Many Permaculture readers will be all too familiar with the difficulties of accessing affordable land for ecological farming. In Europe, 11 hectares (27 acres) of soil are sealed under the concrete of expanding cities every hour meaning competition for land, along with speculative land buying, is pushing the cost of land up exponentially.
In 2002 only 8% of first generation farmers did not have an agricultural background and, without capital or inheritance, those after the good life are frozen out of the market. This leaves sustainable agricultural in a perilous state. The average age of a farmer in the UK is 59 with only 3% of farmers under 35, and in Europe it’s not much better, only 7% of farmers under 35.
How do new farmers deal with these challenges?
A new film produced by the grassroots network Access to Land explores these issues in the UK and across Europe. ‘Land For Our Food’ (available online here), follows ecological farmer Gavin Bridger who is struggling to find new land for his own community farm after being ordered to leave their site.
“There's land all around us. But until you need it, you don't realise how difficult it is to access it, especially for an eco-farming project that needs good soil and a location not far from the community.”
Setting off across the continent, with the help of his mentor Rachel Harries of the Soil Association, he meets people from the Access to Land network and discovers that whilst other European nations have similar issues, they may also have some answers.
Kate Collyns, who features in the film, is a perfect example of a small scale grower in Britain who has overcome the challenges of finding land to start her business. Like many new farmers, she came late to the profession after a career in publishing and trained through the Soil Association’s Future Growers apprenticeship. Her small holding is in the South West, where 5 years ago an acre of land was £12,000 – too expensive for her.
“I am now renting land from the main farm, working closely with the farmer – who is really supportive. If you have a good landlord and the land already has some other resources like infrastructure or routes to market, it can work really well. I sell my produce as an independent business to the farm shop and café owned by the farmer, which keeps things nice and straight forward. I'm a tenant and supplier.”
Why is accessing land so challenging in the UK?
In the UK 18% of farms control 73% the total farmland and a whopping 90% of farmland is privately owned. Britain’s unregulated land market means prices continue to soar, but there are also historical roots to this problem. The Enclosure Act of the 18th Century caused the majority of common land to be put in the hands of a rich minority and a major migration to the cities. This land consolidation broke down the connection between farmer and consumer as George Monbiot explains in the film:
“The people in this country all got crowded into the cities, the first largely urbanised country on earth, where more than 50% of the population were living in cities. Their food was being supplied by massive distant landowners who had no compunction at all about mixing their grain with chalk and all sorts of terrible food adulteration which has been going on in this country for a very long time.”
And as land consolidation continues today the need for agroecological farmers like Gavin, who can reforge links between producer and consumer and maintain the land, becomes increasingly important.
Connecting citizens to the land
Gavin discovers that by comparison France has a strong cultural attachment to the land owing to historical land reform after the French revolution. In the film George Monbiot says:
“[During this time] you had very distinctive local food cultures, you had very high standards of growing, very high standards of cooking… you had accountability between the sellers and their customers”
Whilst similar issues do face new farmers in France, land market regulation keeps prices lower and civic movements to protect the land are common. Terre de Liens is one such movement which connects citizens to farmers through a solidarity fund. Farmers can rent land from Terre de Liens which has been paid for with citizen’s savings. The farmers work the land and the investors benefit from the profits.
Terre de Liens is one of 15 grassroots organisations across Europe that make up the Access to Land network, which is working to support the safeguarding of land for local food production. Rachel Harries from the Soil Association says:
“We're working with all these European organisations to find out what people are doing in different countries, what the problems are, how they're addressing them, whether they're renting land or buying land, or putting it into community ownership. One of the things we want to do is bring all the information together from across Europe and share it so that we can try and put some of these good ideas into practice in our own countries.”
Gavin visiting Terre de Liens
Speculation and Land Grabbing
It’s not just increased pressure from the urban environment that is a barrier, but also speculative buying from businesses often with no agricultural background. This is an international issue, but Gavin discovers that in a country like Romania, where a quarter of the population are peasant farmers, they are facing an invasion. Land is being sold off cheaply to investors, weakening rural economies and limiting access to land for future farmers. Despite these changes organisations like Eco Ruralis are resisting this change, working together to protect their land for future generations.
Connecting Land Not in Use
Italy, like other European countries, is facing major issues with land consolidation and urbanisation, but there are still large amounts of public land not in use. In the province of Rome, 50% of the land is public but the challenge is who can connect that land with small scale ecological farmers to work it. Carlo from Agricoltura Nuova, an Italian cooperative that is featured in the film says:
“We should help people who have land and don’t use it to contact people who want the land and don’t have it. Land is a finite resource whose social use should be guaranteed by the state. There are hundreds of hectares of land left abandoned or badly managed. What about a European directive saying that farmland cannot be left idle, it has to be available to whoever wants to farm it? We would be much happier European citizens!”
Learning from Initiatives like Agricolture Nuova, and how they are negotiating with the government to use this public land for agroecological farming, can help new entrants and farmers like Gavin understand how to benefit the community and increase local food production.
Whilst farmers like Gavin face fierce competition for land and high prices, coming together through initiatives like those featured in the Access for Land film may provide some solutions.
The new film from Access to Land will be downloadable for all community groups, educational groups and anyone looking to share ideas on how to improve local, sustainable food production. By sharing the issues surrounding land ownership and production, the network hopes to raise awareness and find solutions.
Gavin’s story is a successful one: Using the power of his community, his farm was able to secure more land nearby. Using this land they continue to forge links between grower and consumer, selling their produce locally and working the land sustainably, preserving it for future generations.
Read more about Access to Land here
Watch the video ‘Land For Our Food’ here
Carey Organics (Future Growers students learn at this site)
A Future Growers visit, where they learn about fruit and veg growing
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