The big interview: Small but mighty

Jyoti Fernandes takes Nina Pullman inside the local food revolution of the last year, and explains why small farmers are unionised, empowered and ‘part of something bigger’.

If you look back over the last year of game-changing societal shifts, among the public health crisis, the distancing and the isolation, one new trend to reach public consciousness was the resilience of small-scale food producers. 

Back in March 2020, when the first waves of the pandemic were beginning to affect supermarkets through panic buying, stockpiling or the worry of mass shopping, reports emerged of small, independent food suppliers pivoting quietly but confidently into the gap. 

Joining forces with other producers, sending out boxes, planting more veg – it perhaps came as a surprise to those who believe supermarkets are the stalwarts in times of crisis. And in due course, the retail sector did adapt and step up.

But the emergence of local food networks came as no surprise to Jyoti Fernandes. As a founding member of The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), the union representing landworkers, foresters and small farmers, she has been deeply embedded in this sector for years and is well aware of just how organised and resilient it can be.

“When lockdown hit, loads of producers lost their markets overnight if they were selling into pubs and restaurants. And then there was a huge demand for boxes across the board, from your smallest producers to your largest,” she says, over Zoom in early March. “There was a 113 per cent increase in the number of veg box deliveries. Almost all the producers said they couldn’t scale up rapidly enough, so there was actually an unmet demand.”

Despite this turning point in the prominence of Britain’s local food scene, 12 months on and that hasn’t really gone beyond a surface perception of bucolic farmgate veg boxes, or more importantly, turned into meaningful government support.

Fernandes herself came into the sector via what she calls “the dark side” and a stint in the US working on international trade deals at The Carter Center, in Atlanta, where she saw those who had never even been to the country, let alone a farm, writing agreements that would reshape entire supply chains and landscapes. 

“I really noticed how different the policy world was, and it’s the same today with Defra. Many of the civil servants working on agriculture policy have never even visited a farm,” she says. 

Jyoti Fernandes
Fighting for land and social justice: Jyoti Fernandes of The Landworkers’ Alliance. Image Kathryn Miller. 

“So we came to England and started doing the traditional path that a lot of new entrant farmers do, where we went Wwoofing [working on organic farms], picked up skills, tried to find a bit of land with no money,” she says, with an infectious laugh that reappears regularly and is no doubt a sense of humour that comes in handy when dealing with a fight against nothing less than the entire globalised food economy.  

The way Fernandes describes small farming is so much more political and radical than the idyllic vision of ‘local food’ charted by the mainstream press, not least through the struggle to access land. 

“There are people all over the place trying to come up with ideas and ways to fight against the system and find their way onto the land,” says Fernandes, who is the LWA’s head of all things trade and politics, as well as a small farmer herself. 

“Because what we’re providing, as small-scale producers selling to the local economy, is really important. It’s looking after the landscape, bringing back biodiversity, supplying local food, employment, all of that, but why has it not got the support it needs?”

It’s a fair point, and one you’d think might be on the agenda. Not so, unfortunately, as in the weeks after we speak, Defra announces its much-touted new farming subsidies will cut out any farm under five hectares. Surely they’re too small to count, you might think. But actually there are 20,000 such small farms in the UK, and many of them, according to Fernandes, are unionised, empowered and growing rapidly. 

Only in the last month, the LWA has taken on several new roles and now has 32 full-time employees, operating as a kind of NFU alternative since setting up in 2012. “As a union, that’s given us access to positions and being able to be called for evidence because we’re recognised stakeholders,” says Fernandes. “Which makes it quite different as Defra’s required to consult with us on policy that affects us. So it gets us into places where an outside organisation wouldn’t be able to.” 

So who are the people and producers behind our local food supply? Fernandes paints an interesting picture, again more radical than you might imagine. 

“It works for a lot of people as you combine that kind of self sufficiency with building your home, or supplying your own electricity or whatever it is, which saves your cost of living and means you can live more cheaply, and live a richer life with less money,” she says. “And that’s complemented by a business that actually serves the local community.”

Aside from the lobbying, there is a strong sense of mutual support and community provided by the union that Fernandes stresses is just as integral. As she puts it: “Because it feels good to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself, you know?

“People can spend so much time weeding carrots or packing boxes, because they really believe in it, and they want a career that’s providing nutritious food to the community, or they don’t want to be contributing to the climate and biodiversity crises. 

LWA small farmers
Veg box producers saw a 113 per cent increase during the pandemic. Image Kathryn Miller.

“But you can be on your own quite a lot of the time, and the way that the food system is set up, you’re always in competition with things that can be produced cheaper. To produce something differently can be really hard work and a lot of people take that upon themselves. They have a lower income, they might live in caravans or don’t take any holidays – whatever it is. The quality of life is good because these people are doing what they want to be doing, but it can be really hard work.”

