Regenerative thinking is a new regular column for Wicked Leeks by Nathan Einbinder, programme lead at Schumacher College, on food, farming and social change.
Years ago, I participated in a workshop on climate change and transformation in rural Latin America. There was a lot of discussion about how communities might become more resilient, and the answer, or so it seemed, was diversification.
The argument went as such: rural families could no longer survive economically by simply farming as it was. They had to diversify to other activities. This could mean new crops for different markets and changing climates. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it meant seeking out new income sources and livelihoods.
There was much to agree with, especially the part about diversifying crops. But overall, the conversation left me uneasy. I thought about the farmers I worked with in Guatemala and the critical services they provided to their communities, not to mention sustenance, and I wondered why their work was so undervalued and ‘uneconomical’.
Shouldn’t the conversation begin by asking why it isn’t enough to just grow food? Especially the kind that regenerates the land, while enhancing biodiversity and social capital?
It wasn’t something I had the confidence to bring up (fortunately someone else did), though the concern has remained with me. And on certain occasions, it feels like the most important thing we never discuss.
I had one of those moments recently, on a trip to Pembrokeshire. I was there to visit activist and farmer Gerald Miles, who, aside from his tractor trips to London to protest GM crops, runs a mixed organic farm that’s been in his family for generations.
It was a beautiful walk to his place from St. David’s, through well-worn countryside, with rock walls and hedges in all directions, and ancient farms.
Yet changes to the agrarian setting appeared well underway. Everywhere you looked were holiday rental signs, campgrounds and caravan clubs; equestrian centres and barn renovations, presumably for second homes or Airbnbs.
When I arrived at Gerald’s farm, a crew of volunteers were packing boxes for his Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. At 120 acres, his farm produces field scale vegetables including potatoes, heritage wheat and black oats, a rare Welsh heirloom. Cattle and sheep are also raised for meat, but equally for their role in providing fertility and recycling nutrients.
It’s your textbook regenerative farm – dynamic, biodiverse, and engaged with the local community. And, as evidenced by the overflowing veggie boxes, highly productive.
We need to think about how food lost its value in our society and question our relationship to it.
Yet, as I’ve seen elsewhere, good practice and abundance does not equate to financial sustainability.
“In the past, the farm employed 30 local people,” Gerald told me. Now, it’s run by just two full-time growers, plus the volunteers. This is despite adding other income generators, including a campground and livery, and a bed and breakfast operated from their home.
The reasons for this loss of economic vitality are complex; unique to the farm, but also part of a larger trend towards mechanisation, standardisation and race-to-the-bottom prices imposed by the conventional market – dominated by a handful of companies.
It’s easy to blame the supermarkets – they’re horrible for family farmers and, as Gerald remarked, create a culture of competition rather than cooperation.
We can blame the government also, for not offering more support, and for weak regulations.
But in finding a way out of this problem, of economic unviability for good farms and farmers everywhere, we need to go deeper. We need to think about how food lost its value in our society and question our relationship to it.
The bottom line is this: for good farming to survive – and for good farmers to live the dignified livelihoods they deserve – we as consumers must support it. Directly. We need a shift in our values and reprioritisation – for what’s important to ourselves, our families and communities.