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Who is the Farming Left?
Words by by Hester van Hensbergen; Illustration by Josh Harrison
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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Last year, while pottering about a field outside Stevenage which had become the setting for the regenerative agriculture festival Groundswell, I spotted a familiar name: The Landworker’s Alliance (LWA). It wasn’t a particularly busy stall, although the people who came over were all passionate about the work that the LWA was doing. They certainly had, by far, the most interesting set of pamphlets available: a manifesto for a people-led national food policy, a vision setting out how global food sovereignty might be achieved, a case for small farms. My editor Jonathan Shainin took one look at the stall and said to Jyoti Fernandes who was running it “so you’re the Farming Left?’. This got a laugh and an affirmative reply.
Yes, this is the Farming Left, or at least a part of it. That a festival like Groundswell, dedicated to a progressive form of agriculture, didn’t have many other stalls like the LWA, seemed emblematic of the farming world, where the problems afflicting it have been divorced from the radical politics that may solve them. That the Left has been marginalised in British farming isn’t surprising when you look at who owns land in Britain (1% of the population owns half of it) and consider that the most powerful interests in farming will always seek to consolidate ownership of that land above all else. It’s estimated that in 2017, around 72% of farmers voted Conservative ─ not surprising when the Conservative Party are essentially the political arm of a landowning-class, and that they have been deftly able to absorb green policies without alienating that base.
This domination of rural areas has also meant that the wider Left itself has abandoned the notion that questions of farming and agriculture is for them. One of the few leftist publications bucking this trend is the New Socialist, whose Ecologies season has been putting forward progressive solutions to agricultural problems for the last year, exposing where seemingly radical policies act as a smokescreen for arguments which are essentially conservative. In an article published yesterday, entitled Renewing the Land Question: Against Greengrabbing and Green Colonialism (which, in a nice symbiosis, covers some of the themes in today’s newsletter by Hester van Hensbergen), Alex Heffron and Kai Heron argue that rewilding is one of these policies, and that the first thing that must be discussed, to work out who really benefits from it, is land.
“Until the turn of the 20th century, land lay at the heart of British radicalism” Heffron and Heron state; “the fight must be for equal access to the land and resources of food production” today’s newsletter replies, almost in response. The conclusion of both articles is clear: there should be no Farming Left, only a united Left that takes farming seriously, else it will abandon the biggest political questions of our time to those who cannot and will not solve them.
Who is the Farming Left?, by Hester van Hensbergen
The Dorset landscape is marked by a familiar paradox: it is shaped by the many, but owned by the few. There are thousands of years of steady work by human hands and feet in its snaking holloways – hidden ancient pathways that act as chutes to the sea or highways between settlements – and terraced suntrap hillsides. But just a handful of individuals lay claim to large swathes of this land.
Today, the largest individual landowner is Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, Conservative MP for South Dorset, whose 13,870-acre Charborough Park estate is enclosed by the longest brick wall in England. He is also the current owner of Drax Hall in Barbados, a former slave plantation that has been handed down in an unbroken chain of Draxs since the seventeenth century, and which is now the subject of a campaign for public access in the new republic.
In West Dorset, there is the 2,000-acre Mapperton estate, owned by the Earl of Sandwich’s family and currently overseen by Viscount Hinchingbrooke and his wife Julie Montagu, host of An American Aristocrat’s Guide to Great Estate. There are more than 3,000 acres of Duchy of Cornwall ownership in Dorset too, including the land on which Poundbury, an architectural chocolate-box experiment developed at the behest of impassioned urban designer Prince Charles, was built.
Between them, these three landowners cover nearly 3% of the county.
Springtail Farm, a one-acre patch of sea-facing hillside in West Dorset currently occupied by Lally Owen and Tomas Carolsfeld, is different. A disco ball hangs from the roof of the plastic tunnel where Owen is working. It shimmers over a long table packed with rows of squash: silver blue Crown Princes, fist-sized acorns with green seams, and a fleet of Cinderella carriages. Owen is soaking tubers that look like desiccated sea creatures. Down in the field Carolsfeld is grappling with a mechanical seeder and a package of landrace wheat seeds.
