I was struck recently by Gully describing how the landscape was changing in his native Kashmir. Being played out there is a rerun of sorts of the enclosure acts, albeit done on a more voluntary basis. For years, the landscape was a patchwork of smallholdings. The land was hilly and it was farmed, expertly, in terraces. But in recent years smallholders have been encouraged to sell their farms to bigger concerns. The terraces have been turned into huge fields growing single crops. The results are interesting – the land has major erosion problems and the soil has become depleted necessitating the adding of chemical fertilisers to get anything to grow. Meanwhile, the displaced small farmers have spent their money sending their children away to obtain university educations – now the children are back, highly educated but unable to get jobs in the cities, and with no land inheritance to fall back on. Moreover, the old system worked as a kind of family planning incentive – the land would have to be parcelled out between sons, so families were often small because no one wanted to have to divide their land into tiny chunks.
Monoculturefarming is common in Britain. I well remember driving through Cambridgeshire with my mother, when she suddenly clutched at my arm and shouted ‘Look!’. After I had bought the car back under control, I tried to find the object of her excitement and discovered that it was a field of black and white cows. ‘They are the first cows I’ve seen here,’ she said, by way of explanation. And she was right. Cambridgeshire is gloriously flat and lends itself very well to single-crop arable farming. Many farms there now grow only wheat or oil-seed rape. They used to have cows, but it became uneconomical to keep them with prices driven down by supermarkets and cheap imports. Dairy farmers are on duty in all weathers 365 days a year from dawn to dusk – that’s a bloody tough way to not make any money.
In fact, so hard is it for farms to make money, that they are closing at an alarming rate – some figures suggest as many as two a day. Farmers, on average, earn only 9p per £1 spent on food in supermarkets. Many have little choice but to earn their 9p by monoculture farming, which enables higher yields and is more economical because production can be standardised and requires less labour.
But this comes at a high environmental price. Variety is lost because single crop farms do not only grow one thing, but grow only one variety of one thing. This opens the way for pests who multiply joyfully encouraged by a never-ending supply of food. This necessitates ever increasing amounts of pesticide, with all the resultant problems to the environment that they bring. Conventional farming replaces nutrients taken out of the soil, but with single crop farms the soil is depleted requiring more and more fertiliser – and aside from then environmental cost – that, as any farmer will tell you, does not come cheap.
In fact, it’s worth here considering the plight of the modern-day farmer. To gather a true picture, I asked my lovely friend Helen who runs a farm in Cambridgeshire with her husband Nick. Helen, who is also a qualified teacher, is one of the most positive people on the planet – and since farmers have something of a reputation for moaning, I felt her opinions would reflect a true picture.
The main problem, according to Helen, is that farmers are essentially hostages – to fortune, acts of God, big business, greedy landlords, and bizarre government practices. A farmer planting a field of wheat has little control over the price of the seed or the cost of the fertiliser he (or she) needs, or, ultimately, the price he sells his harvest for. He cannot, of course, control the weather nor can he completely safeguard against pests and disease. Meanwhile, he has to follow rules and procedures laid down by the pen-wielding beaurocrats at Defra, who, he feels, do not fully grasp the issues he faces – and, if he is a tenant farmer, split his profits with his landlord – and some of them can be pretty grasping and ruthless. Few of us do a job where we are uncertain what we will be paid at the end of the year – and whether that pay will cover the costs we have incurred along the way.
Certainly, there are some farmers for whom we can find it hard to elicit sympathy – but if we are moaning about farming practices today, we as consumers have to take our share of culpability. We expect our food to be cheap and plentiful. We therefore get the agriculture we deserve.
Of course, it is disingenuous to argue that small scale farms have occupied some agricultural idyll. I once heard a contributor to a Radio 4 environmental programme who was angrily accusing the green movement of trying to drag us back to the middle ages. He had worked with peasant farmers in Romania and found little idyllic about it. ‘Subsistence farming,’ he concluded ‘better than being dead – but only just.’
But there are small-scale farms out there who are proving that it is possible to produce abundant harvests and make money – while not depleting the environment. Take the example of Dr Paul Benham (see links) who works what he calls a high biodiversity, low-carbon polyculture – through which he grows produce worth £20,000 a year on a mere 1.5 acres of land. It can be done – it just needs the will.
Links: Organic Fruit & Vegetable Farm; BigBarn