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Our Food: The local food economy : A small solution to some big problems

15 July, 2021
By Our Food

One of our partners, Our Food, is a rural development programme based in the Brecon Beacons. They are launching an ambitious plan to rebuild the local food economy. The first step?  To convert 1200 acres of land to small-scale regenerative farming.

Project Manager, Duncan Fisher, explains how the group’s vision will also help to tackle climate change…

In our region, the vast majority of the food we produce is exported straight out, while most of what we eat, is imported in.

But what if we were to flip this? What if instead of being reliant on supermarkets and fragile global supply chains, we could buy most of our fresh food direct from small-scale local producers – people we know and trust, and who are part of our community?

At a stroke, we’d wipe out millions of food miles. We’d also have fresher food on our plates, less plastic packaging to deal with, and hopefully less food waste. Growers would be much better off, too, as currently most of the profit goes to intermediaries in the food supply chain. Without them, the profits would go directly to the growers.

But what if we went one step further and also promoted “bio-intensive” regenerative farming – using hand tools and a largely no-till/no-dig approach instead of heavy machinery; avoiding harmful chemical sprays and fertilisers derived from fossil fuels; improving biodiversity; and, crucially, in relation to climate and nature, building soil health and fertility by locking in carbon-rich organic matter to produce healthier, more nutritious food. 1

That’s when things get really exciting. As well as being extremely productive, this kind of farming, geared to local markets, is significantly more profitable than its larger-scale traditional counterparts, which run on perilously slim margins – around 1-2% 2 – and are reliant on low-paid labour and farming subsidies.

Better still, it has the capacity to become carbon negative over time – very different to current farming practices which account for some 10% of Welsh greenhouse gas emissions. 3

The good news is this change is already happening, with regeneratively grown veg box schemes popping up across Wales. But to scale things up at the speed required by the climate crisis, and the existential threats to farming post-Covid and post Brexit, we need a more focused approach.

That’s why Our Food is working with landowners across Monmouthshire and the National Park to convert 1200 acres of land to small-scale bio-intensive regenerative growing. Why 1200 acres? Quite simply, that’s the amount we’d need to produce a high-quality weekly veg box for all 56,400 households in the region.

It sounds like a ludicrously small amount of land – and it is. But that figure is based on robust productivity figures demonstrated year after year by established bio-intensive micro-farms across the globe.4

These farms, usually just a couple of acres in size, are relatively cheap to set up – around £30,000 – with the biggest single expense (assuming the land is leased rather than purchased) usually a commercial-grade polytunnel. They’re quick to establish, so they generate revenue fast (within a year), and can provide an annual net income of around £20,000 per acre. And they create more jobs than conventional agriculture, too: around 1 full-time position per acre (compared with around 1 job per 100 acres for UK farming as a whole).5,6

But we believe these tiny farms have the capacity to do even more to change our social, economic and environmental landscape for the better.

The key to this is the way they do business: direct with their customers. That means the profits stay with the growers, rather than being sucked out by wholesale supply chains. And that’s the first step towards rebuilding a resilient local food economy.

Weekly veg box schemes also create opportunities for other local food producers – new and existing – to add to the offering, whether that’s eggs, or meat, cakes or cut flowers. And they generate real and visible connections: between farmers and their local communities, and between communities and the land they can see growing the food on their table.

Perhaps more importantly, they offer a way for us to create a fairer food system, whereby nutritious, high-quality fresh food is available to everyone, not just the well off.

Pie in the sky? We don’t think so. Within a 20-mile radius of Abergavenny, there are already around a dozen small-scale regenerative growers producing veg boxes for their local communities. Some of these are set up along Community Supported Agriculture lines, and one of these, Orchard Acre, in its very first season, has developed a “solidarity fund” with its customers that allows it to send the equivalent of eight small veg boxes a week to the local food bank.

But to reach our target of 1200 acres and effect mainstream change, we need to overcome some serious challenges. First and foremost is access to land, so we’ll be looking to create a land trust to buy or lease five-plus acre plots that we can then sub-lease to growers, creating a network of complementary and collaborative enterprises. Then there’s the issue of financial support: farms of less than 12 acres are currently excluded from government subsidies and capital grants. So we’ll be working with funders to develop a start-up scheme
for new farming enterprises. But perhaps the toughest nut to crack is affordable housing, and we’ll need to work closely with local planning authorities and Natural Resources Wales to overcome barriers to building new homes in rural areas.

On the plus side, we know there is already a real appetite for locally grown food, with demand exceeding supply: good news for new farming enterprises as the business opportunities are immediate. And with supermarkets facing food supply issues again this summer due to the shortage of seasonal farm labour and HGV drivers, the case for building a robust local food economy has never been stronger.

We know it’s not going to be easy, or quick, but with so much at stake, and with so many potential benefits for local people and the environment, can we afford not to try?

To follow the work of Our Food and the 1200 Project, and to receive invitations to discussions and events, please email hello@ourfood.org. Our Food is funded by the Welsh Government (delivered by the National Lottery Heritage Fund), the Rural Development Programme and the Brecon Beacons National Park Sustainable Development Fund.

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1. Bionutrient Institute, Real Food Campaign Report 2019.
2. Jack Ward, British Growers Association (BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, 12 July 2021).
3. FUW, Sustainable Farming & Our Land report, 2019.
4 & 5. Based on JM Fortier, The Market Gardener, 2014 and reduced for the different context of Wales.
6. Based on 43 million acres of UK farmland (Savills/Defra 2019) and 466,200 full and part-time workers in the UK agriculture sector (ONS, Feb 2018).

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