To support 'green' farming, officials must learn that small is beautiful

Photo: Troed-Y-Rhiw Farm via Facebook.
Photo: Troed-Y-Rhiw Farm via Facebook.
It's a hard life being an organic farmer, writes Alicia Miller - and specially when it comes to engaging with a bureaucracy that's trying to 'green' our agriculture. Should small scale farmers change their farming practices to fit in with it? Or the other way round?
If we want to move towards a sustainable future in farming, it's got to be about more than a few minor adjustments to how we farm. We have to change our way of thinking - and that includes the government's accounting of the sector.

A couple of weeks ago, at 7pm on a Friday night, my husband and I stood in one of our fields in West Wales guesstimating how much of it was in green manures (fertility building crops), what was in vegetable crops and how much of the field margin was in permanent grass.

We had a long discussion about what constituted 'fallow' and looked for a code that represented 'ploughed but not planted', to no avail. At that point, we were half way between laughing hysterically and tearing our hair out.

At one point, in exasperation, I nearly asked him why on earth he couldn't grow just one crop in one field like the rest of conventional farming?

We were standing out in that field attempting to fill out the Welsh Assembly Government's Single Application Form (SAF), through which we receive a small sum of money each year.

We're organic farmers and our rotations are pretty complicated, in part because we're small. Our fields are a mix of many crops and also green manures.

By the time I filed the form online at nearly 10pm, I was wondering why we bothered. For the amount of time we spent trying to make our farm fit into the proverbial administrative box for the subsidies, it hardly seemed worth it.

The problem? The new 'greening' measures in the CAP

The subsidies come down through the European Common Agricultural Policy which funds farming across Europe. This year, the SAF is different (adding to our stress) because of the new 'greening' measures introduced to improve environmental practice on farms.

It means that we get a little bit more this year as organic farmers - but not much more, and definitely not as much as a big intensive farm, which could opt out of the greening measures and forego 30% of the subsidy, and still garner a large sum of money. This is because the amount of the subsidy is based primarily on the size of the farm.

We're about 8.5 hectares - pretty small even for a small farm. But we're not just playing at farming: we have an on-site farm stand, run a vegetable box scheme, sell at two producers' markets each week and supply a range of local restaurants and shops. We're proud that we sell all our veg within a 25-mile radius of the farm. We have employees and we work our tails off.

We didn't bother applying for our hedges, a further greening measure - even though we would receive more funding - because we'd have had to measure them and we just weren't up to it.

OK, maybe we should not have left it so late, but still ...

I had spent the day turning over our holiday cottages, which provide us with a vital supplementary income, and the weather was turning, so my husband was out sowing parsnips and carrots as fast as he could before the rain came.

We'd been flat out all week - I have multiple freelance projects on the go that pay our household expenses and we have about a third of the labour we actually need on the farm, so spring is always fraught in the fields.

If we want to move towards a sustainable future in farming, it's got to be about more than a few minor adjustments to how we farm. We have to change our way of thinking - and that includes the government's accounting of the sector.

Now I know that we shouldn't have waited until late afternoon on the 15th (the final deadline) to look at the form, but it was so much harder than it had to be. The greening measures represent an important concession to sustainability - and, yes, I've thought about my use of the word 'concession' rather than 'shift' or 'transition'.

As organic farmers we automatically qualify for them without having to fulfill the specific greening measures. But the form was hard to complete because the Rural Payments Office has changed the designations of our land and got rid of codes that we had previously used to describe our planting.

Our orchard is now down as permanent grass instead of permanent crop for some reason and the MP1 code ('mixed vegetable production', the only one that described our crops) has disappeared, leaving us only with MC3 ('arable crop - mixed', a catch-all code).

But at least we didn't have to detail each and every one of the different crops we grow - more than 50 altogether.

Farming bureaucracy should make room for us!

If the detail in my description is starting to wear your attention down, that's exactly what it did to us. We don't fit into the current model of farming that the Welsh Assembly Government is trying to assess, but the thing is, we should.

What the government is asking for in the greening measures is what we already do as part of our ethos: our crops are many and diverse; rotation is critical in our care of the soil; and biodiversity is necessary for the farm's health. Farming bureaucracy should make room for us, because we can't be treated as an "exotic niche" any more, as Harry Greenfield writes this week in his SFT piece on politics and food.

If we want to move towards a sustainable future in farming, it's got to be about more than a few minor adjustments to how we farm. We have to change our way of thinking, and part of that thinking must be reflected in the governmental accounting of the sector.

Make room for the small farm and take its impact seriously. Help it to survive and thrive as much as other scales of farming. We must realise that sustainability is small, and the small mixed farm is integral to how agriculture must change. It is the way forward.



Alicia Miller runs Troed y Rhiw Organics, an organic horticulture farm in West Wales, with her partner Nathan Richards. Born in the United States, she's a long way from home but loves her life in the wild west of Wales. She works as a freelance writer and editor and understands sustainable food from the hands on perspective of growing food on a small family-run farm. She graduated with distinction from Stanford University and is currently pursuing a phd at Birkbeck College, University of London, writing on issues of artists practice and gentrification.

Facebook: Troed y Rhiw Farm.

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust.

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