Could smallholders put paid to industrial farming? Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

August 25, 2020   9 mins

As with so many other aspects of British life, Brexit represents both a promise and a threat to British farming. As a genuine revolutionary moment in British politics, the decision to leave the EU offered a historic mandate to overturn a failing political and economic settlement, for which the European Union was a convenient symbolic stand-in. And yet, as the political scientist Philip Cunliffe notes, Brexit was a stillborn revolution, a spasm of popular revolt without a competent actor to utilise the moment for revolutionary ends.

For farmers, the potential risks and rewards of the moment are stark. On the one hand, withdrawing from the Common Agricultural Policy affords the possibility of reshaping the entire system of subsidies on which much of British farming depends, and which has turned the rich arable fields of Britain’s eastern counties into an endless sterile prairie, almost devoid of animal life and human employment.

On the other hand, the loss of subsidies, coupled with the glut of cheap meat and dairy produce that will follow a tariff-free trade deal with New World agricultural superpowers, threatens to wipe out what remains of Britain’s small livestock and dairy farmers in the wet western uplands.

But on the fringes of British farming, a quiet revolution is taking place. Though farming is generally thought of as a conservative occupation, a radical agrarian populism is developing among a network of thoughtful smallholder-writers which seeks to utterly transform Britain’s relationship with the land, and with the food we eat.

Inspired by peasant movements in the developing world, and by Britain’s long history of rural radicalism, these agrarian populists want to overturn a half-century of agricultural industrialisation, turning back the clock to the early years of the 20th century, before the combination of wartime need and post-war subsidies drove the near-total industrialisation of British agriculture, and the consolidation of small family farms into vast corporate holdings.

The sociologist and smallholder Chris Smaje, whose intriguing book Small Farm Future will be published later this year, notes that as a result of the collapse of the neoliberal economic model and a growing awareness of the looming threat of environmental disaster “a contemporary agrarian movement has arisen which has a lot in common with the agrarian populist and neo-populist movements of a century ago, emphasising self-reliant, low impact, low energy, land-based lifestyles, a fair distribution of resources, greater political autonomy and so on.”

Centred around publications like The Land magazine and organisations like the Campaign for Real Farming, this nascent movement demands, in the words of farmer and writer Colin Tudge, the total reordering of British farming around a model “almost diametrically opposite to the kind that successive British governments have been promoting for past 40 years — high-input, high-tech farming on units as large as possible with minimum to zero labour, geared to the global market, and producing only what is most profitable.”

Britain’s current farming model is broken, and the perverse incentives it derives from subsidies causes farming to fill a strange and contradictory place in the British psyche. Simultaneously romanticised and ignored, farming is, like cookery, more a middle-class spectator sport than an activity. Less than 2% of the British population is employed in agricultural labour, one of the smallest proportions in the entire world. 

The result is a two-tier system where large landholders in East Anglia rake in huge profits for grubbing up hedgerows and poisoning their land with industrial chemicals, while small farmers in the uplands find their incomes driven down by the handful of supermarkets who control the nation’s food supply, and are buckling beneath an epidemic of bankruptcy and suicide. The nation’s wildlife is on life support, as insects, birds, small mammals and fish find their habitats destroyed. And all the while, Britain’s population is among the fattest and least healthy in the Western world, with the highest consumption of industrially-processed food in Europe. 

Instead of this broken system, Tudge argues, “Britain could do with a million more farmers,” recruiting them from “people who are currently driving taxis or checking income tax or working in call centres, if they have a job at all.” The end goal would be to rebalance British farming around widely-dispersed networks of small producers and away from the supermarket system, combining “low-input farming (organic is at least the default position) with mixed farms (where feasible) with emphasis on agroforestry, usually in small-to-medium-sized units, with plenty of skilled farmers and growers, feeding primarily into local or regional economies.” 

