A different model of farming could revive rural areas and give us all healthier food

intext-cheese-blogThis post is by George L Young of Curtis Farm, Fobbing, Essex, a zero-tillage mixed farm. It is a shorter version of a post on his own blog.

There are many issues with the current farming and food system. Long, convoluted supply chains dilute nutrition, and farmers can be an undervalued and underpaid part of the chain. I propose a new system of micro supply chains, where every part is fairly valued and nutrition is preserved, but where there are also happy by-products in education, community and culture. Underlying this is a ‘jigsaw’ enterprise model.

A ‘jigsaw’ farming model could support more local businesses and jobs
Modern farming conforms to a siloed approach, where farmers specialise. Whilst producing farming experts, this method leads to poor land management using considerable amounts of synthetic chemicals and fertilisers. Climate change and ecological decline mean it is imperative to move away from these synthetic inputs, which necessitates a more diverse farming system. Rather than one landowner needing to be an expert in multiple types of farming, I suggest a system whereby other business enterprises join a farm on site, working together towards an overall agroecological business. Examples could be multiple forms of livestock enterprise, market gardening, combinable cereal and grain legumes, and fruit and nut production.

To tackle supply chain issues, secondary and tertiary businesses would be encouraged to set up within farmyards. It would allow the complimentary use of equipment between businesses, reducing costs, and ensure that products are as good value as possible. There would also be significantly lower logistical costs (and reduced associated pollution) since business inputs would be available direct from the farm for processing. Examples of farmyard food businesses could be an associated mill, baker, butcher, cheesery, and so on.

The ‘jigsaw’ model also allows new entrants into farming: young farmers could potentially take on a single farming enterprise, which might be only a proportion of their whole income initially. A key criterion on which these jigsaw foods and farming enterprises would be accepted would be their attitude to training. The model should enable new entrants hands-on experience in managing a farming and food business. Similarly, funding is often a barrier when attempting to set up a new business. But a landowner could buy-in to a new entrant’s business, and help with start-up costs, whilst still allowing them freedom to own and run their own business.

The local social benefits of this model have the potential to reinvigorate sleepy villages with few employment possibilities, allowing them to thrive again. If people are living and working locally, the need for a car is drastically reduced. It could also stimulate a community vibe, bolstering the success of existing local businesses (such as a pub or village shop). I envision that a 500-acre farm could support 50 jobs under this approach, all living, spending and socialising locally.

Local communities would have a closer connection to their food
Focusing on the idea of ‘local food for local people’, or a ‘locavore’ diet, allows the community to see their food being grown, and then processed into bread, or butchered into meat cuts, or creamed into butter and cheese, providing people with a much greater connection to their food. This will lead in turn to a more valued product, which should mean less food waste and better food security.

The education that the local community receive by having this local food hub could also be enhanced with education centres on these farms, where school children can learn about the entire supply chain and how to prepare meals. Not only does this teach them about a healthy diet, but it also increases the cultural significance of the food and its origins, placing it back at the centre of a community for future generations.

The long term value of good food culture cannot be understated. The NHS is an ever increasing expense, dealing with major lifestyle ailments like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. Not tackling the causes of these illnesses threatens the health and long term prosperity of our country. Encouraging healthy food consumption is critical. As shoppers tend to go for the cheapest option, a new approach could instead be to reapportion subsidies to the point of sale, encouraging shoppers to buy healthier, unprocessed food.

By shifting subsidies to encourage healthy food buying habits, and growing the demand for high value, high nutrition products, directly from farms, supermarket chains would be positively disrupted into better relationships with their suppliers, and offering affordable healthier, higher welfare food on their shelves.

If you would like to discuss this idea further, contact George at george@fobbingfarms.co.uk

3 comments

  • I like this idea, which is similar in ethos to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) systems, but to stand any chance of success, governments need to tackle the ‘sacred cow’ of commodity brokering of food products which is what drives intensification of farming and high energy input systems which are measured purely on tonnage of output rather than quality, nutrition and environmental benefit. And how do you tackle the uniformity demanded by the supermarket giants? Additionally, the demand side of the equation needs to be tackled. Even switching to smaller mixed farms with onsite food and other product manufacture won’t tackle the problems of GHG emissions without also addressing the increasing excessive demand for meat. Grazing land is an incredibly inefficient use of space and destructive to habitats. If demand for meat could be substantially reduced, a fraction of the land could be turned to sustainable (i.e. low input/ organic) horticultural and crop production and much of the rest rewilded, which would have far more beneficial impact in terms of generating carbon sinks and enabling the recovery of wildlife.

    • Richard Matthewman

      I like this idea, too, George. Fifty jobs on a 500 acre plot of land sounds like a sure way forward, with all the benefits that you mention for local employment and community welfare. We need new ways to break the mould of monoculture farming which use high levels of artificial inputs. A major criticism of current intensive agriculture is high use of N fertilisaer (which is expensive energetically to produce and creates environmental pollution). I’m wondering how your jigsaw idea will help to achieve a more energy efficient, less intensive agriculture? Another criticism of intensive agriculture is the role of livestock. Do you see a role for ruminant stock, extensively grazed as soil fertility enhancers, so that N fertiliser inputs can be reduced?

      It’s a fascinating idea. At the grass roots level, so to speak, are you ready to take the idea forward?

    • Jason: you are exactly right with these issues. I am attempting to create an entirely balanced agro-ecological farming system, which will consequently incorporate the right number (ie, probably not many!) of livestock. As a nation (world) we need to learn to eat a diet that is proportional to the output of an agro-ecologically run farm. With regards GHG emissions… That would then mean that we have much lower numbers of livestock. Consequently, we would have lower, and sustainable methane emissions. That covers off the methane argument. I am converting to organic – so NOx isn’t an issue. And I am hoping that there will be decent electric tractors soon, so that CO2 emissions are less of an issue. CO2 is the really “demon” of the carbon argument.
      In terms of supermarket uniformity, I want to get a hashtag out there which is #embraceinconsistency. I am planning to undermine the supermarket system. Somehow. There is a lot to do!

      Richard: My hope is that by enabling a fully mixed, diversely cropped, and biodiverse farm system, there should be no need for any intensive agriculture. I am beginning organic conversion, and I already grow many of my crops without any artificial inputs, to I can see a way through to not requiring them. You are absolutely right about the role of ruminant livestock though – extensive and specifically for soil fertility and ecology. Most critically, their welfare must be absolutely supreme. I am at the inception of taking my idea forward, but am having some very good discussions with a few people about bringing some stacked enterprises to my farm, hopefully within the next 12-18 months. I just have my fingers crossed that planning isn’t going to be too much of a hurdle!

      Thanks very much for reading 🙂

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