(Readers of The Hedge may have heard of an exciting new landworker’s union which has emerged from fields and woodlands across the country over recent years to give a voice to small-scale ecological producers. Here Ed Hamer explains a bit about the history and ambitions of the Landworkers’ Alliance.)
As a small-scale farmer or forester in the UK today you may be forgiven for thinking you’re very much on your own. You most likely work long hours on the land in an effort to earn a decent livelihood and your job is almost certainly made harder by having to compete with larger intensive producers who use economies of scale to their advantage.
Indeed the ability of small rural enterprises to turn a profit has become increasingly challenging over the past fifty years. Partly, we are told, because consumers are choosing to spend less of their weekly budget on food (eight percent today compared to 40 percent in 1952) and because economists dictate that competition encourages products to be supplied in the cheapest, and therefore and most efficient way.
There is however a different opinion. Over the same period many traditional producers have questioned whether this really is the nature of the market. For many of us our experience has been a consistent demand from consumers for quality, over and above producing at the cheapest possible price.
Over the years this demand has supported a patchwork of like minded producers across the country; from the earliest organic and biodynamic farmers to green woodworkers and charcoal burners, fabric makers and more recently traditional timber framers. Against all odds these producers have maintained a living culture of traditional rural skills and knowledge – despite an increasingly difficult marketplace.
What many of these producers have traditionally lacked however is the ability to challenge how their livelihoods are undermined by policies that support larger producers while failing to recognise them as a legitimate alternative. In the UK this is most obviously demonstrated by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which currently uses 80 percent of an annual £3.6bn budget to subsidise the largest 20 percent of landowners. Meanwhile the smallest 20 percent of the UK’s farmers receive just two percent of the budget and are forced to compete on price with those receiving enormous subsidies.
On top of this the government currently uses “social development” money from the CAP to offset the environmental and social costs of industrial production; water pollution, flooding, rural unemployment and lack of affordable housing. While at the same time shutting down the basic infrastructure that smaller producers need to operate effectively; like local abattoirs and livestock markets, creameries and processing facilities and village and town marketplaces.
The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) was formed in 2012 to directly address inequalities like this. Inspired by the success of the international peasant farming organisation La Via Campesina, the LWA wanted to combine the role of a traditional producer organisation; solidarity, skill sharing and networking, with a deliberate and targeted political campaign to raise the profile, and the concerns, of traditional producers in the UK.
As an official member of Via Campesina the LWA is a producer-led organisation. This means that anyone who earns their livelihood from the land is welcome to join and gives the organisation an integrity that sets it apart from the many environmental NGO’s that campaign on similar issues. Although the majority of our members are farmers we are open to anyone producing food, fibre or fuel from the land.
The common theme that unites our membership is a commitment to food sovereignty; the right of communities to define their own food and farming systems. Although this is a relatively new concept in the UK, food sovereignty simply describes the work that has been going on for years on family farms at farmers’ markets, farm gate stalls and more recently community supported agriculture schemes that directly link producers and consumers. Food sovereignty also places ecology at the centre of food production and recognises that responsible resource use is the foundation of healthy food for healthy people.
Although the majority of those who identify with food sovereignty tend to be producing on smaller-than-average holdings and supplying local markets, the LWA does not campaign simply on the basis of scale. We are open to any producers who would like to see a more progressive and democratic food system regardless of the size of their farm. Similarly our members are not exclusively “organic” producers but those who prioritise the ecological health of their farms.
Over the past four years the LWA has grown with phenomenal success and today has more than 800 paying members. This growth has largely been driven by a new generation of farmers and growers who are embracing working on the land as a positive solution to the negative impacts of climate change, inequality and mass consumerism. Our numbers have also been swelled by an older generation of established producers who see the LWA as an innovative organisation that is able to articulate their concerns more effectively than they have been in the past.
And we have made significant achievements already. Learning from the skills and experience of our European partners from Via Campesina we have prioritised the political representation of our members. Over the past three years we have produced two comprehensive policy papers; Feeding the Future and Equality in the Countryside, outlining concrete policies that better support appropriate scale producers. In promoting these recommendations we have held face-to-face meetings with Conservative and shadow environment Ministers, MEP’s and civil servants.
In addition we have established a busy calendar of networking and skill sharing events amongst our members organised by regional groups in the four quarters of England, along with Wales and Scotland. These include farm tours, training workshops, conferences, demonstrations and protests as well as social events, ceilidhs & barn dances.
Over the next 12-months we will be rolling out a programme of political training workshops for each of the LWA’s regional groups to give our members the skills, knowledge and confidence to address their own MP’s about their concerns over both European and national farming policies that directly affect their livelihoods. In short – we are giving a voice to a whole generation of producers who have until now been entirely unrepresented – and we would like to do the same for you.
If you are a farmer, grower, forester or fibre-producer who wants a better system then we need your voice. Membership costs £25 per year and every additional member gives us greater influence. Find out more at www.landworkersalliance.org.uk