A de-industrialised form of farming needs huge amounts of labour to work small plots intensively, replacing vast holdings tended by occasional casual labour and giant machinery with, essentially, a giant work-creation scheme consisting of an army of new smallholders tilling their own land. As Tudge notes, “no other industry is remotely capable of employing all the people who need jobs. Furthermore, it is the only industry that could employ large numbers of people usefully: constructively rather than destructively; not as serfs but in truly satisfying careers.” 

But farming itself, in this model, would be only the core of a wider rebalancing of the economy towards the production of food— which after all, we all need to eat — and away from the consumption of imported, inessential manufactures. “If we need a million new farmers,” Tudge argued in his 2016 book Six Steps Back to the Land, “we also need a commensurate number of distributors and small-scale processors — local bakers; cake makers; micro-brewers and vintners; small butchers and charcutiers.” Unplugged from the enforced centralised system in which five supermarkets corner 80% of the market, this localised economy would spread wealth around the country and provide secure and satisfying employment for millions of people. 

This rebalancing is already happening on a small scale. Covid has led to rapid growth for Community Supported Agriculture schemes for vegetables, and the new renaissance in micro-dairies presents a viable and attractive alternative to the over-centralised system where six conglomerates control 93% of British dairy processing, and dairy farmers find their margins squeezed and livelihoods ruined by supermarket price gouging.

On the international scale, Tudge argues, “all nations should strive for self-reliance in food — at least producing enough of the basics to get by on — and exporting food only when the home population is well fed, and importing only what is truly desirable and cannot reasonably be grown at home.” This call for food sovereignty, which may have seemed eccentric only a year ago, is now being made even by the conventional farming lobby, with the National Farmer’s Union urging the government to use Covid as a “golden opportunity to place food security at the centre of our food system and become a global leader in sustainable food production,” placing British farming at the centre of a “green recovery”. 

Tudge’s vision is a bold one, and owes much to Britain’s centuries-long tradition of agrarian utopianism. But is it unrealistic? At the very least, it is striking that this discourse derives from a sophisticated critique of the West’s current economic settlement. Unlike many European countries, in Britain the popular link with the land was severed early by the Industrial Revolution and the parallel enclosure of common land, eradicating the English peasantry as a class and driving them into the new manufacturing centres of the cities.

For two centuries, Britain was the world’s industrial superpower, its manufacturing might driving imperial expansion abroad and fostering the creation of a radicalised proletarian class at home, the origins of the British labour movement. Our current political system is still ordered around the political economy of the 19th century, even as the industrial economy that birthed it has evaporated. In the long years of Britain’s post-war industrial decline, the neoliberal settlement, introduced by Thatcher and elaborated by every succeeding government, aimed to wean the British economy off manufacturing and replace it with one based on financial services and debt-fuelled consumption. 

In 2020, the failure of the neoliberal gamble is clearly apparent. The second financial crisis in just over a decade looms on the horizon, dooming millennials, now entering middle age, with the prospect of an entire working lifetime without secure employment, assets to call their own, or the means to raise families. Just behind the Covid crash there is the spectre of automation and AI, which threatens to wipe out what remains of skilled labour and much of the already-insecure white collar economy.

It is safe to say that Thatcher’s experiment failed, and it threatens to bring down conservatism with it. Instead of a nation of prosperous conservative homeowners, Britain will soon be left with an embittered army of 40-year-old casually-employed baristas sharing squalid and overpriced rental flats and increasingly ready to embrace destructive forms of radical politics.

In his 2016 book How Will Capitalism End? the German political economist Wolfgang Streeck, an orthodox Marxist of a distinctly conservative bent, claims that that we have entered a period of extended political and economic disorder, where the old order is failing and yet nothing viable has appeared to replace it. “Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions,” he writes, but “what comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum
 a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder.”

Engaging directly with Streeck’s hypothesis, Smaje suggests that as a result, “something like Detroit may soon be coming to a sleepy English village near you”. Reading the entrails of the present for a vision of the near future, where “chronically growing debt, stagnant growth and rising inequality” are “gnawing away at the vital organs of the global capitalist beast,” Smaje predicts that “national and individual incomes in most of the rich western countries will decrease along with the volume of international trade,” that the state’s “de facto power outside its core regions (in England, London and the South East) is likely to wane as the ratio between public service benefits and tax income becomes ever more unpromising,” and that “the returns to large-scale commodity-crop farming and large-scale land ownership outside the state cores will diminish to the point of redundancy.”

