Crisis in the countryside

Sir Julian Rose
Wednesday, 1st March 2000

Bankruptcy and suicide among farming communities in Britain are escalating, food prices are falling and food imports growing. Organic farmer, Sir Julian Rose describes the real crisis in the countryside, the causes and what can be done to reverse it.

The traditional rural economy appears to be in a state of terminal decline, a process which probably started with the Enclosures Act in the 17th century, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution, and became virtually moribund in the latter half of the 20th century. By traditional, I mean a rural economy whose lifeblood is essentially agrarian; farmers, foresters, craftsmen, bakers, blacksmiths, brewers, butchers, tanners, millers, hedgers and ditchers, hurdle makers and horsemen, to name but a few. All such professions were essentially land based or one step away – village and market town enterprises. Just 250 years ago, 60% of the UK working population found employment in agrarian and artisan pursuits. Today it is approximately 3% to 4% and still declining.

The whole thing looks like a dead duck, but is it?

This description is, broadly speaking, the traditional interpretation of 'rural economy'. Today we can no longer hold on to this interpretation, as much as it might seem convenient to do so, and another rural economy is emerging as we enter the 21st century – one which still contains some essential elements of the 'traditional', but now integrates changes implicit in the evolving lifestyles of modern post-industrial societies.

Globalised food and the decline of local retailing

There are a number of imperatives behind this accelerating process of change in our countryside. The most stark is the shift, particularly since the Second World War, away from local supply and demand of primary agricultural produce. The development of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), of large and well organised commodity buyers, and of supermarkets as the main retailers of globalised food have been key factors in hastening the decline of local retailing – and the independent grocery sector in particular.

A recent report by the National Retail Planning Forum identifies the loss of 25,000 jobs (mostly small shops) within a ten mile radius of 93 superstores over a three year period – an average of 270 in each location. More than 80% of today's consumers use supermarkets to purchase their weekly groceries. They are car and convenience dependent – and the money they spend gives virtually no benefit back to the local economy and local community. In fact, the UK is a net importer of food and in 1998 had a trade gap in food and drink of £7.9 billion. According to the SAFE Alliance's (now SUSTAIN) report (1994) "...consumers are now travelling further and taking longer to shop for groceries than they did 30 years ago". The average supermarket trolley of food purchased has travelled over 3,000 kilometres. In the UK, moving food accounts for the largest amount of freight, above any other single commodity, and the largest increase in road freight over the last two decades. 34% of the increase in goods travelled is made up of food, particularly heavily processed and packaged foods, leading to serious environmental pollution. 8.5 million tons of waste food packaging was dumped in 1997 alone.

Intensified production methods

Farmers have paid a heavy price for this mass production mindset. In gearing up to meet the new demands of the multiple chains for large volumes of visually and physically conformist 'safe' foods – purchased from the farmer at the lowest possible price – they have intensified production methods while simultaneously shedding labour. The true environmental and welfare costs surrounding the maintenance of this high input industrial farming have never been comprehensively addressed. However, it becomes startlingly apparent that calling the resulting food 'cheap' is deeply misleading. To cite just one example: over the last 10 years, £31 billion has been spent cleaning out water supplies – polluted, as they are, with the run-off of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and non-degradable substances.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has been only too keen to encourage this trend for greater 'efficiency', claiming it is the only way for the UK to be competitive on the world market, as well as to draw maximum benefit from the EU's Common Agricultural Policies. But where has this 'production ethic' policy of the past 50 years really got us?

"Worst Agricultural Crisis since the 1930s Depression" 

The answer is writ large on the front pages of the farming press: "Worst Agricultural Crisis since the 1930s Depression." Too much of the wrong food chasing a saturated international market has now deeply undermined farmers' livelihoods. A strong pound and restricted export market has added further to the demise, and the CAP is incapable of bailing everybody out.

The already struggling rural economy has had to try and absorb the knock-on effect of up to 10,000 farmers and farm workers leaving the industry every year for at least the past ten years. Post offices, village stores, clinics, schools, pubs, bus services and crucial local abattoirs have been the front-line casualties. Over 1,000 abattoirs, have closed in the last ten years – mainly because of ill-conceived and inappropriate meat hygiene inspection charges – forcing farmers to transport their animals increasingly long distances to be slaughtered. This is a situation which runs counter to animal welfare concerns and meat quality.

