Last Monday evening I went for a crop walk with our farming co-op members. On this occasion it was hosted by Antony and Mary Coker and their neighbours Alison and Ian Samuel, who produce a variety of veg as well as lamb and beef. Both farm about 100 acres of land that is a little too high, with soil a little too thin and a little too close to Dartmoor. Not ideal for growing veg, but we saw that with skill and experience, their crops had come through a very hot and dry July better than some on more favoured lower land.
Neither family could eke a living without the co-op to support them and the box scheme as a secure market. Such ‘mixed’ family farms have the most sustainable crop and livestock rotations, high biodiversity and form the backbone of many rural communities. They know every animal and inch of their farm and can be the best custodians of our countryside. They were the norm 30 years ago but have almost disappeared as farms get ever larger.
So does it matter? Is this just the inevitable progress of market economics as in any industry? Perhaps it is sentimentality, but I would argue that farming is different because of its impact on our countryside, the environment and our health, and because food is every bit as much a part of culture as art.
Farming in the UK is scaling up and moving towards the American style of factory farming at an alarming pace. 40 years of neo liberal governments surrendering control to the market is one reason; testosterone-fuelled egotism and the assumption that ‘bigger is better’ has played its part. Scale is not always bad, but it tends to be in farming. On the flip side, co-operatives offer a good way of preserving the viability of smaller farms through shared access to machinery, knowledge and marketing, as well as a common sense of purpose that can provide emotional support in difficult years. We have a very poor record of co-operation in this country which makes me all the more proud, 16 years after we first met in a pub to discuss the idea, to have been standing in a field with a bunch of (mostly) happy co-op members, talking about cabbages.