Better Jobs for Better Farmers
One of the themes running through the conference this year was that of livelihoods in farming. In particular, can smaller agro-ecological farmers compete fairly in a global market, and if not then how can we expect to attract new entrants to ensure that we have a vibrant, skillful and knowledgeable farming community to cope with the climatic challenges of the next century?
Sustain are campaigning for 1 million new jobs in farming. Whether this is either the right number or even possible, there is no question that a major reskilling is required. There are some great examples of this, such as our own Future Growers scheme, the biodynamic apprenticeship, SRUC's distance learning training and many other smaller local opportunities, but this is still a tiny proportion of what will be needed. The vast majority of colleges are still wedded to supporting the industrial farming model, though there are signs of change – for instance Bridgwater College are now including a compulsory organic module in their horticultural training.
Colin Tudge also asked us to think about the question of what is work for. This is not a new question of course; the Luddites, Ruskin, Morris and many others have all tried to tackle it, but it remains as relevant today as ever. Exponential technological advances promise much and should be considered, but not purely as a way to improve efficiency and remove labour from food production. We have only around 1.5% of our population employed on the land, yet a million people are unemployed. Exercise and fresh air are good for mental and physical health, but our society spends billions through welfare and the NHS on treating problems associated with sedentary, indoor lifestyles - whilst jobs that might help provide part of the solution to such issues are being done more cheaply by machines.
While this is an oversimplication, there is no question that fair and human scale farming is becoming more difficult to achieve. Bridget Henderson from Unite outlined the impact of the removal of the AWB in England and the increasing problem of many of our larger food business being owned by large corporations whose legal duties are their financial returns to their shareholders, not the welfare of their workers. Even where a company is committed to employee welfare, the increasing scale of food production means a growing reliance on employment agencies for seasonal work. Most will openly admit that ensuring their workers are not being exploited by these agencies is extremely difficult.
A large proportion of applicants for our future growers scheme are in their twenties or early thirties; they are bright, talented, often with an unrelated degree and other skills from previous employment. They have usually made a concious decision to accept a lower wage in return for a better lifestyle and self fulfillment. Nothing wrong with that perhaps, except that they often end up working (whether or not they are self employed or self exploited, as it is often called) very long hours and for less than the minimum wage. The pressure on rural housing often means living in caravans or commuting large distances.
So where does leave us? We must be prepared to pay enough for our food to ensure farmers can live a decent life. The growing market worldwide for organic and fairly traded foods and direct, premium sales show there is hope on this front. We must also start to reverse the constant reduction in the percentage of final sale price that the farmer receives. Shorter supply chains will help this but are not easy to achieve. There is also a role for government in a variety of ways. The exclusion of producers under 5 hectares from CAP support is a travesty, putting small and potentially profitable businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Removing tax benefits from land ownership and some of the “agressive tax avoidance” share farming agreements that were outlined by Stephen Wyrill at the Tenant Farmers Association could also help. But perhaps the most important thing is that we must all as eaters of food ask the question with every purchase: “who gets what from this pound that I am spending, and who might be suffering”?