In Britain, over 20% of us are now considered obese, 40 % of our food is imported (with serious implications for food security and sovereignty), youth unemployment is at 14.4% and social isolation is on the increase.
What bright idea might offer a solution to these seemingly unrelated issues? The answer according to Colin Tudge, author of Six Steps Back to the Land, is a million more small-scale farmers.
In his book, Tudge calls for those of us ‘who give a damn’ to get involved in nurturing a vibrant food culture grounded in the practice of enlightened agriculture.
Enlightened agriculture—a term he coined in 2004 and often shortened to ‘real farming’—is defined as, ‘farming that is expressly designed to supply everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest standards, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without injustice or cruelty and without wrecking the rest of the world.’
It involves transforming our current food system of large-scale, industrial, high-input, low-waged to zero-hour labour monocultures to one that is maximally diverse, low input, tightly integrated, complex, skills-intensive and, in general, small-to-medium-sized.
Right now, our food system—immersed as it is in scientific rationalism and neo-liberal ideology—is wreaking havoc on human wellbeing, the health of other species and the planet as a whole. Tudge argues, “Today’s agriculture is shaped not by human needs or the needs of the biosphere, or morality or even common sense, but by accountancy, in turn perverted by the manipulations of finance capitalism.”
In order to get us to ‘do what needs doing’ he devotes much of the first part of the book to mythbusting; in particular the myth that we can only feed the world through intensive industrial production methods. He makes his case by revisiting an article, published in An Aspect of Indian Agriculture Economic Weekly in 1962, by the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, which “showed, against all the expectations of the day, that productivity per unit area is inversely related to the size of the farm. In other words, yield per hectare increases as farms grow smaller (other things being equal). (…)Fatma Gül Ünal’s study in Turkey in 2005 showed that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times more productive than farms of 10 hectares or more.”
Therefore, anyone serious about feeding the world should be investing in systems that support existing small farmers and can help foster the next generation of small mixed farms. Small farmers can feed the world and this book aims to show us how.
Tudge begins with offering up an inspiring vision of a food culture that is not only ‘productive, sustainable and resilient,’ but also good for our health and satisfying to our taste buds. He points out that all great cuisines of the world have at their core the principles of modern nutritional theory—plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety—that agroforestry (the method of enlightened agriculture) is perfectly placed to supply. Good tasting food is good for us.
It is also a vision of a food culture that can help rebuild communities, offering opportunities for meaningful work, creative enterprise and conviviality. Enlightened agriculture is more labour intensive than industrial farming—it requires more humans to engage directly with the land. According to Tudge, ‘about a million more’, which is ‘roughly commensurate with the number of unemployed under-25s in Britain right now.’
Fortunately, many young people are beginning to see a future in farming, with agriculture being the UK’s fastest growing subject. If that energy is focused towards the type of farming Tudge defines as enlightened we may see more people caring for the earth and enjoying what Wendell Berry calls ‘our most ancient, most worthy, and most pleasing responsibility’. This in turn would foster a thriving food and farming culture with various related small enterprises: ‘local bakers; cake makers; micro-brewers and vintners; small butchers and charcutiers.’
Tudge is passionate about the need and possibilities for change, but he is also a pragmatist, not a purist. He sees no problem incorporating high tech solutions where necessary and appropriate. He gives the example of this synergy between traditional and high tech in the methods used by Ed Hamer of Chagfood CSA. “He [Ed Hamer] cultivates the ground with the aid of two ponies—the traditional way; but the ponies pull devices for harrowing and seeding and the rest which look very simple and old-fashioned but are made, in the US, from light, strong and therefore high-tech metals, and designed very cunningly and probably with the aid of computer modelling to carry out their various functions as efficiently as may be managed.”
Elsewhere he highlights the wisdom of the natural world, as in the case of Wakelyns, Martin Wolfe’s 20-hectare farm in Suffolk. Here planting trees along side crops allowed the creation of a more agreeable—cooler and more moist—microclimate, shielding the Wakelyns’ farm from the effects of the 2012 droughts which so beleaguered the surrounding, conventional, open fields of Suffolk.
Throughout the book we are invited to seek inspiration wherever we can, from not only the natural world, but from other cultures, acknowledging the skills and knowledge of traditional farmers around the world. Tudge recommends that “the affluent West needs to learn from the beleaguered South.”
For those wanting to create a livelihood on the land, Six Steps Back to the Land lights a clear path, offering the reader a well-researched rationale for enlightened agriculture, a vision of the economic and social conditions needed to support it, a detailed outline of the practical methodology of agroecology, inspiring examples and finally the six steps to make it happen. It also includes brief suggestions (in his own words ‘a lightning sketch’) on a variety of issues such as land acquisition, finance and legal structures.
Whilst acknowledging what many see as the largest obstacle to returning to the land – land ownership (0.69 % of the UK population own about 60 % of the land) – and questioning whether anyone should own land at all, Tudge suggests that ownership may be less relevant than we think. What matters more are the principles of usufruct (the right to the use and enjoyment of the products of another person’s property) and security of tenure. In the same way that doctors don’t own their practice, he believes there is no reason farmers would farm less well if they did not own the land itself, as long as they were able to stay ‘for long enough to develop serious enterprises and see their work through to fruition.’
Tudge urges us to keep an open mind about possible ways to finance our projects, mentioning ethical investment, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and even crowdfunding as viable options. Together with his wife Ruth, he set up Funding Enlightened Agriculture in 2012 to ‘bring together would-be social funders with promising new farms and related ventures.’
The problems are urgent, but the book ends on a note of hope. More and more people are fighting back against a system that ‘can never provide good food for all, because it isn’t designed to.’ Those of us not able or inclined to become farmers will learn a lot about how to support those who do. We all need to play our part.
“It’s our job to create the conditions that will make enlightened agriculture possible, in which enlightened farmers can flourish. We need to recreate the right marketing structures, the right economic framework, even if our elected government is pulling us in a different direction, and the right mindset. We need to recreate a true food culture.”
First published in STIR magazine Autumn 2016