farming is public service
The words of Soul Fire Farm, located upstate New York, resonate:
“This outbreak reveals the interconnectedness of our world in a very personal way. It is showing, conclusively, that the health and well being of one is intimately bound to the health and well being of all. We must take action to protect the most vulnerable who will be hit hardest: those whose health is already compromised, those who are denied access to medical care, those who bear great risk in asking for help and those on the frontlines of poverty and pollution.
We stand with the immigrants who are demonized, and the people in prison who are denied the tools to protect their health. We stand with our elders and neighbors with compromised immune systems. We stand with the workers in healthcare and service industries, who are at the front line of financial and health risks. We stand with the farmers and landworkers whose livelihood is at stake.”
Waiting to be served at the counter of a local corner shop the other morning, I glanced down at the shelf stacked with tempting snacks – crisps with familiar flavours, and weird ones, jelly snakes and sweets shaped like emojis, classic kit-kats and chunky ones with peanut butter in them, it was all there, arranged invitingly. Amid the spread of cheerful colours and fonts I spotted a label which read:
“Sorry! No brazils.”
On an “Eat Natural” cereal bar, an innocuous looking information bubble explained that failed harvests have led to a worldwide shortage of brazil nuts. My mind whirred. Stumbling across yet another disconcerting example of the impact environmental changes was no surprise to me. What felt so stark was the way this reality had crept into a routine activity. Marketing companies expertly avert our attention from the convoluted and unfair supply chains of land and labour; and the impact climatic fluctuations have on essential supplies. This label felt as though the marketing mask had slipped. The label was a glimpse into a situation that doesn’t look as ordered and dependable as a typical wrapper might have you believe. It is so easy to browse the vast range of food on the shelves of brightly lit supermarkets and not give a thought to the people or environmental conditions that brought it there.
Though it is the backbone to all our lives, the tireless effort of farmers is rarely acknowledged and given the respect it deserves. Nor is the land and it’s complex ecology and interactions from which our food, and many other essentials, are derived. It is labels like the one at the cornershop that morning that, for me, jolted our collective complacency into a new perspective. When we take our food, and all else that we derive from the land for granted, we do so at our peril. Even more so when we overlook the labour involved. The work that farmers do to meet our needs has far reaching implications. Both globally and at a UK level, many farming practices are not good for the land, for farmer wellbeing and security, for rural communities or for us as consumers, and the systems are not set up to incentivise practices that are.
The brazil nut shortage is a reminder that farming practice impacts the quality of what is grown, the soil, the ecology and the climate – as one article put it, the shortage is “a canary in the mine of climate change”. There is an urgent need for widespread change which honours the vital role that farming and farmers play in the survival of us all.
Big problems need big solutions
The challenges we face are global, but can we do anything on a local or national level? And how can this slot into a global picture?
In recent decades, farming has become increasingly industrialised. Small farms are being swallowed by larger ones – in the UK, 30,000 small farms have closed in 10 years, and along with them, knowledge, skills and rural culture have been lost. Supply chains and local markets are being swept out of the way with big business taking their place – 95% of food retail is controlled by supermarkets.
The diverse and dynamic form that farming can take is being hampered and shut out by the government and DEFRA’s market-based approach, which rewards intensive and industrial scale farms. Power is being removed from the hands of small-scale producers and communities with it.
Furthermore, currently less than 1% of the population owns over half of all agricultural land. Land is opportunity: opportunity to grow food, opportunity to produce energy, opportunity to build homes, opportunity to access to nature. With land in the hands of a wealthy few, only a tiny minority of people get to decide how land is used and farmed, and who benefits. Access to land needs to be fair, it needs to be a resource for the many, not a vehicle to entrench power and privilege.
The hurdles and obstacles that farmers face have heartbreaking consequences. In the UK, one farmer a week takes their life. Farm work conditions are not easy; work is often hard and repetitive and farmers work in environments that they have very limited control over (increasingly so in a changing climate). To top it all off, farm work is undervalued in society: farmers are key workers too, where are their claps? Farmers are forced between a rock and a hard place. Either they have to opt for corner cutting; or industrial scale production which threatens the health of land and compromises the quality of what is produced; or take on large financial and personal risk if they choose to opt for a smaller scale, ecologically gentler approach to production.
