New farmers, but for what?
The promotion of new farmers is seen as a universal good, but what type of agriculture should they practice?
Say “ we need new farmers” and the audience nods their head. Say “new farmers should do things different” and face collective stares.
A good portion of my research has been on thinking critically about “new farmers” as a piece of the sustainable food systems transition puzzle. It is broadly accepted that rural demographics are shifting towards nations full of majority retirement age farmers at a time when concerns over food security and competitiveness are at an all time high. In addition, these demographics represent a major ongoing and forthcoming transfer of land assets as the older generation looks to pass on their title.
“This is an opportunity”,
a diverse group of agricultural stakeholders are known to say. By reinvigorating interest in farming, the ageing and stubborn farming practices of industrial agricultural could be replaced by youth, innovation and environmental consciousness. Thus, concerns over “new farmers” tends to endlessly revolve around how to get young people interested in farming, the best way for training in farming, and how to solve their barriers to entry. In a sense, how to make more of them. The problem, I think, is that the most important thing about this class of potential agrarians becomes their newness. This is a very apolitical approach to a potential key agricultural change strategy.
If we accept that a more diverse, heterogeneous, and agroecological food system requires more complex forms of labour, then the alternative food system must bring it a new generation of agricultural practitioners with new skills and capacities. Even if we had the supporting trade policy, the rethink on farm subsidies, the solidarity markets from urban consumers, the agricultural greenbelts, we would still need the type of workforce that looks at agricultural land from the perspective of ecology, local geography, long time horizons, and climate change mitigation. This is the central argument in Transitioning to Sustainable Agriculture Requires Growing and Sustaining an Ecologically Skilled Workforce (Carlisle et al. 2019).
Yet, in the policy domains that I have been a part of, discourse fails to move into what forms of agriculture these new farmers should be producing. The important part, for many, is that more new farmers are getting onto farmland, taking over old tenancies and creating new businesses. It matters not what types of farms, businesses, or lease arrangements. There is a hesitancy to wade into a debate about agricultural values.
The problem with this logic, as I have written about in The Yeoman Myth: A Troubling Foundation of the Beginning Farmer Movement, is that producing new farmers without addressing structural forces of agrarian change, sets up a perilous dynamic. “Something” happened in agricultural societies over the past half century that created hollowed out rural communities, debilitating agricultural debt, land consolidation, and mass urban emigration. These forces are still in place. Throwing new souls into that dynamic will only replicate the current dynamics indicative of agriculture in late-capitalism.
The alternative could be about being specific about what new entrant farmers are being trained to do, with what land, in what land use arrangements, and with what political support. If Britain, for example, wants to reclaim some of its woefully negligent domestic fruit production as a matter of national food policy, then it could focus on training new farmers in that sector. In return for this labour in the interest of a public good, these farmers would know they are supported in acquiring secure land tenure, market channels for value added products, and a rural housing policy that might meant hey could find and afford a decent place to live while doing this work.
I think the reason new farmer discourse avoids the specifics of life after becoming a farmer is that, diluting the specificity of farming livelihoods succeeds in gluing together “the assemblage” (more on that in a forthcoming post) of new entrant farmers, policy makers and farming groups. By not entertaining the “for what” question, a group of landed young successors can benefit from the same entrepreneurship training seminar as a landless worker looking to get their start. But the problem remains, without addressing the land access barrier, the successor farmer benefits more from a technical seminar than the landless farmer. Agrarian history repeats.
So, the next time someone says “ we need new farmers” please respond with “what happened to the old ones” and “ new farmers for what?”