A Matter of Scale

A Matter of Scale

by Rebecca Laughton and Csilla Kiss, 
The Landworkers' Alliance and The
Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University.

Why study small farms?

Small scale (20ha and less) farms and market gardens have long fallen below the radar in UK agricultural policy, despite attracting increasing numbers of new entrants who bring youth and innovation to the agricultural sector.  A culture of disbelief exists that such farms can be economically viable in an age when family farms of 50-200 hectares are being amalgamated into ever larger units. Despite an “inverse relationship” between farm size and productivity being proven in the Global South, little data exists about the productivity of small farms in the UK. The “A Matter of Scale” (AMOS) study set out to challenge the assumption that bigger automatically means “more productive” and “more viable”, by collecting and analysing data about the yields, financial performance and multifunctional benefits of agroecological farms of 20ha and less. The A-Team Foundation provided funding for a two year study to be undertaken by the Landworkers’ Alliance under the supervision of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, combining an online survey of small farmers with the creation of five short films, based on interviews with the most productive farms in the survey.

AMOS Report - Small Farm - A Team Foundation

What did the research show?

The survey and interviews revealed a number of striking findings about this little studied sector.  The most notable include:

AMOS Report - Tractor - A Team Foundation
  • The average yields (kg per square metre) of crops such as beans, salad leaves and kale, requiring high labour inputs were two to three times higher than yield data for standard non-organic systems.
     
  • Small farms provide employment, both for self-employed growers/farmers and paid employees, to the tune of 3.2 full time equivalents (FTE) per hectare.  This is significantly higher than the UK average for agriculture of 0.028 annual work units (AWU) per hectare[1] and even the average for horticulture of 0.23 AWU/ha[2].  Furthermore, employees were motivated to choose small scale agroecological farms due to the variety of work, its meaningful nature and the convivial working environment.
     
  • 78% of the sample was receiving no farm subsidies, and of those who were, for most respondents, subsidies represented a minor proportion of their income.  Although net farm incomes were low, produce sales were generating more than 60% of total income for 33% of the AMOS sample, 40-60% of income for 33% of the sample.   This contrasts with annual farm business income data for the UK, in which all farm types are obtaining more income from Pillar 1 payments and agri-environment schemes than from sales of agricultural produce[3] .

The methodology for measuring productivity on diverse, highly integrated farms, proved challenging. Apart from the horticultural data, it was difficult to calculate yield figures per area of land due to practices such as rotation, poly-cropping and the use of bought in feeds.  A detailed understanding of the full productive capacity of small farms, especially those with livestock, would require in depth quantitative case studies.  As is so often the case, the attempt to answer one question, only throws up many more!

AMOS report - Chickens - A Team Foundation

Outcomes from the AMOS study

Even before the AMOS report was published in July 2017, figures from the study were in demand.  The 2017 edition of the “Organic Farm Management  Handbook”, used AMOS horticultural yield data in a new section focussing on the performance of small organic production holdings, making it more useful for business planning for such enterprises.  Figures from the report have also been used in the Landworkers’ Alliance’s own campaign publications “Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy”[4] and “Why We Need Small Farms[5]

AMOS report - Group Shot - A Team Foundation

Following publication, the report achieved some media coverage, including interviews with the author on Farming Today, BBC Points West (Link) and BBC Radio Somerset.  At the Via Campesina global gathering in July, great excitement was expressed about the AMOS report as a valuable campaigning tool.  In September, a delegation of Defra officers from the Organic Team took part in a two day study tour of small, agroecological farms in the Midlands, including three visits to holdings which took part in the study.  Being able to show efficient and viable small farms in action, backed up by a detailed report about their productivity, was powerful in challenging the preconceptions held by some of the delegates.  Already the report is contributing to broader dialogue about the future of agriculture and was also featured in a CPRE Food and Farming Foresight Paper, “Uncertain Harvest: does the loss of farms matter[6]?”