Time for change
As it stands, it is not easy for farmers and rural communities to challenge the state of affairs that prioritises the interests of corporations and international free trade agreements. We, as land workers, need to reclaim the farming system so that policy and practice accounts for the needs of all of us – anyone who grows, prepares, distributes or eats food is represented and has contributed to the answers. We need distant policy makers to recognise that we operate in the finite limits of the earth, and as such, we need policies that promote a system of using land within its means.
Could a return to farming through a patchwork of smaller holdings offer a way out of the multitude of challenges we face? Research suggests it could. A recent report points towards the ways in which small farms promote diversity and innovation in the farming sector, offering meaningful, skilled work and the opportunity for training; as well as reducing supply chains to allow for a more responsive way of working that connects farmers to consumers – good news for rural economies and communities.
This involves incentivising and rewarding work that promotes on-farm biodiversity, practices which promote healthy and well structured soil, and practices which look after the people who work on the land and in connected work. In her book, Farming While Black, Leah Penniman centres the oppressive impacts of policies and structures. She centres the disproportionate affect these have on people of colour, impeding access to land and good food. When we take a socially and racially just approach to these issues, the strategy for how to challenge oppressive policies and structures will be enriched.
Where does hemp fit?
Though the problems we face are vast, complicated and difficult to untangle, local scale farming practices and innovation offer us exciting possibilities to address these challenges. At Hempen we’re excited about hemp for its manifold possibilities; from social to economic to ecological. Recognised worldwide for thousands of years for its versatility in providing societal and economic benefits to people and community, hemp offers a promising stepping stone on the path out of the entrenched extractive practices of modern industry, towards regenerative ones. Hemp can provide us with much needed resources while also giving back to the land.
Hemp is easy to grow organically because the dense canopy it forms eradicates weeds and is naturally resistant to insect pests. Its strong root networks can restore soil health by preventing erosion and promoting bioremediation. At Hempen we have used hemp in our crop rotation, replenishing land which is used by us or other tenant farmers. Bees love hemp flowers for their pollen which they use in nest building and feeding their young. Small birds and mammals such as ground larks and deer, enjoy the shelter the plants provide.
Hemp is also effective at sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere, for every ton of hemp grown, it is estimated that 1.63 tons of carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere – an indispensable tool in combating the climate crisis.
From the perspective of rural livelihoods, hemp is also powerful. It is said to have more than 25,000 uses, including as building materials, plastics, energy, and for health and nutrition. At Hempen, we are harnessing the plant to promote economic and social opportunity in our community. The small-scale production and processing methods that we use for our products provide reliable communal work in our community and form part of a varied and meaningful week.
There are considerable and unjust barriers preventing the expansion of hemp farming in small scale farms in the UK. Hemp licencing is outdated, based on legislation created in the 1960s. Hempen is working with other farmers and activists to educate and lobby decision makers within the Home Office to challenge current legislation and push for reform.
Just as growing hemp can be a stepping stone in the route towards a farming industry that is more in harmony with the wellbeing of people and planet, so is small-scale, agroecological farming. In the UK, the Land Workers Alliance (LWA) is working to assess and reform the way that farming is legislated, to include the voices of… Land Workers! In their post-Brexit policy recommendations, LWA are focusing on making sure that small-scale farmers have a ‘seat at the table’. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) does not reward small-scale farming, there is a democratic deficit in how farming is legislated, meaning the government is failing to ensure that producers and consumers can meet their needs. Reforms can revive family, community and co-operative based farming for high quality and healthy produce, while “enhancing the environment, strengthening communities and supporting good livelihoods for farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk”. Farming should be recognised and valued for what it is. Just as as healthcare workers look after us in times of need, and educators support us to learn, farms nourish us, and farming is a public service.