As new entrants to farming, Owen and Carolsfeld – who met studying human ecology at university in Maine – are a rarity. Less than 3% of working UK farmers are under the age of thirty-five, while the average age of a farmer is sixty. The biggest challenge young farmers face is land access: the cost of a single arable acre now averages almost £10,000. ‘We get frustrated a lot with how the price of land is attached more to land as a financial asset, rather than to land as a way of serving [the] community and growing food’, says Carolsfeld. Despite the vast open hills of the Dorset countryside, finding land to grow on has been difficult for the pair. ‘It feels like quite a hard reality,’ adds Owen. ‘To desperately want to grow on a bigger scale, and to be surrounded by land, but to be constantly told that there isn’t any.’
Owen’s problem hints at a very real lie of British politics: a narrative of land scarcity that contradicts the evidence presented by the naked eye. The true pattern of land ownership is, as campaigner Guy Shrubsole puts it, Britain’s ‘darkest, best-kept secret’. This obfuscation is necessary, according to that impeccable, time-honoured logic: if it’s only the landed elite that know the vastness of their own estates, the gross inequality is less likely to incite a revolution.
The land Carolsfeld and Owen have found is unusual in another way. Their acre is rented from the farming families, who share ownership of the larger forty-three-acre Fivepenny Farm. There are goats, ornate-horned Jacob sheep, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. There’s a large hand-built barn with a thatched roof that contains equipment for fruit, dairy, and meat processing, which is shared among fifty-two local smallholdings as a cooperative. Fivepenny is not simply a family farm, it’s a different model of ownership which values resources held in common, giving everyone involved the ability to work the land and produce food.
Before 2003, the land that is now Fivepenny Farm was mostly open fields. One of the original buyers of the farm was Jyoti Fernandes who, alongside her husband and another family, saw its potential. The group planted hedgerows and fruit trees, diversifying and remaking the landscape. Fernandes’s partner built their house – a timber cabin with rough-sawn cladding, a porch, and solar panels on the roof – and later the group raised funds for the barn and established a formal cooperative in 2006.
In 2012, inspired by the international peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ movements, and by her years spent working with farmers’ organisations in India, Fernandes co-founded the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a union of small-scale farmers and other land workers across the UK who share a vision of a more democratic, ecologically viable and people-centred food system.
She and fellow smallholding farmers in the UK want to foster grass-roots activism and progress their vision of agroecology – farming systems that work with nature, improving soil health and nurturing biodiversity – and good food for everyone. Now the LWA has 1,895 members who collectively farm around 80,000–100,000 acres of land. Since its founding, the organisation’s influence in Britain has grown substantially. ‘It filled a necessary gap, which was more of an ecological voice for farming’, Fernandes explains over tea and mince pies, after an intense week running the farmers’ constituency at COP26.
As the LWA’s policy coordinator, Fernandes spends a lot of her time negotiating with Defra to ensure that post-Brexit subsidy schemes support farms providing a positive ecological and social impact. It’s important to find ways to reward smaller farms, including those in urban settings, that can’t offer the large-scale nature restoration projects of great estates. The clear vision espoused by the LWA – of farming’s potential to positively contribute to the environment – sets it apart from the other major player in British farming politics, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which frequently lobbies for the interests of massive agribusiness – and against worker and environmental protections.
But there is a growing movement of rural farmers, peri-urban community farms and organisations which share common cause. A collaborative project between the LWA, Land in Our Names (LION) – a land and racial justice collective – and the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) will look at the barriers to access to land for agroecological farming for Black people and people of colour in the UK.