The scope of the project stretched far beyond the delivery of a report, however.  Encouraged by the team at the CAWR, respondents for the survey were recruited in part by a series of six regional Landworkers’ Alliance meetings across England.  These meetings, held in early 2015, formed the foundation for an evolving regionalisation process which is enabling far flung members of the LWA to benefit from training events, farm tours and the solidarity of regional meetings.  In October 2016, people who took part in the survey and other LWA members were invited to a Skill Share day to hear about the results of the research, and take part in enterprise themed workshops to explore how they could increase productivity using agroecological ideas.  The five films were premiered at the Skill Share day, which gave an opportunity for feedback and discussion and contributed to the final report.  The films will now make the findings of the report accessible to a wider audience and will, we hope, encourage more people to read the report.

At a time when the future of UK agriculture hangs in the balance, the AMOS report will continue to be a valuable piece of the LWA’s campaign toolkit as we argue the case for better support for small farmers post Brexit. 

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You can read the full AMOS report here

 

[1] Defra (2015) Agriculture in the UK, p8

[2] Devlin, S. (2016) Agricultural Labour in the UK. New Economics Foundation and Food Research Collaboration. 

[3] Defra (2015/16) Farm business income by type of farm, p8

[4] LWA (2017) Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy.  

[5] LWA (2017) Why we need small farms: Farming in Post-Brexit Britain.

[6] Willis, G. (2017). Uncertain Harvest: Does the loss of small farms matter? Food and Farming Foresight Paper 2, the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

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The Main Feature in Science Journal

The Main Feature in Science Journal

What impact does modern life have on our gut? 

 

Science Magazine Front Cover, Human Food Project

Written by Robert Reed, A Team Foundation.

During August, one of our projects appeared as the main feature for Science Magazine. The journal featured the following peer reviewed paper by Dr Jeff Leach of the Human Food Project:

 "Seasonal cycling in the gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gathers of Tanzania".

The paper gives evidence that the microbiome of a hunter-gathering tribe configures with the seasons, individual taxa disappear and reemerge through the annual cycle accordingly. A comparison of the evidence with data (from 18 populations, over 16 countries, with varying lifestyles), proves that modernisation has a direct influence on our gut and its overall well-being. 

The Abstract from Science Magazine: 

"Although humans have cospeciated with their gut-resident microbes, it is difficult to infer features of our ancestral microbiome. Here, we examine the microbiome profile of 350 stool samples collected longitudinally for more than a year from the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. The data reveal annual cyclic reconfiguration of the microbiome, in which some taxa become undetectable only to reappear in a subsequent season. Comparison of the Hadza data set with data collected from 18 populations in 16 countries with varying lifestyles reveals that gut community membership corresponds to modernization: Notably, the taxa within the Hadza that are the most seasonally volatile similarly differentiate industrialized and traditional populations. These data indicate that some dynamic lineages of microbes have decreased in prevalence and abundance in modernized populations".

 

Read the full article here.


Food Issues Census 2017

Food Issues Census 2017

Written by Robert Reed, A Team Foundation

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The 2017 Food Issues Census is an account of the changing trends of issues within the food and farming sector. Issues such as food poverty, animal welfare and environmental concerns are reviewed by popularity and by how much financial support they are receiving. 

The first Food Issues Census was launched in 2011, since, there have been numerous and major changes in the food and farming sector, some obvious and some subtle. The 2017 census provides an updated overview, a wider picture, that can be used as a tool for funders and those seeking funding.

By highlighting the breadth and scope of current issues, the census notes the importance of a sector that is under pressure. In general, food and farming is underfunded yet its impact affects each individual person and the Earth on which we live.

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You can read the full census here (via www.foodissuescensus.org).

The Food Issues Census was written and published by the Food Ethics Council and funded in part by the A Team Foundation (in collaboration with the Esmee Foundation, Environmental Funders Network, Big Lottery Fund, JMG Foundation and Sustain).


Land and Deliver : Erasmus

Land and Deliver : Erasmus

Written by Tom Carman and Ruth West, Real Farming Trust.

