Village communities have always had to fight against the encroachment upon their lives of those with capital or power, be they individuals or organisations. From the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century through Gerrard Winstanley and the True Levellers, the Luddites, the Enclosure Acts and the Scottish Clearances, from the advent of the new technologies that foreshadowed the Industrial Revolution to the rise of the big investment companies and their bankers, this conflict has always led to a reduction of the land available to the villagers, the degradation of their surroundings and the disappearance of their livelihoods. At present, 0.6% of the British people own 69% of the land.
In a surprising maiden speech in 1812 in the House of Lords, Lord Byron said: ‘These machines were [to the proprietors] an advantage inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were in consequence left to starve. In the foolishness of their hearts, [these workmen] imagined that the maintenance and well-doing of the industrious poor were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement in the implements of trade, which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire.’
The decline in the number of farming livelihoods in the UK has been driven largely by the emergence of the huge and dominant supermarkets, who, thanks to controlling 93 percent of all the food we purchase (that’s the 8 largest supermarkets), squeeze profit away from the farmer, forcing him or her to increase the scale and intensity of their enterprise, or go out of business. The current concentration of power in our food systems means that food produced by 3,200,000 farmers in the UK and four other European countries passes across only 110 supermarket buying desks, before being sold to 160,000,000 consumers. This concentration of power decides our food choices and the prices we pay, and farmers are unable to negotiate fair prices for their produce.
Patrick Holden, a dairy farmer in Wales, former head of the Soil Association and currently director of the Sustainable Food Trust, farmed organic carrots for supermarkets for 20 years but gave up in the face of unreasonable demands and ‘amoral’ buying policies. ‘Government wants food prices kept down, but the only way to do that in this country is through this tyranny of exploitation, continually screwing down the prices paid to producers. And if a producer doesn’t sell to them, you go quietly out of business,’ he said. ‘But we’re all complicit. We shop in supermarkets, we own shares in them, our pension funds are in them. We have to question this way of providing cheap food. It has put me and tens of thousands of others out of business.’ ‘The food we produce needs to be of high nutritional quality, otherwise we’ll continue to have the problems we’re experiencing in the National Health Service—it would currently be more accurately called the National Diseases Treatment Service, because it’s picking up the bill for deficient agriculture.’
There is a simple answer; we need to shorten our supply lines. A farmer who sells his food directly to the person who will consume it, or to the restaurant who will serve it, can charge a price which reflects his costs of production, doesn’t have to divide up his profit between middlemen, and can therefore begin to earn a livelihood.
But the benefits run far deeper. Our small-scale approach allows for local relationships between farmer and consumer to emerge and flourish. We invite those who buy our produce (or those who are considering it) to come and see our animals and the environment in which they live.
There is a growing awareness that we need to know the provenance of the food we eat. When small farms deliver directly to those who will consume it, this becomes possible. Take our beef as an example. Each animal is completely traceable and our production process is totally transparent. We can tell you everything you need to know about our meat such as their diet, their age, their pedigree, their kill date, or the amount of time they hung for.
Almost all our produce is distributed within 35 miles from the farm – so our network of customers is truly local. When large, industrial farms deal with supermarkets, this level of connection to food production is simply not possible.
For more reading we recommend Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and Henderson’s The Farming Ladder.