In this situation, Smaje argues, one of the least destructive outcomes would be to “buttress wherever possible any or all permutations of peasant, family-based, small-scale, local market oriented, diverse and high nature-value farming,” making a virtue out of necessity and slowing the descent of his envisaged economic collapse.

This is a starker vision than Tudge’s, with echoes of the collapse of urban civilisation and the dwindling of state authority in late antiquity. Is it possible? Covid has revealed a startling level of incapacity at the heart of the British state, which does not bode well for the gathering wave of shocks. Covid will certainly accelerate the decline in incomes, and, as in the United States where urban professionals are fleeing the big cities to work from home in more congenial surroundings, the urban renaissance of the neoliberal era may be succeeded by a period of urban decline, bringing with it a reduction in tax revenue and increased social tensions.

Certainly, the financial crises in Greece and now Lebanon have led to young urban professionals, whose middle-class livelihoods were suddenly destroyed, fleeing back to the land to work in small-scale farming operations, some of which became successful businesses. Where the UK differs is the degree of popular estrangement from the land, and the significant barriers facing new entrants to farming in the form of the high, subsidy-fuelled cost of land.

Some mitigation to these barriers can be found in The Land magazine’s manifestos for a radical agrarian farming policy, proposing to cap subsidies to allow small-scale farmers to prosper, erect tariffs on farming produce in any future trade deal, and redirect subsidies towards environmental and social goods, so that the loss-making sheep farming of the uplands would be replaced by “sensitive afforestation for quality timber and fuelwood, renewable energy, land improvement, hill crops, local-scale horticulture and dairying, land management for wildlife and water conservation, ecotourism and rewilding,” and recentring the planning policies of the urban Green Belts around “small farms, market gardens, dairies and forestry enterprises providing fresh local food for city-dwellers”.

Elements of this vision can be seen in DEFRA’s proposals to rethink British farming for the post-Brexit era, which, especially under Michael Gove’s tutelage, made promising noises about supporting small family farms and channelling subsidies towards environmental goods, but details are scant. On top of this, the urgent need — politically if not economically — for a free trade deal with countries like the United States threatens to undo whatever modest good the Government is planning in a flood of cheaply-produced, sub-standard industrial produce from abroad.

Similarly, the argument of eco-modernists like George Monbiot that we should further industrialise food production while rewilding the margins is no meaningful solution: instead of eating slop produced in factories and hiking in the deserted hills now and again, nature can be returned to the British countryside as a whole, along with a satisfying and wholesome life for millions of people, by returning to the pattern of small mixed farms with light ecological footprints that predominated in this country just half a century ago, the merest blink in Britain’s farming history.

The British economy, and the state which manages it, now has to cope with three near-simultaneous shocks that threaten to destabilise it as never before in our lifetimes: Brexit, the economic crash brought about by Covid, and the possible break-up of the United Kingdom following a Scottish independence vote, now more likely than ever. Each of these represents a threat to the social and economic order, yet also an opportunity to rebalance British society and the economy in a fairer, healthier and more productive way. 

Rethinking farming will not be the answer to all of Britain’s problems but, on a small scale, modest investment coupled with visionary thinking could do much to repair a world that is already in crisis, and to create a sustainable, resilient and satisfying way of life across Britain’s regions, reviving depressed local economies and mitigating the economic shocks to come.

Not everyone can become a farmer, and certainly not everyone would want to: but as one step towards rebalancing the British economy to spread wealth and financial security across the regions, restore the nation’s damaged ecology and soften the coming economic blows, the radical localist agrarianism of Britain’s farming revolutionaries offers an attractive pitch to a Conservative government searching for new ideas. 


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.