Land is what we use to grow the food we eat. For years in the UK many new entrants to farming, as in the rest of Europe, have been facing increasing difficulties accessing affordable and secure land.  There were and still are a mixture of reasons contributing to these difficulties, which have been identified as part of an Erasmus partnership and learning programme working across Europe called Access to Land.  This project is pooling knowledge and experience from organisations in France, Romania, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany and the UK.

The starting point for this work was looking at the barriers and hurdles facing new entrants to farming. The demand for land is high as there are competing interests for its use – farming, housing, woodland enterprise, industrial developments etc.  Planning systems across Europe are regulated to different degrees, and whilst planning systems can help to bring different stakeholders together to discuss land use, they don’t align with the timing needs for farmers to make a living. In addition to this, there is scepticism amongst the status quo in UK farming about the viability of alternative approaches to food production and land management such as agro-ecology, organic and bio-dynamic farming or permaculture.  This is despite increasing evidence that these approaches can provide a living and the increasingly obvious need for land to be managed in a way that is good for the planet.  There is also competition amongst entrant farmers, as when scare land does become available there are many people who apply to use it.

Difficult land access has had strategic, structural and operational effects on countries.  For instance the UK is not producing enough food: around 60% is imported, with many horticultural products coming from Spain.  The effect of this has been to decrease the pool of entrant farmers in the UK leaving an increasingly aging farming population. The result has been a loss of farming skills and a lack of innovation – new entrant farmers bring with them the desire and knowledge to practice agro-ecologial farming, but without the ability to access land, they cannot build experience or share agro-ecological credibility.

The exciting part to this work though, is learning about innovative approaches that are helping agro-ecologial farmers to access land better. For example, Terre de Liens in France has successfully brought together key stakeholders across France including local authorities, conventional farming regulators, citizens and new entrants to open up 3,000 hectares of French farmland to organic food production.  In Germany, a network of land access co-operatives has started to emerge that work from a national to local level, opening up land for agro-ecological farmers. And in the UK, the Community Supported Agriculture network is supporting the growth of local communities wanting to share the risks of food production with the farmer. 

As part of the Erasmus programme, The A-Team Foundation sponsored a film exploring the shared challenges facing new entrants from the participating countries in their search for land. 


The Beacon Farms Journey

The Beacon Farms Journey

Written by Steph Wetherall, Beacon Farms Report co-author. 

In 2012 a group of people gathered together to look at how best to safeguard some of Bristol’s best agricultural land, while supporting and encouraging new entrants to farming by facilitating access to land and enterprise support. Beacon Farms was created, and the search for a piece of land for our first Farm Hub began. 

Beacon Farms - A Team Foundation

Almost four years later, Beacon Farms has tried four different methods of securing land for this purpose; we tried buying from a private owner, leasing from the council, buying at auction and a community asset transfer, and each fell through for a different reason. 

We decided to take the time to reflect on our journey, and this resulted in a report called The Beacon Farms Journey. The document details the approaches and the challenges that we faced in each attempt, including the reason for the failure of that attempt. But more importantly, it includes reflections on what we’ve learnt along the way. 

The 'blue finger' is the long blue strip in the top right of Bristol (the solid red block), above Frenchay.  

The 'blue finger' is the long blue strip in the top right of Bristol (the solid red block), above Frenchay.  

We take the time to look at why acquiring land is so hard; why high land prices have pushed agricultural land out of the price range of farmers, and the challenges facing local authorities in making land available. We observe that our agricultural land is not sufficiently protected, that our best and most versatile soils are slowly being built on, or are the subject of land grabs in the hope of future development opportunities. We reflect on the slow moving nature of projects like this, and the problems this can pose for momentum and funding.

And finally, we look to the future and our determination not to give up. While we may not have managed to secure a piece of land, we have achieved many other things during this time, including being able to raise the profile of the ‘Blue Finger’ soils around Bristol and carry out in-depth research into land seekers’ needs through a detailed survey. We’ve learnt that projects such as this require a combination of the right people and the right opportunity, and we’re hopeful that our time will come.

We hope that our story helps inspire, encourage and support other similar projects in their journeys. You can read the full report by clicking here.

Beacon Farms - A Team Foundation
Beacon Farms - A Team Foundation