guest essay - people & profitability can't be ignored
Tracy Wathen-Jones lives in England and is a graduate of IFOAM'S EU organic leadership programme with a PG.Dip in Organic Farming. She has 23 yrs experience of studying, working and volunteering in the environment, horticulture and agriculture sectors with a particular interest in organic and sustainable food production.
Tracy's essay was originally published on her blog on November 17, 2016. Thank you for allowing us to republish your essay on economic viability for small-scale farming in the UK, especially with post-brexit issues looming.
People & Profitability Can't be Ignored
by Tracy Wathen-Jones
With the world in political turmoil I don't think anyone really knows yet how Brexit will impact agriculture in the UK. But I happen to think we have a far more pressing issue which is really impacting small scale farming right now before Brexit even comes into effect. Housing and wages fall well below average for a number of farmers/growers. Of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions. I believe this to be a country wide issue but I am particularly concerned with the south-east of England where the cost of living is just beyond comprehension for many.
If you're young, single, can rent a room somewhere and get your hands on a couple of acres to grow veg then ok (but it's still tough). But if you have a family and don't own a house outright then working in small scale agriculture in the south east of England can lead people into poverty.
Access to land is not a new issue but is still a very real problem to those wanting to farm, who do not own a farm. This can lead to people taking on marginal land in desperation to get started but this in itself has inherent problems and can really effect profitability. Then there's the security of tenure or lack of for many, which can lead to a lack of investment back into a farming business due to nervousness about the future.
As for living on the land well that opens up a raft of issues. Affordable housing in most Oxfordshire villages appears to be very rare. Buying a house, I don't even look in estate agent windows any longer as it paints such a depressing picture.
I think there is a perception amongst people (on good salaries, living in houses worth a £million plus) at farmers markets buying their lovely local, organic produce that the farmer/grower has a lovely idyllic lifestyle and it is they (the customer) who are suffering having to commute and work long hours and suffer undue stress.
When I lived in Ireland on my smallholding I do believe I had a different sort of wealth in that I knew we had fresh eggs, a polytunnel full of veg and a freezer full of pork/bacon. So there is some truth in the 'lifestyle' anecdotes, but I think that only existed because we didn't have the pressure of paying big rents to keep a roof over our heads. My big concern is for the farmers/growers who have neither the 'lifestyle' wealth or traditional 'monetary' wealth.
People wanting to start or get back into small scale, locally based agriculture do need a sound business plan on which to base their enterprise. I've nothing against grants and funding to help with capital start-up costs, but they shouldn't be relied upon for long-term running costs (too common in my opinion). There's nothing wrong with wanting to make a profit and earn a reasonable wage from a business, those two aspects will ensure the business remains viable and sustainable into the future. When writing a business plan don't lie to yourself about costs or income, it won't do anyone any good. I've seen quite a few plans with gaping holes in their planned outgoings.
I dearly love farming, it is in my blood and I believe in a particular system of farming which regenerates soil, biodiversity and people. But people and profitability do need to be at the heart of this farming system for it to be truly sustainable!