The UK has one of the most unequal patterns of land distribution on the planet. Access to land is the greatest obstacle we have to creating a comprehensive grass-roots food movement in the UK. But things could be about to change. Inspired by La Via Campesina there is a growing youth movement which seeks to redress the balance… The following article by Ed Hamer originally appeared as ‘Reclaim the Fields’ in The Land Issue 8 Winter 2009…
If the statistics are to be believed farming must be up there as one of the least attractive jobs facing school-leavers in the UK. With a typical wage middling at £4.50 an hour1 and the average farmer pushing 622, the future looks far from rosy for an industry recently charged by the government with securing the nations food supplies over the next 20 years. Or so you would think.
Take a walk through a typical student Barrio in Bristol, Leeds or London however and you may well come to a different conclusion. Among the multitude of backyard veg-plots, edible window-boxes and youthful looking allotmenteers you see, you are more than likely to witness guerrilla-gardening in action or overhear the word “permaculture” casually dropped into a passing conversation.
There is no doubt about it, growing-your-own now competes with recycling, energy saving, and cutting short-haul flights in the efforts of the country’s youth to act decisively on the environment. And while many of these urban gardeners are happy simply to be greening-up their own streets, there are many, many more who are desperate to get back to the land.
So what’s the problem? On the one hand it appears we are faced with an ageing farming population, endowed with acres of land but lacking young recruits, while on the other, an emerging movement of motivated young growers are desperate to farm but frustrated by a lack of land. The solution it seems could be simple, the reality however is far from it.
The current state of land ownership in the UK, which has placed our entire country’s farmland in the hands of less than one per cent of the population3, has its roots stretching from the original enclosures of the 14th century to the progressive industrialisation and more recent gentrification of the British countryside. Economies of scale dictate that, today even the children of farming families face little prospect gaining agricultural employment in an industry in which a 90-acre farm can only realistically support a single wage4.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. In 1950 120,000 people were directly employed in farming in the UK5 with many young lads leaving school at 14 to pursue a worthy career on the farm. Within 30 years however the systematic intensification of farming, which accompanied the UK’s entry to the Common Agricultural Policy, had claimed over half of these jobs and taken the majority of our small farmers to the wall.
Without doubt, access to land remains the single greatest obstacle facing a new generation of growers. A combination of property speculation and city bonuses have seen land prices inflated by an average of £2,000 per acre within the past 10 years alone and as much as £10,000 in some areas of the country6. Volatility in the agriculture sector has also left many farmers reluctant to lease even the smallest area of productive ground.
Access to capital is also sadly lacking. Thirty years ago it was still possible to take out a mortgage on a 30-acre smallholding and service your re-payments through a combination of hard work and sensible business management. Today that same smallholding is likely to have been featured in the pages of some glossy lifestyle magazine and no amount of hard work is going to allow you to afford it.
Farming skills and knowledge too have been severely undermined by the race for modernisation. The government’s own department for the environment food & rural affairs (Defra) acknowledges that the industry must act to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels7, but how many farmers do we still have left who can teach us how to use a scythe, lay a hedge or farm with a horse?
In January this year the government released what was heralded as “the most comprehensive review of UK food security for more than 60 years”, Food 2030; A Strategy for the Future. Although the 84-page document identifies many of the issues raised above, it’s prescriptions are certainly more relevant to an upcoming general election than a genuine attempt at addressing the root causes of the farming crisis.
Despite this frustration, it is this blatant lack of political leadership which has prompted the youth to act. The same motivation which has seen young climate change activists mobilising across Europe in increasing numbers over recent years has galvanized the need to get back to the land: The simple fact that if you’re under 30 the peer-reviewed science is going to hit the fan within your lifetime.
Whichever way you look at it the futures of climate change and agriculture are undeniably linked. Whether its the impacts on land use which will accompany a four-degree rise in global temperatures over the next century, the collapse of globalized agriculture in the face of peak oil, or simply the staggering challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, a new perspective on how and what we farm is desperately needed.
