Over the past month we’ve been introducing you to a bunch of farming revolutionaries. Farmers that are changing the face of agriculture in the UK.
In our last interview in the share farming series, we meet James. The courageous person responsible for showing us that the countryside is better-served by having large numbers of small farmers all helping each other, instead of the increasingly large mechanised farms who only deal with supermarkets.
James and Henrietta, tell us about yourselves…
We came down to Stream Farm in 2002 from London. We arrived with four children Leticia, Catriona, Tom and Clementine then aged 10, 8, 6 and 4. We knew nothing about farming, had never planned to be farmers and we have no farming blood in us at all. We did not know Somerset and were pretty thoroughly London-focussed. I, James, am not actually interested in farming as such – but what I am passionate about is getting people back onto the land earning a livelihood from farming and that is what we are trying to do at Stream Farm.
Tell us how you got into farming?
We have been actively engaged in addressing urban regeneration issues for 18 years. We have a business incubator in South London from where we run a start up business training course for single mums and widows, in the main, from African and Caribbean heritage backgrounds. The ladies are all well able to get going in business, usually in food or textile-related businesses; they just have never been given the confidence and the tools to start.
We always knew there would be a rural end to this endeavour but had not quite realised that we would need to get stuck into farming ourselves for a few years first before offering others the opportunity to take on a farming business! So we started, and went organic as swiftly as we could, not just because I am a child of the Silent Spring, but because we saw, in our first year, the appalling chemicals and poisons that are routinely put on the soil and the crops in a commercial, intensive system.
We had long felt that rural communities were being devastated as swiftly and as comprehensively as urban ones. It took us no time to see that the primary cause of rural decline across the board is very straight-forward: good farmers know how to produce good food but only the very biggest know how to compete with the multi-million pound marketing budgets and the sheer purchasing power of the big supermarket chains. In any other context, these giants would by now have been dismembered limb from limb had there been a government with courage and integrity.
Farms have had to get bigger and bigger, farmers have felt they have to use more and more chemical fertilizers and toxic sprays and medical interventions to force the land and the livestock to yield more than it and they naturally can. Yet the numbers of people to whom the land can offer a livelihood has still decreased swiftly over the years. As an example of this, whilst prices in the supermarkets increased by 50% over a recent period of 7 years, the price at the farm gate rose only 12%. Every little helps ……. someone! And every new supermarket store that opens results in a net loss of 226 full, local livelihoods – mostly these will have been small-scale family businesses that have had to be closed – and the local communities have suffered accordingly. Do you know how much more expensive a small independent trader’s produce is than that in the supermarket? The supermarket is now 12% more expensive – and the local versions, Tesco Local, Sainsburys Local etc, some 30% more expensive! You see they believed there was no competition left – at least until Lidl and Aldi began to attack them from beneath.
So, what did you do?
Our aim from the outset has been to establish as many basic farming businesses as we can on the land and then to hand them on to those who want to farm, perhaps have tried and failed in the past, and to encourage them to earn a livelihood and by helping each other to produce the very best food. So now there are 8 businesses (so far): beef, lamb, chicken, pork, rainbow trout, apple juice, honey and spring water, still and sparkling. I am keen to start vines, next, if we are not too high above sea level – and perhaps crayfish.
Why are 96% of farms not organic?
I often hear that we could not feed ourselves in this country nor help the poor in other parts of the world if all farming were to be organic here. My answer to that is this: if we take out the profiteering supermarkets, farmers can be paid a fair price for their produce and it would be no more expensive for the consumer (for instance our beef box is at least £60 cheaper than the equivalent cuts in Waitrose); if we stopped wasting as much as we waste and if we stopped demanding out-of-season and perfect-looking produce, there would be plenty more food than we need; if there were large numbers of small farmers helping each other as happens at Stream Farm, communities would be enhanced and the countryside would become vibrant and would require many more farmers; and if we stopped pouring onto our land and into our animals things that have no place to be there, who knows but that we might all be a sight healthier too! And it is expertise that we should export from this tiny island of ours, rather than feeling we have an obligation to feed the world by unsustainable farming practices here that are causing an ever-greater environmental deficit.
And why share farming?
As we carried out our initial research – not in this country, as commercial farming is an industry here that is set in its ways and we knew we needed to have a fresh approach to it – we had thought we would be establishing a cooperative model but it was micro-finance that proved to be the best way forward – both in London and on the Farm. We made some adjustments to how we do it in London, decided to start up the businesses first before handing them on and found that the share farming model was exactly what we were looking for: it gives each farmer the opportunity to run their own business whilst learning the aspects they may not have known before: they earn a livelihood from their share of gross income and we recover, slowly, the costs of capital invested.
Do you run any of the businesses yourselves?
At the moment, we run the herd of Dexter beef cattle – perhaps the finest beef in the land! And we take back in hand, as and when we need to, any other business when a farmer moves on.
So are you here to change the world or just to farm sustainably?
Perhaps the secret to this model is our shared faith – certainly it would be very much harder without it! Unfair economic practices, over-powerful systems and unjust structures always got the sharp end of Jesus’ tongue. He continues to inspire us at Stream Farm today. Come and see.