It’s also why the LWA has expanded to be part of a global movement, La Via Campesina, which translates as ‘the peasant life’ and represents peasant, or small-scale, farmers and their fight for social and environmental justice across the world. 

But as Fernandes sees it, the interest in international issues is also closely related to mainstream food supply across the UK and western Europe. Take last month, and a largely unreported fire in migrant picker housing in Spain’s key veg growing region. The LWA sent aid and solidarity, and in doing so wants to send a message for people to think about where their food comes from. “These people work incredibly long hours in these huge polytunnels, and they’re calling on consumers at supermarkets who buy these tomatoes to realise the conditions of these workers and their human rights,” says Fernandes.

Another topical campaign is the huge uprising by Indian farmers against proposed new agriculture reform laws, a mobilisation and demonstration of numbers that again was no surprise to Fernandes, whose family comes from India’s Karnataka state. 

“India has a huge small farmer network: there are millions and millions of small farms. They’re the largest producer of milk in the world but it’s people with small herds of two to four cows,” she says. “India also has a real culture of awareness since the time of Gandhi, there’s a huge amount of understanding of political mobilisation and how that all works. The farmers’ movement in Karnataka was one of the original La Via Campesina organisations to get started and help create this global movement. 

“And since the 90s they’ve been doing regular trainings with all the farmers in the movement, in every state across India. So they’re already very, very aware; they know what’s happening and they know their entire livelihood is at stake.”

Small farmer protests
UK small farmers stood in solidarity with the recent farmer protests in India. 

The way Fernandes describes it, small farmers are an untapped, latent force who could rise up and create an alternative, fairer and more sustainable world and food system. Is the ultimate aim for small farmers to feed the world? According to Fernandes, they already do.

“The forces that promote the globalised food system have the dominant voice; on a political level they’ve got the power. The corporations that promote that are both powerful and nasty. And they know how to put down dissent; it’s very difficult to move against that,” she says. 

“But the statistics show that actually the majority of global food security is provided by small farms; 70 per cent of global food security is through farms and local supply chains using only 30 per cent of agricultural resource.”
If the recent uprising of small farmers in India has succeeded in anything, and why so many organisations across the world have offered support, it’s been to put these numbers on display to the world.  

Back in the UK, Fernandes hopes the interest in local food since the pandemic will translate into something more tangible. “I think that pressure needs to be clearer,” she says. “I think we need to step it up, and I’m hoping we can embark on a ‘vocal for local’ campaign and focus on government and how strong that interest is. We want resources to go into supporting local supply chains, because there’s contradictory stuff going on. 

“On the one hand, we’ve got Liz Truss who is signing all these trade agreements, which will undermine British producers of all scales, and the NFU announcing free advice for anyone wanting to export. Where’s the free advice for people who want to set up a local, short supply chain? There’s no free advice provided for that, there’s no support system.”

Small farming in Dorset
Fernandes combines farming with lobbying. Image Kathryn Miller. 

The ambition is huge and the motivation fierce, but perhaps what gives the small farmer movement most heart is the ability to focus on the fulfilment of the day job and celebrating small wins. With that in mind, while the rest of Fernandes’ day involves a couple of media interviews, and a meeting of the union’s BIPOC group to discuss how to tackle a lack of diversity on the land, she will end the day by milking her three cows.

Does she ever take a day off? More laughter, and it appears not, before she adds: “I’m taking off for two months this summer because I’m building a new barn.” Shelter for the coming winter and, perhaps, the coming revolution.  

Jyoti on…

Vertical farming
I think it’s reasonably harmless, but it’s definitely not a solution. The biggest problem I have with vertical farming is government trade off in R&D into tech. They’re more likely to fund vertical farming because it’s techy, more than buying a bit of land in a peri urban area for a community farm. A lot of the vertical farms focus on micro greens and lettuces, often it can be niche and high-end stuff, and very little actual sustenance. 

Meat versus plant-based
The most important thing is we get rid of factory farming and grain-fed livestock. We’re very pro small-scale livestock farming because for many small producers across the world it’s a very important source of livelihood and nutrition. For personal consumption, it’s less and better. Eat meat as a much smaller part of your diet, maybe once a week, but choose the best quality possible. Vegan diets are fantastic and the more vegans the better, but eat locally produced UK-grown stuff, not loads of imports. 

Gene editing
We’re totally opposed to it being deregulated and we believe the precautionary principle needs to be applied to gene-edited crops. It entrenches the whole industrial model. Our main thing is to not look particularly at the science, but to look at the politics and the power involved. 

Is it fixable? Who owns it? Does it support diversified systems? Or does it support monocultures? If it’s a small-scale decentralised thing that’s really fixable, then it can really enhance. If it’s a big bit of kit that requires huge fields of monocultures, that’s a bit of a problem. 

This interview was initially published in issue 6 of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu by clicking here


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