This is The Farming Left: these land workers share a politics, united by the concept of food sovereignty: the right to control of local food systems, which originated with farmers in the Global South. ‘We’re talking about equitable access to resources to enable localised food supplies’, explains Fernandes. These organisations are tackling the challenges of access to land in an unequal landscape: the ELC, for example, purchases large plots and obtains planning permission for dwellings before parcelling them up into affordable smallholdings.
The Kindling Trust in Manchester is also seeking to foster a new generation of agroecological farmers. The Trust, which was established in 2007, has a veg box scheme and a community garden, and also offers training to new entrants, but there has always been a long-term plan to establish a cooperative farm. Since raising over a million pounds from more than six hundred investors last year, the Trust is looking to purchase a 120-acre farm in the Manchester area. ‘We want people to feel ownership in whatever way they get involved’, explains co-founder Chris Walsh. Whether they are founding members, workers, investors, or tenants, they will all be represented equally on a governing board.
There ‘is a need for a rural radicalism’ of this kind, argues Chris Smaje, farmer and author of A Small Farm Future (2020). ‘It’s about trying to de-commodify land and take it out of speculative ownership’, he explains. For Smaje, who plans to purchase a 20-acre plot to be divided up among several small-scale farmers, the goal is ‘to build a land-based community’ and ultimately ‘generate more of what we need within our own communities’.
While the radical agrarian community in the UK pales in comparison to the strength of conservative farming interests, this fight for land – and the right to use it – is happening on a global scale. The international peasants’ movement is connected through the 200-million strong La Vía Campesina, linking groups such as Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), or ‘Landless Workers’ Movement’, which has, since the 1980s, been occupying land to their counterparts across the world. The world’s farming Left is a David to big agribusiness’s Goliath, the latter having been bolstered by states, major international institutions, and the liberalising of global political economy since the Second World War. From Zapatistas to Scottish crofters, the peasants’ movement is fighting to turn the tide on our social and ecological future before it is too late.
Farmers are often seen as inherently conservative, rather than as agents of historical change, but this has not always been the case. In Europe, during the tumultuous decades of the mid-twentieth century, Left agrarian parties were players in national politics. Agrarian anarchists fought for their vision of the good life in the Spanish Civil War until Franco’s brutal crackdown. From 1939 to 1965, Ireland’s Clann na Talmhan represented the interests of small farmers from the west of Ireland and adopted social democratic principles. Romania’s agrarian political tradition was particularly strong, and the Ploughmen’s Front had a million members by the mid-1940s. These groups produced a rich variety of Left agrarian ideas: from land cooperatives, to visions of a democratic ‘peasant state’, to campaigning for social security for the countryside. As an early industrialiser, Britain lacks its own strong twentieth-century Left agrarian vernacular – one has to go back to the seventeenth-century Diggers for inspiration. Worker politics have been dominated by industrial labour, while environmental and agrarian politics have been closely linked to conservative traditions of thought.
Even today, the LWA often finds its allies in unexpected places. Fernandes has worked with brothers Zac and Ben Goldsmith – Zac is a prominent Conservative politician, Ben a libertarian financier – and considers them friends. The environmentalist brothers are passionate advocates for rewilding, and the stewarding of the natural world. ‘There are some core values that stand on their own outside of the political spectrum’, says Fernandes, including localism, traditional farming techniques, and the relationship to land and nature. ‘Obviously I don’t agree with everything they do’, she adds, ‘but it’s been really useful to have that political leverage.’
Though Zac is the better known of the brothers, Ben is the more interesting environmentalist. He joins Sir Charlie Burrell, of the 3,500-acre Knepp Castle Estate, as a landed pioneer of rewilding. Others, including, improbably, Ed Sheeran, are set to follow suit. Over a cup of tea in his kitchen at the Mapperton Estate, Viscount Hinchingbrooke recently told his wife’s Instagram followers of his plans to ‘take back’ the 180-acre Coltleigh Farm, one of five farms on the estate, and allow it to rewild.
