Transition Food Talks
Having recently attended a transition event “Food Talk” there were some interesting points that came out of the discussion with some farmers in the region. The biggest issue was that there is more and more capital going into agriculture. This is not a new development but it creates barriers to entry for the establishment of the transition farming network (this aims to teach people about local food and its benefits) and organic farms. Another barrier to entry for the organic farms movement, for smaller farmers at least, is the barriers of getting produce to markets and price needs. The challenge of the market place can be a limited organic or farmers market whilst direct marketing can be a very large barrier to entry.
In the South West of England there are challenges of small scale farms in some fairly marginal moorland areas. The physical soil conditions do affect the farmer’s ability to grow certain crops. There is a polarisation from these areas to the areas in the East of the country where farmers benefit from more economies of scale and ownership patterns mean that owners, as opposed to tenant farmers, get more from the assets typically in terms of capital from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The South West areas tend not to be specialised farms and still have mixed farms with livestock and crops.
Policy now dictates what many farmers are doing on their land. The Farm Stewardship scheme is a higher level environmental protection scheme especially in areas that are hard to farm. This is true of the rural fringes of Dartmoor for example. Policy affects ownership and has also resulted in changes in the local level of ownership with increased competition for land. More land is becoming concentrated in the hands of the large land owners. This has been a historical trend for many years. One farmer notes that it is very difficult to get established in organic (or any other type of) farming. He has just three acres to manage. There are also demographic shifts in the food production system with many farmers now at or very close to retirement age. Some exceed the nominal retirement age. This may have an impact on the future of food production?
Access to land affects the cost of food. There are more co-operative schemes that aim to help the smaller producers for example. People, generally, do not value food that they eat and there is a constant aim to reduce costs. The cost of food is set by the lowest cost of production.
Tenant farmers can be effectively caretakers for investors. An example being the Church Commissioners who own much farmland. They also have money invested elsewhere (perhaps in the stock markets) and this represents one concentration of land ownership. Owners will always try to get a good return on their investments regardless of their ethical standpoint.
One interesting talk was about the organic box movement that grew up in the Teign Valley. The idea behind this was to increase the value of food and to benefit the farmers. Other growers have adopted the scheme all over the country and there is now more choice for organic vegetables. With supermarkets now emulating this trend and delivering to the door there is even more competition again. Supermarkets tend to favour the largest suppliers and may import produce to keep the supply going. Delivery now is in vans direct to villages.
A revealing web site shows just who is benefiting most from EU subsidies. It is farmsubsidy.org and it shows that the biggest benefactor from subsidies is Tate & Lyle Europe with over 827 million euros of subsidy. Next it is Nestle Europe with (only!) 196 million euros. It is clear that capital is going into to agriculture and that big business is taking the lead.
Overall an interesting set of speakers with direct experience of farming showing the rest of us what agricultural changes are going on presently.