It is in reaction to this challenge then that a new youth coalition Reclaim the Fields, (RTF) is now emerging from the continent. Taking its name from the road protest collective which swept the UK in the early 1990s, the movement intends to employ the same creative mix of political lobbying, networking and direct action in its objective to get the 21st century peasantry back onto the land.
Morgan Ody is a young farmer from Brittany and one of the group’s founding members, she explains how the idea for RTF first came out of the 2008 European Social Forum in Malmo, Sweden: “The Social Forum brought together people from permaculture and farming backgrounds who were full of hope but lacking a political perspective, as well as activists and squatters who were very politicised and very radical but also tended to be quite pessimistic.”
“Through sharing our experiences we were able to firstly offer the activists some hope, and secondly to offer the young farmers the political thinking to globalise their struggle. It soon became clear that access to land was a common problem, not just in Belgium, France or Switzerland, but a problem facing young people across Europe.”
In October the same year several RTF members travelled to Mozambique for the fifth international conference of La Via Campesina, representing 148 peasant farming organisations worldwide. “La Via Campesina was really the central inspiration Reclaim the Fields” explains Morgan. “They have pioneered a model of networking between international and local peasant groups to share experiences on securing land tenure, resisting globalisation and spreading appropriate technology. Ultimately this is what we would like to achieve with RTF.”
“There is however a big difference between the way Via Campesina operates; as a network of organisations, and how we would like to work. It is important to recognise that is not in the youth culture to be part of an organisation but instead to find a more horizontal structure. We want to be a network of individuals each doing his or her own thing but working towards a common goal; access to land. To achieve this our first priority was to bring all of these like minded youth together.”
In October 2009 RTF held their first international gathering at Cravirola, a 400 hectare mixed farm in the French Ariege. The co-ordinating group were expecting 150-200 people to respond to the call for the camp, in the event more than 400 turned up. “We were completely overwhelmed by how many people actually arrived” Morgan says, “it was a shock but also a welcome surprise that this issue has so much support”.
First and foremost the camp was an opportunity for networking and sharing experiences; from securing farm tenancy in Belgium to black-market abattoirs in the Alps, trashing GM crops in Germany and dodging EU imposed livestock vaccinations in Slovenia. The five-day gathering included practical workshops on gaining access to land, exploiting legal loopholes, low-impact development and GM free-zones.
The camp seminars resulted in a series of draft proposals for the RTF membership to act upon over the coming months. These included; establishing informal working groups at the local level, providing a central website for activists and peasants to network, mobilise and communicate online and compiling a list of collective projects and farmers who are looking for young people to work.
In addition there was a strong consensus that RTF should have a visible presence at the UNFCCC climate conference in Copenhagen; “to highlight the role agriculture plays in both contributing to, and remedying climate change”. Many, including Adam Fulop who travelled from Hungary to take part in RTF’s actions, saw Copenhagen as the place: “To make a stand and start the process of reclaiming the land.”
“Access to land is the biggest obstacle facing young people in Europe who want to become peasants, and climate change has a direct impact on this” explains Adam: “Carbon trading is leading to further privatisation of land, water, seeds and farming resources. This can only make the situation worse for young farmers trying to start farming in Europe.”
“We share the view held by Via Campesina that small-scale peasant farmers offer a low-carbon future for agriculture. Through an agro-ecological approach to farming peasant agriculture can actually use organic matter to lock carbon into the soil. Instead of this we see deals on the table at Copenhagen actually encouraging large-scale oil-dependent agriculture that increases carbon emissions, its crazy.”
More than 40 members of RTF from across Europe travelled to Copenhagen between December 11 and 18 to take part in meetings and direct actions at the COP15 summit. The affable Swedes laid-on a soup kitchen and pedalled illegal seeds to the masses, while RTF supported Via Campesina’s demo outside the Danish Meat Board in protest at factory farming and feedgrain imports.
Tuesday December 15 was declared as an official ‘Agriculture Day of Action’ with RTF taking part in a demonstration through the centre of Copenhagen targeting agri-business interests, supermarkets and agrofuels. On December 16 RTF took part in the ‘Reclaim the Power’ action which saw more than 4,000 demonstrators hold a “peoples assembly” outside the conference centre.
