from generation to generation.
The fact is that to-day, in a climate of very low prices for the main agricultural commodities, it is necessary to supplement farming incomes. In England, more than fifty percent of all farmers are doing the same.
Many Polish small farmers still keep and utilize a work horse – not for romantic reasons – but because a horse does a better job than a tractor in most circumstances and is considerably more economic. No soil compaction, a delicate turning of the topsoil under the plough and a diet of home grown hay rather than petroleum – are three characteristics.
Most farmhouses are home built (no outside contractors) and farm tools/implements, some more than one hundred years old, are very carefully maintained.
Food is stored over winter in the traditional way: fermented and kept in jars, pickled or preserved and put in the cellar without the need or use of modern refrigeration.
Herbs are grown for culinary and medicinal purposes – the doctor is rarely called.
Hay for the animals is ‘stooked’ and then transferred to the barn or loft – no modern baler required.
Pigs and chickens are killed when they are required for the table, hung in the pantry or barn and often smoked for a variety of sausages. Cooking, and most heating, is done on wood burning stoves using small batches of timber from local forests.
You can see why the European Union hates these independent souls and is determined to undermine their highly sustainable life style, by tagging the ears of cattle, insisting on ‘passports’ and forcing long journeys to distant supermarket controlled abattoirs.
Just last year, selling milk from hand milked cows was declared illegal.
Genuine independence is a rare condition these days. It presents one of the last true threats to powers who wish to exert total control over human activities. Polish farmers represent a pretty formidable obstacle to EU and corporate agribusiness; and the only reason they remain is because they have not sought to make a profit ahead of their wish to live humbly and to perpetuate a cycle of landed wisdom so particular to peasant cultures.
This is a massive lesson to be learned by the overdeveloped West. The true peasant way of life, wherever it is practiced in the world, provides a fine example of genuine ‘sustainable living’, an immediate solution to global warming Co2 emissions and a stern lesson for practitioners who have put the lure of the market place ahead of meeting the basic needs of local people.
Polish farmers are are approximately twenty five years ahead of where most western based agricultural enterprises are supposed to be going in order to meet the challenge of saving our planet from imminent meltdown.
1. Julian initiated a project in 2000 to help make the market town of Faringdon, South Oxfordshire, become self sufficient in food, fuel and fiber by 2015. If you would like some information about this project please email him on contact form