Most rural parishes have no doctors' clinics, no food stores and barely any public transport. Even banks and petrol stations are now closing throughout rural areas. There are many more downstream knock-on effects. Latest predictions are that a further 100,000 jobs need to be shed in agri-culture in order to achieve the increasingly elusive goal of a lean, efficient and competitive industry. Meanwhile, those family farms that try to copy, will do so on incomes well below the poverty level. A bleaker vision of the future could hardly be concocted.

Bearing in mind that virtually everybody today believes that our countryside, is for one reason or another, 'a valuable resource' and should be tended and cared for as part of our national heritage, the rural economy cannot be left to the fate of heavily skewed market forces, nor to be viewed as just a 'nicety'. Its survival and revival is an essential pre-requisite for the sustainable management of our countryside.

The implications of failing to grasp this are profound, because the more one bleeds the rural economy, the more one increases the environmental pressure on the countryside. Many rural parishes today carry the same socio-economic status as inner city zones. Something of this sense of awareness is now getting through to the new bodies and institutions whose remit embraces the rural sector, including the Countryside Agency, the No 10 Policy Unit Team, MAFF, and some of the Regional Development Agencies. But few can appreciate just how all embracing the solutions need to be in order to give genuine hope and rejuvenation to our crisis-hit rural sector.

Breathe life back into our communities

What we can establish, however, is that while food and farming should always form the bedrock of countryside activity, there should be no denying that in the present climate they can no longer support the complete infrastructure upon which a thriving rural economy depends. New models must emerge that help breathe life back into our traditional villages, market towns and country communities. We must also recognise that there will be strong constraints on economic development which ignores environmental and social implications. The trick is to find the dynamic formula which fully integrates these concerns at the local level, and gains the support of the local authority planning committees.

What we are looking for is a new vision: an 'integrated sustainable develop-ment' programme that incorporates social, economic and environmental criteria – at the local level. In this vision a new focus is given to the immediate local resource base which I call 'The Proximity Principle'. A fully integrated approach demands closer ties between consumers and what they consume, and to be sustainable it has to exploit the renewable resource base, not the finite non-renewable one. National targets to reduce C02 emissions and to increase green energy output are already providing stimulus for action. It has been estimated that in order to effectively counteract global warming, we must reduce world consumption of fossil fuels by 70% by the year 2020. The UK would have to manage on 1/8 of the energy used today and the USA on 1/20th!

Getting to grips with such imperatives embraces the need to gain a more focused understanding of the interplay between transport, jobs and 'affordable' housing in the countryside and considers the envi-ronmental and social impact of failing to bring them into physical proximity. It can utilise redundant farm buildings for small businesses of all sorts and use computer technology to cut down on the need for daily commuting runs. It stimulates new thinking about local food and forestry production and consumption – as against the global market – and whether the method of production is ecologically benign or ultimately depleting of the natural resource base.

It asks one to carry out the same exercise for energy supply: for instance the regeneration of local timber produc-tion or unmanaged woodlands for their biomass potential is more sustainable than buying in nuclear or coal generated electricity from the central grid. What about a 'mix and match' strategy utilising solar, wind, methane and wood-land biomass? Why not use local timber in the construction of light industrial buildings, instead of steel portal construc-tions with their much greater environmental impact and cost? It is a sorry reflection on our home grow timber market that 90% of current demand is coming from collapsed price imports.

Once one starts centering this sort of package on a specific place – say a typical (almost certainly 'run down') market town, it takes on a more immediate reality.

Adding Value

Why do local farmers attempt to sell their produce into a non-specified, anonymous and distant market when there may be 12,000 people, including schools and local authority canteens, needing to be fed right on their doorstep? Is it sustainable to transport food 300 miles to a centralised distribution centre, only to have it returned three days later (and three days older) to the shelves of the local supermarket when it could have come fresh from the fields, earned the farmer a better price and saved considerable pollution of the environment? 'Adding value' and local retailing stimulate 'pride of place and pride of product' and encourages a further closing of the current yawning gap between producer and consumer.