Despite the complete failure of the talks at Copenhagen to achieve anything other than a collective burst of hot air, those who travelled there under the RTF banner remained positive: “In a way we see this failure to reach an agreement as a victory for the peasantry” explains Morgan, “There is little doubt that the measures under discussion this week would have only accelerated the erosion of our land, our resources and our way of life. We now have a little more time to get ourselves mobilised.”
The UK movement it appears could learn a lot from RTF’s approach. Although many UK-based activists took part in actions during the Agriculture Day at Copenhagen, there was little interaction between regional groups and few of these were even aware of RTF. “This is one of our biggest problems” agrees Adam, “Our challenge is not only to raise our profile, but to contact more and more youth who are based in cities and involve them in the struggle to get back to the land.”
Morgan also sees mobilisation at the national level as the next priority for RTF: “It may be that in 2010 we do not have an international camp but rather four of five national or regional camps. At Cravirola we agreed it is now time to come together at the local level, to make our movement strong, and plan for land occupations in 2010. This is how we aim to bring people together with a strong common cause while at the same time respecting the youth culture of autonomy.”
Here in the UK Reclaim the Fields will undoubtedly find sympathisers among urban permaculture groups, climate campers and WWOOFers alike. Taking the movement mainstream however may be a different story. Organic Futures, the Soil Association’s attempt at inspiring a youth wing has failed to do just that due to its obsession with a single issue: Organics.
Instead of a black and white ideology which threatens to be divisive, RTF must embrace a broad range of issues which will unite young people regardless of their persuasion, political, farming or otherwise. There is no reason why a young farmer from Shropshire who goes fox hunting cannot stand side by side with a peasant squatter from the Basque in demanding a future on the land.
In embracing the youth culture of autonomy RTF has certainly found a niche which appeals across both cultural and social boundaries, something which has been particularly key to the success of Climate Camp actions across Europe over recent years. The challenge it seems is how to achieve the movement’s goal of a united European-wide coalition while remaining true to a fully autonomous structure.
In kick-starting Reclaim the Fields in the UK it will be essential to draw on existing networks from as wide a social spectrum as possible. Permaculturalists, young organic farmers and climate change activists will have to interact with students from Conservative agricultural colleges and Young Farmers’ Clubs (YFC). It is only through doing this that we can abandon traditional stereotypes and realise that the call for access to land is greater than any of us could have hoped for.
Just as the climate change debate has inspired a new generation to push the environment onto the political agenda, those of us who feel particularly passionate about food and farming have the potential to do the same for agriculture. Whether your motivation stems from a need for employment, a respect for a way of life, or the right to decide how your food is produced, a single banner uniting these issues is undoubtedly an effective tool in forcing local, regional and national governments to take these concerns seriously.
In the meantime, it is becoming increasingly clear that a resurgence in growing-skills and an appetite for direct action among the youth has combined with the most fragile state of our agriculture sector for more than fifty years. In the absence of political leadership it seems that actively Reclaiming the Fields may offer the most immediate and practical solution to getting ourselves onto the land.
1. Helena Norberg-Hodge, Peter Goering & John Page, From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture. International Society for Ecology & Culture. Zed Books 2001.
2. Eurostat: Agriculture and fisheries: Farm Structure Survey in the United Kingdom 2007.
3. Kevin Cahill, Who Owns Britain, Cannongate 2001.
4.Defra “Joint Announcement by the Agricultural Departments of the United Kingdom; latest national statistics on farm incomes released by the Agricultural Departments of the UK”, released 29 January 2009.
5. Helena Norberg-Hodge, Peter Goering & John Page, From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture. International Society for Ecology & Culture. Zed Books 2001.
6. Press Release by The UK Land Directory: “Agricultural Land Prices are expected to nearly double in value between 2010 and 2012”, October 19 2009.
7. Defra, Food 2030: A Strategy for the Future, published January 5 2010.