In biodiversity terms, these are undeniably valuable projects (which will be substantially rewarded with taxpayer money), but they also point to an important and unfortunate fact: the narrative about how best to use land in Britain for an ecologically viable future is being dominated by the people that own vast tracts of it. A true cynic might add that these projects are convenient tools for the ongoing legitimisation of property inequality: while estates are being put to good use, the possibility of land reform – through redistribution or nationalisation – gets pushed further away from the Overton window.
While allying with powerful environmentalist Conservatives is good politicking, for the Farming Left in Britain to progress, the fight from everyone must be for equal access to the land and resources of food production. Conservatives aren’t likely to be the best allies here. But has the broader political Left been any better? ‘Land for the Many’, a June 2019 report to the Labour Party led by George Monbiot, made ambitious recommendations: for reforms to rental laws, a Community Right to Buy (which already exists in Scotland), a compulsory sale scheme for derelict lands, a Community Land Fund directed at purchasing agricultural land for smallholdings, and a Right to Roam across all uncultivated land and water (another Scottish precedent). These policy ideas weren’t reflected in the 2019 Labour manifesto, however – this promised a Food Sovereignty Fund, but with a focus on farmers in the Global South, as if the concept of democratic control of food production within the UK were irrelevant.
In a recent report, the democratic ownership thinktank Common Wealth suggested bringing private land into public ownership to create experimental agroecological farms. ‘I’d situate myself within the tent of a Green New Deal for agriculture’, explains Rob Booth, the author of the report. Booth is particularly interested in county farms as a potential model for democratic ownership of land and agroecological innovation – established in the nineteenth century in response to agricultural depression, these farms are owned by local authorities and rented out at reasonable rates to tenant farmers. They still cover 200,000 acres of land (down from double this amount forty years ago). Booth sees a state-led county farm renaissance with a focus on agroecological practices as a potential keystone of a Green New Deal. ‘These are examples of how public ownership in the classic sense can create space for new environmental practices and more equitable access’, he explains. ‘With tools that aren’t a million miles away from what we have now, we can facilitate a more democratic use of land.’
Land workers and food activists differ on their hopes for land reform, however, and few point to state ownership as the best tool going forward. For Smaje, the ideal society is one in which private land is sufficiently dispersed to allow everyone ‘a degree of personal or household autonomy to produce’. For the Kindling Trust, the ‘consensus is diversity’, says Walsh. ‘We don’t have a diverse ownership structure here. It’s very centralised and concentrated.’ They’d like to see a greater mix of private smallholdings, cooperatives, and charitable and public ownership.
Walsh is keen to point out that access to land, however, isn’t always the biggest issue per se. ‘There are so many other challenges’, he explains. ‘The workforce isn’t there; access to markets isn’t there. And the second you do get onto land, it’s the challenge of massive underinvestment for the last thirty or forty years.’ Perhaps the most prohibitive barrier is not the cost of an arable acre, but the cost of nearby housing, adds Walsh. ‘All of us who have created things in the last ten or fifteen years, it’s because we bought houses dirt cheap.’ For new entrants, that’s simply not an option.
Owen and Carolsfeld, like other new land workers, are hopeful and ambitious. ‘We believe that growing food doesn’t have to be marginal’, explains Owen. ‘It’s marginal because of the system that we are in. But what can be produced on land is incredibly abundant.’ Owen’s insight is striking because it has been voiced so rarely. There is widespread reticence on questions of land ownership and access to the resources of food production, ensuring the prospects of building a better food system remain remote. But these ideas shouldn’t be novel: we’re an agrarian country, with 70% of British land devoted to agriculture. The broader political Left seems to forget this fact all too readily; for the farming Left it is central, and the contest is for the future of British agrarianism, acre by acre.
Hester van Hensbergen is a writer and cook interested in the intersection of food, politics, and environment. You can find her on Instagram @hestervandelemme.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits.