Affordable land access and ownership for new farmers is just the kind of important issue that often goes unnoticed. So a recent article about this subject, by Alison Miller, caught my eye, and I decided to speak with her.
Alison works at the Sustainable Food Trust and runs Troed y Rhiw Organics, a mixed organic farm in West Wales, with her husband Nathan Richards. I spoke with her to find out more and learn how she and Nathan have made it work at Troed y Rhiw.
SD: Do you think that people are starting to return to the land now?
AM: There’s certainly increasing evidence of this. The average age of farmers in the UK is currently 59, but the one area of farming that has been growing is educated young people, who don’t necessarily come from farming backgrounds, but have an interest in ecology and creating healthier, more sustainable food systems. They typically have some financial backing to get started, but this isn’t normally much.
SD: What are the challenges facing these new farmers?
AM: One of the most significant challenges for new farmers coming into the business is the cost of agricultural land. Land has become a valuable asset and in some cases is even being bought up as investments by insurance and pensions companies. Land close to urban areas is especially expensive.
New farmers, generally, don’t have the money needed to buy their own land. There’s plenty of access to short-term lets, but very few long-term leases or affordable freeholds available. This isn’t very motivating for new farmers who want to invest for the long-term in improving the land and rebuilding a healthy natural ecosystem.
The trouble is that our vision for an organic, sustainable food system relies upon more small- to mid-sized mixed farms which take looking after the land and the environment seriously, but currently there is little to help them get established.
SD: Are there any solutions?
AM: Yes, there are a few schemes out there that are trying to help. Incubator schemes like The Kindling Trust’s Farm Start is a good example. The Ecological Land Cooperative is also offering affordable leaseholds for people running land-based businesses.
Some well-established farmers, like Matt Dunwell from Ragman’s Lane Farm have also recognised that this is a problem and have come up with their own schemes to help. But these are still few and far between.
It’s possible that changes in government policy to provide longer-term leases to new farmers could help them to access land. Covenants on agricultural land, ensuring that it can only be transferred to an owner who will continue to farm the land, could be an important mechanism to preserve farmland, keeping prices down. These are found more widely in the US.
SD: Do you think smaller producers need to market themselves differently?
AM: Yes, definitely. It’s very difficult to compete financially with big intensive farms. Small farms need a clear identity with a real face attached to it and tangible passion for what they are doing.
That’s what people buy into with smaller farms and increasingly small and mid-scale farmers, both new and established, are starting to take this approach rather than selling into commercial or commodities markets.
SD: What do you do at Troed y Rhiw Farm?
AM: We have a small farm of 23 acres on Cardigan Bay in West Wales. It’s largely horticulture with some conservation grazing. We sell most of our produce through a local box scheme or to local restaurants, typically within a 10-15 mile radius.
We also attend a producers market in Newport and support the revenue from our produce with holiday lets and by providing sustainability courses such as beekeeping.
SD: How important are chefs to the transition towards more small- to medium-sized farms?
AM: Chefs are a really important part of the equation. They need to be committed to sourcing sustainably, otherwise often their decision comes down to price.
It helps us a lot to have regular orders from the local restaurant customers we have. We wouldn’t be able to supply the supermarkets, so being able to supply independent restaurants is an important revenue stream for us.
My husband likes to look out for more unusual ingredients. We eat so narrowly these days, that it’s nice to be able to provide interesting varietals, like a beautiful blue kale that we grow that is both gorgeous and delicious.
Some chefs can be very good at using these more unusual ingredients and this can offer their guests a more interesting and varied eating experience which also helps to preserve the importance of different varietals.