Farming through a pandemic: time for a rethink
Tuesday, 21st April 2020 by Anonymous

Farming news over the last few weeks has focused on one thing: we're facing the worst labour shortage ever. Who will pick the asparagus, strawberries and lettuce? Food could end up rotting in the fields if we don't solve this.

A quick summary of the main headlines:

  • Ninety per cent of seasonal workers usually come from the EU, but the Covid-19 crisis on top of Brexit means most will stay away.
  • Calls for a “land army” of local people to fill these roles have seen at least 10,000 people in the UK sign up, but more than 90,000 jobs need filling. Flights are being chartered to bring Romanians in to do the work.
  • Nick Marston, Chair of British Summer Fruits, said the business model of fruit farming had been structured around a non-UK workforce for many years because UK workers had shunned the work.
  • Jyoti Fernandes of the Landworkers' Alliance said: “This crisis highlights the vulnerability of our globalised food system, which in coming years will only get worse if we don’t invest in building a resilient, diverse, local food system."
  • Thousands of brits have “explicitly” turned down fruit picking jobs. The main reasons being length of contract, location of farm and inability to work full time due to care responsibilities. “Pay and conditions difficult to justify”

So are Brits too lazy and entitled to work on farms? Or are farms too reliant on migrant labour?


Something's wrong with the system

To feed the barcode/just-in-time supermarket system, and the low market prices for fresh produce, farms must expand and intensify, specialising in a smaller range of crops and delivering large quantities in a short space of time. This system has become dependent on cheap and readily available fossil fuels, a globalised labour market and capitalism's engineered inequality that forces people to accept low pay and conditions.

It's a very different picture on the farms we work with. We favour small farms, like Sarah Green's Organics and Ripple Farm, who have created a model that doesn't rely on agency staff. Due to their smaller size and mix of crops, they can offer steady work throughout the year, so their staff and their families can live locally.


Another way is possible

We asked Martin Mackay of Ripple Farm in Canterbury, who's been supplying our veg scheme and coming to our farmers' market since the start, whether he could foresee any labour issues in the coming months and what the challenges will be for his farm in the face of Covid-19.

Unlike the headlines above, Martin doesn't envisage any problems with labour - “as long as they're fit and well we'll keep going”.

Ripple Farm is unusual in that their entire workforce is local, born and bred. Martin, who's Irish with settled status, often quips, “I'm the only foreigner on this farm”.

This is a not by accident. Husband and wife team Martin and Sarah made a conscious decision to employ local people. “Working on farms has been devalued, we feel very strongly that farming is a noble profession and wanted to bring back that sense of pride to the local rural community.”

Martin adds, “We've been able to attract some people because they care about organic farming, ideologically. But a lot of staff came on board as youngsters, didn't know too much about organic, started as a Saturday job that's turned into a full-time job.”

Scale lends itself to that. They're small farm growing a mixture of crops throughout the year, which provides a steady level of work year-round.


The triple bottom line

The other key factor is the markets they sell into. Ripple and the other small farms we work with deliberately don't sell to supermarkets. They've found alternative routes to market that enable them to farm sustainably.

Sustainable farming shouldn't be limited to the environment – social and economic sustainability are important factors too. By selling to box schemes and farmers' markets, they are getting more money for their produce and a steady income throughout the year. The commitment of box scheme customers makes this possible. It's a huge help for farmers to have a guaranteed and steady market for their produce: they can plan ahead and provide stability for their workers.


I have a (rural) dream

Stronger and larger rural communities involved in farming is something we have envisioned for many years as part of our vision for a sustainable food system – we dream of a future where less people live in cities, and more people are living and working in rural areas in agro-ecological farming. This way of producing food relies less on machinery and chemicals and more on skilled labour.

It will take some restructuring to make this possible. Smaller, more diverse farms selling into a reliable local market that pays the true cost of production would provide decent livelihoods for many more people and enable rural communities to thrive again and take the population pressure off cities.

The current conventional system relies on people so economically insecure that they are willing to uproot their lives and work away from home for weeks or months, in cramped conditions on low pay, ideally suited to migrants who can get more value for their pound sterling when sent back home. Is that really ideal? Is it time for a rethink? We think so. And Ripple Farm proves that it's possible.