May … An agroecological year
A monthly exploration of agroecological farming, folklore and nature by farm coordinator, Fern Towers
May, my favourite month, when the hedges are foaming with hawthorn blossom and everything is beginning to grow and swell rapidly. This year has been rather different, however, with the unrelenting cold and wet hindering the market garden from its usual explosion of growth. With the vegbox deadline looming, this has of course been a source of anxiety for me and many similar growers, but it serves as a perfect example of the benefits of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Those who sign up to our vegboxes share a portion of the risk – submitting to the fluctuations of nature with us and seeing what it brings. When the gluts of summer eventually arrive, their loyalty will be rewarded with vegboxes filled to the brim. Although ‘seasonal’ food can be glamourised today – a throwaway remark often gracing the menus of fancy restaurants – when embraced committedly it can be challenging to get used to, especially after a lifetime of having exactly what we want, whenever we want it, from supermarkets. But I believe that although it can be a challenge, it unites us with growers across the whole of the country; an experience to share, in an age of disconnection.
Last month I discussed ‘agriwilding’, and how we can invite more of our non-human neighbours back into the countryside. Growing up in the English Midlands, I was used to walking on footpaths through vast arable fields. It was only in my teenage years, as I became more concerned about environmental issues, that I realised many of these fields were in fact green deserts. My urban garden, filled with birdfeeders and scruffy wild patches, would in fact bring me the sightings of woodpeckers, owls and frogs, that the intensively farmed countryside surrounding us would not. There was a sense of uneasy uniformity to these vast monocultures.
But now, older again, and having worked at a community farm for some time, I realise that it was also the stark lack of people that contributed to this sense of uneasiness. On my childhood walks my dad, obsessed with archaeology, would frequently lean down and pick up fragments of what he knew to be farmers’ clay pipes to show me. These typically dated from the Tudor period onwards, and had been unearthed once again by the plough.
Reflecting on this now, I realise that each of those pipes represented a human life, one of the crowds of people involved in working each field, amassing wisdom and friendships as they worked together. The switch from animal to machine power brought an end to rural community life which went largely unchanged for over two thousand years. Now, farming is often a solitary pursuit, where all the risk discussed above weighs on the shoulders of one person. Colin Tudge (2016, p185-6) sums up the situation eloquently:
the traditional small mixed farm is based on the idea of a single owner or tenant…But the lone farmer on a complex farm must have many different areas of expertise and must work extremely hard to keep all the balls in the air. As history shows, lone farmers, however good they are, have been extremely vulnerable: economically, politically, and indeed physically.
This realisation by those interested in agroecology has meant that community has become a central tenet to the movement – not only for the rich human experience it brings, but also for necessity in making farms more robust. Tudge elaborates that bringing people back into farms does not mean forming communes, which require shared ideologies and “mergers of personality”, as these are often doomed to fail. Rather, he suggests a model more akin to a hamlet, a “co-operative of the free”, where people operate “quasi-independently day-by-day but sharing and cooperating whenever this is appropriate; a network or ecosystem of interlocking enterprises working as one unit”. But most importantly, “each enterprise within it remains human-sized, with plenty of tender-loving care”. Put simply, this means working to each other’s strengths, as we do on the farm, by having a range of staff and volunteers whose interests span across horticulture, livestock, conservation, engineering, wellbeing, and everything in between. Being continually open to new talents and ventures, and investing in multiple projects at once, means that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch.
For many today, farming is not deemed an especially ‘reputable’ line of work – with the cultural perception of what makes a ‘good’ career driving people further and further indoors, away from nature and human contact. But I and others who work at Jubilee know this estimation to be entirely unfair, as the produce and human connection created at our community farm has been incredibly enriching for everyone involved. As a culture we must reassess these unfair stereotypes of farming and remind ourselves that it is not the act of farming itself which makes it a difficult or undesirable career, but rather the conditions that industrial forces have recently shaped it into. With 110,000 small family farms lost since 1990 (The Guardian, 2021), yet the amount of production forever increasing, it is clear that we as a society have been placing too much pressure on the individual farmer in our pursuit of ever-cheaper products. Having just finished The Crooked Scythe by George Ewart Evans (1993, p198), a book recording the oral history of a rural community in Suffolk, I agreed with his simple but important conclusion that, despite the cascades of changes and the “embarrassment of rich promises” made by various new technologies, “the main components of history are not the things but the people”.
Colin Tudge, (2016). Six Steps Back to the Land.
George Ewart Evans, (1993). The Crooked Sythe: an anthology of oral history.
The Guardian, (2021). Small farms have a huge role to play in our sustainable future