By Tim lawrence

The desire to increase local and ecologically friendly vegetable production is one thing, doing it can be another…..

In May, I helped run a course for Feed Avalon called Grow to Sell with a group of small scale growers with a desire to increase production.

It is worth saying that the specific motivations, interests and contexts of the participants were various and what follows are my views and are not representative. Having said this, the desire to increase production amongst many participants seemed to include:

·         Increasing supply to meet a perceived demand

·         The need and/or desire to make part of their livelihood from growing vegetables for sale

·         Commitments to grow and sell vegetables in ways that take ecological, social and economic concerns into consideration

·         Something about doing things locally

So, we spend two days trying to explore

How to increase vegetable production in ways that are fair, ecologically sound, financially viable and rooted in local relationships?

The questions, discussions, and insights were rich and various and I will not even try to do most of it justice here, indeed, this is my take on a couple of the challenges and questions they face:

·         The value of food in our society

·         The pressure to mechanise

 The value of food in our society

As I understand it, regardless of the rhetoric about local food, in Britain the average percentage of a household’s income being spent on food is at an all time low. Other things like housing, transport, telecommunications, consumer goods etc., have an increased percentage…..

Is food, and the plants, creatures, land and systems-cultures that produce it, undervalued in our society?

You may disagree but I would say ‘yes’.

Our food is routinely subsidized by the environmental and social exploitation, and most of society (if not almost all of us) are unwilling to face/pay the real costs involved in how we currently grow and distribute our food.

From my experience and from talking to other growers, even where people are committed to paying more for ‘local’ and/or ‘green’ veg the margins for error (forget profit) are incredibly tight, and the market factors are still largely unfavourable. This is before you start to factor in the investment needed to enhance run down site ecology and trying to be socially inclusive.

So how to make ends meet without selling out on ecological and social principles and aspirations?

In practice, one strategy is to specialise in higher value, normally perishable, crops (salads being the obvious example), the other strategy is to make the supply chains as short as possible and reduce waste/grade outs (CSAs being an example of this) so that growing staple crops like potatoes is still viable. The first strategy struggles to address broader economic issues directly, the second (Community Supported Agriculture) is in many ways incredibly complex and people/skills demanding, with little guarantee it is going to work (well).

Within both there is often a need to scale up or specialise in order to reach a scale of economy that is viable, which often involves mechanisation of some sort, whether it be tractors (two or four wheel), refrigerated storage or delivery, protected growing, or production line style working. It is hard to be competitive with the big producers with their big mechanical toys….which brings us onto the pressure to mechanise.

The pressure to mechanise

If we want to increase production how are we going to get the work done to achieve a higher yield?

The option to grow crops where there is a higher value, often because they are more perishable or have a niche demand is one way to make a business viable but the demand is limited as there are only so many people who can afford and desire to buy such produce. If we are trying to increase the amount of staple vegetables that are available (and accessible-affordable) where does the energy come from to increase vegetable production and how is this harnessed? It is about both the amount of work that can be done and the power relations implicit in any method….

Who and/or what is going to do the tasks of cultivating, fertilising, planting, dealing with weeds, pests and disease, harvesting and distributing?

Crudely speaking, we have increasingly relied on fossil fuels (machines, fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides) to do this and even organic farming is ever more mechanised (tractors and transport etc.,) having to scale up to compete with the big chemical growers and comply with supermarket and non-local supply chain demands.

Yet, isn’t the increased use of fossil fuels contrary to ecological concerns and local economies?

If we choose to reduce, minimise or refuse to use fossil fuels, where to get the power to get the work done? The obvious answer is muscle power, whether human or animal.  Do it by hand and/or with animals. There is another aspect to this too though that I won’t address here, which is tools. For now I want to stare at the reality that scaling up production using primarily muscle power is often gruelling work, even back-body breaking….

Do we really want to return to the days of an overworked and exploited peasantry? And

How is it ok to treat animals as beasts of burden?

I don’t want to treat humans exploitatively so why is it any different with animals?

Maybe we can get some volunteers to do it……

Seriously, we need to be real about who and/or what is doing the hard work? and the consequences of these choices. The limits and consequences of using machines are becoming ever clearer and it is not pretty environmentally, socially or economically (at least for the majority). Treating people and animals like machines sticks in my throat too…..

This leaves us with a conundrum

When seeking to increase production how to deal with the pressure to mechanise?

Or if you want to pose the question more openly

What are the ethics and implications of ‘the machine’ in small scale growing?

Not serving the Machine and valuing all that goes into producing food

Whilst it still seems an imperative to increase small scale vegetable production for all the reasons mentioned above, it also seems crucial that we are very conscious of the pressure to mechanise and the hazards and consequences it presents. Yes, there is an obvious need to be pragmatic, yet if growers end up as little more than cogs in a machine then we will not be fostering, nurturing and restoring the cultures and ecosystems that many of us yearn for.  

How can we increase local food production in ways that resist the reduction of growing to an exploitative mechanical process?

This in turn brings me back to value of food in society. This is not just about what the individual consumer is willing to pay for produce or the need for a technological fix. It is about the value food, and the economic, ecological and social systems that produces it, has in broader terms.  

Is a clash of priorities between sufficiency and subsistence, on one hand, and economic growth and ‘consumerism’, on the other, implicit to the challenges of taking green and local food seriously?