Size Matters?

IMG-20140417-00857 copyWell, that was interesting. The Landworkers Alliance (LWA) demo on Thursday 17th April (International Peasants’ Day) went pretty well, where we set up a market stall outside DEFRA headquarters in London, to show how productive smaller scale farms can be – and to ask very nicely that small scale farms be considered when making policy. The demo attendees were a small but select bunch of around 40-50 (I’m terrible at guestimating), and a few of us spoke about why the status quo needs to change, and it what direction.

The ‘demand’ (or polite request) we made was to ask DEFRA to implement the voluntary cap on Pillar 1 CAP EU payments, at an extremely generous £150,000 per farm; and to divert the resulting £200 million (or at least some of it) to smaller scale productive farms under Pillar 2 of CAP. I still can’t believe that DEFRA has recently chosen to redefine the size of farms receiving Pillar 1 payments (replacing the old direct single farm payment) to those over 5ha – that’s a huge minimum size of farm, over 12 acres; my market garden business is on just over 2 acres of land and producing a huge amount of food. EU Member states can apply limits or not at their own discretion. So the threshold for minimum claim areas has been increased by DEFRA in this country to the highest possible level of 5ha because, in the words of Owen Patterson, “the vast majority of those claimants with less than 5ha are not economic units. They are, in lay parlance, hobby farms.”

IMG-20140417-00856 copy IMG-20140417-00858 copyCue seething indignation and rage from those thousands of small- and micro-scale farmers and growers, who are told that their endless toil and graft in the face of an ever-industial agricultural landcape is a ‘hobby’. Apparently it’s a ‘hobby’ if you earn your living from your business, as I do, which is an interesting definitition of ‘hobby’. Many of the 16,650 holdings who are now excluded from the Pillar 1 payments also earn their living from the land; there may be some lucky individuals who do run their smallholdings as a hobby, and don’t have to make a profitable enterprise in order to survive; but going by land size only is in no way a accurate way of measuring this. The LWA estimate that this change of threshold for claimants will save DEFRA £16 million each year – which is still much less than it’s proposed solution of adding a cap to Pillar 1 payments for those landowners with vast estates, who can claim well over £150,000 per year in subsides.

It’s the (lack of) logic of the argument that I find particularly galling. DEFRA say, on the one-hand, that holdings under 5ha are uneconomic, and therefore should not be supported (although this is of course completely untrue, as thousands of small businesses will testify and would be happy to should Owen Patterson their accounts to prove it – plus many would be glad of the extra subsidy money to expand and develop their business, and employ more local people, produce even more local food, teach youngsters about farming…). However, at the same time, the implication of diverting the bulk of the EU subsides to asset-rich landowners of vast estates is that these landowners need these hundreds of thousands of subsides in order to remain viable and survive. Surely if any one business needs yearly no-strings grants of over £150,000, they are “not economic units.” They are the ‘hobby farms’, only in a massive and unsustainable (in every way) scale.

Mind you, I shouldn’t get too worked up because none of this really affects me, since I’ve never had CAP payments in the first place. Although of course, it does affect me in a number of ways, and not least because those macro business with EU subsides are able to sell their subsidised produce at a price lower than my cost of production if they want to. Fortunately my customers base is very loyal, and people appreciate having local, fresh and sustainable produce from just down the road (and I grow many things that larger producers don’t grow); plus my margins are so slim that my prices are pretty much the same anyway (I’m really not going to be rich growing veg). So therefore my tax money is paying larger producers to subsidise their produce, and keep my income right down. It does seem a little unfair to be taxed twice though?

DEFRA Demonstration: International Peasants Day 17th April

april 17th flierI’m looking forward to the demonstration outside DEFRA tomorrow in London from noon, organised by the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA). I’m giving a brief talk about the issues facing new entrants to farming and land work generally – and of course the main one is access to land. The demo should be a really good day (especially if the nice weather holds); and there will be a mini farmers’ market stall there too, to highlight how productive small- and medium-scale farms and market gardens can be, even in the middle of the Hungry Gap (rather unfortunate timing for veg growers!). We are hoping to remind DEFRA and other policymakers that smaller scale agriculture and land workers really does need more attention when it comes to formulating policy and implementing EU legislation. Grand sweeping schemes to ‘help farmers’ often equate to sops to wealthy landowners and corporate agribusiness, which do nothing to help us – in fact they often have the opposite effect if large-scale farming practices get subsidies and grants from central governments, therefore undercutting artisanal producers trying to earn a basic living wage, often on rented land; who often produce more food per acre in a more sustainable way, and using more labour rather than fossil fuels and chemicals (therefore creating more jobs).

The demo is to mark International Peasants Day, as the LWA is a member of international peasant organisation La Via Campesina. It’s all very exciting; I just hope that there are some DEFRA people around to notice. Someone told me that they tend not to be around much on a Thursday afternoon. Maybe if they have the afternoon off they can come along and join the demo? Everyone is welcome; banners, beards and bailing twine aren’t mandatory.