Earlier this week I attended an event at Monkton Wylde Court entitled ‘A Matter of Scale’, where Rebecca Laughton revealed the results of her research into the productivity of small farms in the UK. As a key member of The Land Workers Alliance campaigning group, Rebecca realised that what policymakers want is statistics, and there were none available to prove the worth of small scale producers in terms of productivity, social and environmental benefits. The study was designed to gather this information into a report and a series of short films.
“Policymakers rely on evidence. WE need to demonstrate that agroecology can feed the world”
Rebecca also identified a reluctance on the part of small farmers to quantify the benefits of small scale farming, partly because the motivation for land-based lifestyles which prioritise well-being of people and wildlife is based upon ethics and the benefits are somewhat unquantifiable. This said, the results of the report were impressive and the films very successfully conveyed the many and varied positive contributions that small farms make to people and communities, nature, health and local economies. When comparing yields and incomes to standard large organic farms, small farms held their own, often out-producing the large farms. It was interesting to see the level of diversity of small integrated systems which have multiple outputs such as veg, fruit, animals, value-added products, community engagement and education. This diversity gives them resilience as businesses and as systems, and allows a far higher level of productivity per acre than large single output farms.
“Eco farms have many functions (but) food production and financial productivity are key. Future farms must be productive AND sustainable.”
Rebecca focussed on farms of 20 hectares or less, because the government currently only subsidises farms of 20 hectares or more, putting small scale producers at a significant financial disadvantage. The survey showed that many small farmers are living on very low incomes, but that those incomes are comparable to those of large scale farmers before subsidies.
Something which could be clearer in the report is the difference in external inputs to large farms and small diverse farms, where they are able to make use of their own resources to feed plants and animals. Integrated systems allow for ‘closed’ loops by making the waste products of one part of the system, the inputs to another. For example, feeding the whey left over from cheese making to the pigs to avoid importing soya protein.
The report is available online and the results are very illuminating, although it would have been good to hear results from a greater number of small farmers – a case in point that small farmers’ lifestyles are married to the land, and therefore there is little time for filling in lengthy surveys! However, the study is an important first step in giving small farmers legitimacy in the eyes of government and championing the worth of land-based livelihoods for our culture as a whole.
Rebecca Laughton is a market gardener at Tamarisk Farm in Dorset, and author of Surviving and Thriving on the Land a book about how to make land-based projects sustainable for the people running them. The ‘A Matter of Scale’ study was supported by the Centre of Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. The Landworkers Alliance campaigns for the rights of people with small land-based livelihoods and is a member of the international campaigning group La Via Campasina.