Rebuilding the local food economy is the answer to our rural jobs crisis
How do we stem the exodus of young people from our rural communities? Duncan Fisher of Our Food, a rural development project in the Brecon Beacons, outlines a bold plan to create a thriving jobs market by rebuilding the local food economy
One of the perils of an unintentionally meandering career is that I get to hear the results of an awful lot of research. But of all the facts and figures reeled off in Zoom meetings over the past few weeks, one statistic struck me particularly:
60% of young people in rural Wales are thinking of leaving for towns or cities for better employment prospects.
It’s a key finding of the recent Wales Rural Youth Research report, which collates the opinions of young people across rural Wales.
And it’s got me worried. Our rural communities are already unbalanced, with largely ageing populations – and that includes our farmers, whose median age is now over 60. So why is this a problem? Because we know that when young people leave, schools, shops, banks, post offices and pubs are quick to follow.
There are other potential casualties, too. Rural communities are important reserves of language and cultural identity, but with two-thirds of young leavers moving out of Wales, this heritage is being eroded.
So how can we stop the exodus? Various ideas have been floated, from creating regional business hubs and start-up initiatives to relocating public sector jobs outside Cardiff.
Farm to fork
But we believe the solution for many rural communities lies closer to home, in rebuilding the local food economy. Agriculture has traditionally been at the heart of rural life in Wales, yet currently, most of the food we produce is exported straight out for processing and packing elsewhere. It means most of the profits from farming are swallowed up by intermediaries in vast global supply chains, and it’s why our farms are so heavily reliant on subsidies.
At the same time, demand for nutritious, locally produced fresh food has increased substantially since the start of the pandemic. Yet most of what we eat is imported in.
So how do we begin to forge a new local food economy? The answer is based on three key principles:
1: Farmers must own the supply chains, all the way from farm to fork. The profit is in the food chain. Farmers will never get a fair and adequate price unless they keep most of the profit. That means shorter supply chains – local, regional and national – and it means collaborating. Retail outlets and processing facilities can be run by farmer-owned companies, and there are brilliant examples of this all over the world. Of particular inspiration to me is Schwäbisch Hall in Germany, where an association of 1500 farms owns and runs substantial food processing facilities plus a chain of supermarkets.
2: Farming needs to be reframed in terms of “farming enterprises”, which can be very small and yet profitable. It’s possible for a family to make a decent living out of horticulture on as little as 2 acres. We need hundreds of families doing this all over our country, based on a system of land rental a bit like office space in cities, which would make entry to the sector much more affordable. And we need to find ways to provide housing for this new generation of rural entrepreneurs, close to the land.
3: We need a wholesale conversion to regenerative farming. This focuses on building the soil and biodiversity. Building the soil fixes carbon there (lots of it), reduces flooding by massively increasing water retention in the soil, and grows healthier, more nutritious crops. It means minimising soil disturbance, no chemicals, minimal use of heavy machinery that compacts soil, year-round green cover and animals integrated into the farm ecosystem.
The good news is this change is already happening, with small farming enterprises such as regenerative market gardens and local veg box schemes popping up across Wales. But to develop a mainstream local food economy serving everyone, not just a niche, we need to escalate action to a new level.
That’s why Our Food, a rural development project based in the Brecon Beacons, is working with landowners across Monmouthshire and the National Park to secure 1200 acres for regenerative farming enterprises. Why 1200 acres? Quite simply, that’s the amount of land needed to produce a high-quality weekly veg box for all 56,000 households in the region.
It sounds a ridiculously small amount – and it is. But that figure is based on robust productivity figures demonstrated by established small-scale regenerative market gardens in Europe, Scandinavia, and North America.
There are, of course, some serious challenges. First and foremost is finding suitable land, so we plan to create a land trust to buy or lease plots of 5-plus acres that we can then sub-lease to growers, creating a collaborative network of complementary farming enterprises – our Regenerative Alliance.
Then there’s the issue of financial support: holdings of less than 5 hectares (around 12 acres) are currently excluded from government farming subsidies and capital grants. So, we’ll be working with funders to develop a start-up scheme for new farming enterprises and lobbying government to change its position to encourage more entrants into small-scale regenerative growing.
Perhaps the toughest nut to crack is finding affordable housing for these new entrants. They need to live on, or very near to their land, and we’ll have 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 food and farming enterprises as the opportunities are immediate.
We’re not saying it’s going to be easy, but if we are to stem the flow of young people from our rural communities and secure the future of our culture, language, and heritage, we need to give them this opportunity to thrive.
THE SMALL MARKET GARDEN: HOW THE NUMBERS STACK UP*
Land size: 2 acres
Start-up costs (assuming land is leased, not purchased): c.£30,000 (including commercial grade polytunnel)
Time to produce revenue: less than 1 year
Potential profit: net £20k per acre per year
Job creation: c.1 x full-time position per acre (compared with c.1 x job per 100 acres for conventional farming)
* Based on JM Fortier, The Market Gardener, 2014 and reduced for the different context of Wales.
Duncan Fisher is the project manager of Our Food. To follow the work of Our Food and the 1200 Project, and to receive invitations to discussions and events, please email email@example.com.