Friday, January 11, 2013

Smallholder Farm

My "Tools and Skills in Environment and Development" module started off with quite a bang this week.  We traveled to a local smallholder organic farm in Aylesham.  A couple have a regularly renewed one-year tenancy in 4.5 acres that used to be the kitchen garden for a major Norfolk estate. The estate still has a lord attached, so they very much are "peasant farmers" and claim that title.  Given their plot's history, the place has been a "farm" in a way since 1726 or thereabouts, though it hasn't been in used the whole time.  The wall and fencing is still there, though.  I've visited a lot of really old stuff in the UK, of course, but it was a new experience to think about standing in a human-cultivated garden that's older than my country!
The couple have been farmers for 27 years or so, but not always in that same plot.  Their entire income is based off selling their organic produce at a farmers' market in London.  Because of prices, they can't make enough selling wholesale; because of the lesser demand, they can't sell enough at Norfolk farmers' markets to sell locally, much as they'd like to.  They tried a local box scheme (where people pay year round to have fresh organic produce delivered to their door), but the organizational, etc. costs got too high for it to work.  Wonderful as cheap food is for a myriad of reasons, the policies and expectations of cheap food in the UK make it hard for smallholder farmers to get by, so they are often in the red.  They've hard some hard seasons with periods of drought and then regular rain.  Unlike with commercial farming focused on pesticides, this couple isn't too concerned with drought.  Because they're organic, they focus on keeping the soil healthy rather than the plants ("We don't feed the plants; we feed the soil").  The soil is good enough to retain a lot of moisture; even in drought conditions, they don't have to irrigate at all.  But the lack of sunshine when the summer is completely rainy is a major problem for them.
I have a lot of notes sorted into a "rural livelihoods framework" focusing on the kind of assets, capitals, and incomes they have.  Next week in class, we'll be trying to sort out everything they told us about how they stay afloat and manage to make a living from this.  For now, though, it was nice to hear from someone who still really enjoys just getting his hands dirty and pays more attention to the earth than his pocketbook as much as possible.

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