7 February 2022

Sharing or sparing?

Straw man (definition)
-a weak or imaginary opposition (such as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted

There’s a straw man that can be built out of the modern farmer. An old white man, dependent on a combination of government subsidies and tight margins, obsessed with the yield of the land and animals for which he is responsible. This farmer has their head down, their eyes on what they’ve done for the last four, five, six decades. Their eyes firmly off animal welfare, climate change and soil health. It’s easy to demonise this (fictitious) character. But let’s consider their perspective for a moment.

For many farmers their work is understandably a case of production. It is their livelihood at stake after all, and it’s easier to care about badger habitats when you’re comfortably making enough from your land than it is when you’re battling at the margins. But this isn’t just a case of the thin subsidies and thinner margins mentioned above. Our language and lexicon reinforces their role. “Shepherds” are defined by their sheep. “Dairy Farmers” are defined by their cows’ milk. We pigeon-hole these people in to their role as producer, and the result of that is a utilitarian attitude towards production. The idea is ultimately food production, whether it be for humans or animals, and year on year these people are judged by how much of that food they produce. This cycle is self-reinforcing, and mega-industrial farms are the logical conclusion.

Most of us do not like this picture any more. Our modern understanding of the responsibilities of the farmer have shifted and society now recognises that farming is about more than just production. At least as important as how much a farmer grows are the environmental services they provide. These include carbon sequestration, the preservation and reinstatement of animal habitats, protection and creation of water courses to protect from flood damage, support for pollinators… it’s a long list.

So how do we go about achieving a world in which we produce enough from our land but also in which we also support the natural environment?

Well, there is an argument in favour of keeping things the same, or even accelerating the development of mega-farms. There are those who make the “sparing” argument that the best way to keep as much land as possible aside for nature is to farm as intensively as possible on the land we do use for agriculture, leaving more “spare” for those ecosystem services we seek to enhance. This makes a lot of intuitive sense. By increasing the amount of production on the land we do use, we logically need less as a result. As Lord Stern put it – “Cattle pasture in Brazil has only one animal per hectare. Raise that to two animals and you can save the Amazon rainforest.”

That’s an appetising argument. But does it work in the real world? If you make farming more efficient, does it stop people claiming more land for it? In a utopia it would, but market forces are not utopian. When there’s a 2 for 1 deal on pizza most people spend the same amount and eat twice as much pizza. If you make land twice as productive, people farm the same amount and aim to produce double. If there’s one thing humanity has demonstrated it’s that we’re very good at consuming more.

The alternative to this sparing is the “sharing” argument. In this model more land is managed but it is done so with a more balanced eye on a broader array of objectives. Picture the 100 acre farm with a balance of crops, wilder areas, watercourses and no (or at least minimal) soil disturbance. Picture the allotment that yields huge diversity of crops in a small area (and therefore fabulous wildlife habitats) but also provide food. This approach logically results in less land left alone for wildlife, but produces more land that is shared by all parties.

The latter argument certainly comes across as being a bit more magical, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the former does leave more space for the “rewilding” areas that so easily capture our imagination.

We would argue for one more crucial aspect of this debate, one that tips us in favour of the sharing argument. One of the most rewarding things about our farm is being able to share it with you, our friends, customers and followers. We’re learning as we go, and by sharing that process with you we learn even more. It’s a journey for everyone involved, and it’s the best trip we’ve ever taken. This highlights something very important – the value of the environment is not solely self-contained (i.e. nature being valuable for its own sake), nor is it solely instrumental (as a means of growing food for us to eat, and capturing CO2 so we don’t suffocate ourselves). It is also relational, which is to say it consists of people’s interactions with it. Think of the bike rides through the heaths, the foraging trips through the woods, the little stone dams we build in the local stream. Our relationship with nature is so much of its value and by enhancing that relationship we drive not only a sense of warm fuzziness but also better behaviour, more effective conservation and a higher level of natural education for all. 

Regenerative agriculture has a part to play here. Modern research and public discourse in the area has an issue of representation. Large scale farming is well funded and established. It has driven the research agenda for decades, but much of the knowledge that can help us in this next stage is tied up in people who are poorly represented in academic research and government. These tend to be smaller scale farmers and smallholders whose methods have not been applied on a larger scale. Their relationships with the land and the stories they tell need to be given a wider audience so that we might all better share in our natural environment.

So we’ll keep sharing our story on here, hopefully bringing a few of you along with us. We’d encourage you to listen to those of others too, wherever you can, and to help us spread the word. From a more practical perspective we’re developing plans to offer free allotment space on our land to local families to start their own growing journeys, so that they might tell these stories too. Watch this space.

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