There is a further reason to take such a model seriously. Virtually all market towns were architecturally designed to achieve the most efficient geographical contact with the immediate countryside. Country roads converge on town market places. There is something sad, if not ludicrous, in seeing these once vibrant centres of local trade now occupied by estate agents, gift shops and travel agencies. The surge of local 'box schemes' and newly established farmers' markets offers a welcome clue to the new potential here. But they in turn will find it virtually impossible to fulfil this potential if the local slaughterhouse has just been closed through over zealous implementation of some EU hygiene controls and the local planning authority refuses permission for the development of added value businesses! The need to take an integrated view is therefore essential.

Joined Up Thinking

Lateral thinking points to more integrated 'stake holding' or ownership of the resource base at community level, an emphasis on pride of place, quality of life and appropriate scale. If 'an acre per person' were used as an approximate rule of thumb for this more self sufficient way of life, one could extrapolate that 12,000 acres would supply our market town's 12,000 inhabitants with their basic and seasonal primary food require-ments – and via production methods that emphasised the 'optimum yield' from the land, rather than the 'maximum'.

The most efficient and ecologically benign way of supplying that market would be to engage the closest 12,000 acres of productive agricultural land in meeting this demand. Repeated over and over again across the British Isles, this exercise would effectively utilise much of our agricultural acreage to fulfil the local requirements of the home market with the very minimum of food miles. It would also reduce long shelf life processing and packaging and the need to be dependent on an export market largely controlled by predatory multinationals. Gone would be the vast plains of monocultural cereal that occupy more and more of our once mixed farms – and back would come the horticulture, the orchards and the mixed farming skills essential to the long term fertility of the land. No doubt this could be repeated for renewable resources based on green fuels supplying the town's primary energy requirement, with agricultural and silvicultural crops also providing the fibre requirement. Local food, fuel and fibre were still sustaining the Cotswold town of Burford in Oxfordshire at the beginning of the 20th century. After a 100 years of extraordinary advances in technology and modern engineering, couldn't this be much more easily achieved now?

Is this just a dream, an idealistic turning back of the clock? I think not. We stand at a crossroads. There is growing recognition that it is no longer possible to sustain a healthy society, while simultaneously trying to squeeze out the last ounce of profit, through the pollution and exhaustion of our natural resources.

Proposals for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy under the umbrella of Agenda 2000 struggle to address these issues. There is a move away from Brussels and towards giving individual governments much greater responsibility for the allocation of economic resources to farmers. This reflects the beginning of an EU wide shift of emphasis towards diversified rural and regional development programmes, and away from direct support for agricultural production. At the same, time UK farming is in serious decline. Incomes have fallen sharply, often by 50% or more and it is the small family farms which suffer most.

A huge shake up of the agricultural sector looks inevitable and the entire infrastructure supporting farming is bound to suffer too, with job losses throughout the countryside. Clearly a radical action plan is needed if farming is to come through this upheaval, however changed. So far, no coherent vision of the way through has emerged. However, the new emphasis on regional development may provide a means of turning a crisis into an opportunity, through the development of a sustainable rural resource policy.

At the heart of this will be political recognition that reliance upon an increasingly cutthroat world food market, will leave a high percentage of UK farms uncompetitive. The re-emergence of strong local and regional markets would offer a viable alternative. To quote Albert Einstein, "One cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it"

After an early career in broadcasting and the theatre, Sir Julian Rose began the conversion of Hardwick Estate in Oxfordshire to organic farming in 1975. Since then, in a radical experiment in land management, he has developed at Hardwick a thriving system of integrated, autonomous units based on share farm and rental agreements. The produce from these enterprises, incorporating beef, sheep, arable, dairy, poultry, fruit and vegetables, is sold at Hardwick's own retail outlet, the Old Dairy Farm Shop, which has won two national awards in the last three years.

Sir Julian actively promotes organic farming and the rural economy in numerous different roles. He has served on the council of the Soil Association since 1984, and chairs their newly formed Standards Committee. A co-founder of the Association of Unpasteurised Milk Producers and Consumers, he is involved in the ongoing campaign to Save Real Milk, and now chairs an Alliance of European Groups to resist the threat of regulation from Brussels to traditional raw milk products. Nearer to home, he chairs the Association of Rural Businesses in Oxfordshire, an independent committee of rural working people devoted to the regeneration of a diverse and flexible rural economy.