The Future of Farming

On Thursday 14th January 2010 Leominster Green Party held another of its series of meetings on the future of farming, chaired by Felicity Norman, the local candidate. The evening started rather chaotically with the Royal Oak Hotel plunged into darkness by a power cut. Setting-up my laptop and projector by torch light and hoping the power would come back on in time for the talk to start I managed to plug a lead into the wrong socket, so when the power did come on it took a little while to realise why the projector wasn’t talking to the laptop. The room filled-up with a good crowd who’d braved the snow and ice to hear us.
On November 19th Graham Harvey had spoken about carbon sequestration though pasture management, Colin Tudge about The Campaign for Real Farming and Geoff & Carey Glynn-Jones about their experiences as pioneering organic dairy farmers, ice-cream makers and the grief of loosing their herd to TB. This time I was sharing the platform with Dr David Gibbon who spoke of his experiences working in farming and academia in many countries.
My talk was in my usual vein of “Global Problems : Global Solutions”. I tried to paint a picture of the extent to which farming, like so very much else, will have to change as we make the transition from “The Fossil-fuel Age” to “The Solar Age”. I showed slides to illustrate my points that our current farming is unsustainable and that changing to less reliance on heavy diesel machinery, grain-fed meat production, agricultural monocultures and competing in international markets to supply supermarkets could be replaced by something better. I used lots of slides of ecologically sustainable food systems, including agroforestry in Burkina Faso, a Seawater Greenhouse in Oman, carp farming in China, bio-char and carbon sequestration in soils, community supported agriculture projects, local allotments and much else.
(local allotments)
Felicity chaired a question session, where we had many good questions and the feeling of the debate was positive. The following day a local farmer who had been in the audience phoned me up. We had quite a long chat in a very different tone. He reiterated to me what lots of us know; that many farmers are in desperate straits, trapped into systems where they feel powerless against the cost-cutting monopoly of the supermarkets and having to farm large acreages with insufficient labour. The average age of UK farmers is now 60. Just as the cost and availability of fossil-fuels is likely to go up, and in a situation where we’ll need more people working on the land farmers are leaving the industry in droves, and farms are being amalgamated into ever larger holdings when what is required is more smaller holdings working to a very different model. This conversation reminded me again just how easy it is to theorise and how hard it is for us to change the systems we’re trapped within. Change is needed at many levels and over coming blogs I’ll write about some practical projects I’d like to see develop and also some of the wider policy changes that would help our local farmers in this transition.