Planting interconnections between farming and environmentalism

Woman farmer

A Kenyan woman farmer at work in the Mount Kenya region.

We need to break down the perceived barrier between farming and the environment to restore the health of our soil and water - and of the human and non-human life they sustain. ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT, a contributing editor to The Ecologist, argues we also need to better understand the connections between them

Productive farming, human communities, and a thriving natural world can co-exist, and we need to highlight examples that cultivate this cooperation.

“Essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the soil,” Wendell Berry once said. I once worked in Zambia, and lived on a farm. I heard many times how the region, and in particular Zimbabwe, was the ‘breadbasket’ of Southern Africa; it could feed all its citizens.

But political turbulence and western farming techniques have displaced earth-friendly farming practices and divided up communal land into smaller plots. Today, swathes of land lie dormant. People starve.

I also learned how farming and the environment could and should work together: chilli plants to deter elephants from trampling crops; multiple crop species planted together to naturally deter pests and nurture the soil; stories of respect for wildlife passed through the generations. Productive farming, human communities, and a thriving natural world can co-exist, and we need to highlight examples that cultivate this cooperation.  

Friends of the earth? 

Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union,  said recently that farmers were the original “friends of the earth". Yet in recent a comment piece in my local paper, I read that when Britain creates its own farming policy outside of the EU it should recognise that agriculture is “first and foremost about feeding the nation.”

The implication was that this should take priority over environmental concerns from the “green movement”, with whom Michael Gove and Defra seem to be “playing along.” 

The word ‘farm’ comes from the Anglo-French ‘fermer’, meaning ‘to rent’. If, as Shirley Chishom, an American Politician and author, said: “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”, then farming, or renting, should be as much about service to the Earth as it is about feeding humans. 

I have encountered places and people for whom farming the land, creating income, and caring for the environment go together as if they were never separated - in the UK and elsewhere. The barrier between a healthy environment and profitable farming could be less pronounced that we’re led to believe.

If intersections between farming and the environment are not only possible but actually thriving, then it feels dangerous to amplify a false separateness or worse, an opposition, or even conflict between the two. 

Conservation and community

Not only does setting up this farmers vs. environment conflict encourage the two ‘sides’ to be understood only as over-simplified stereotypes - friendly Farmer Giles; angry environmental criminal; etc. It also isolates even further the people who already have a hard time getting people to understand and care about their world – farmers, ecologists, rural communities. 

Estimates suggest we have 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues - though UK farmers are this year being given the first ever targets on soil health. Herbicides and pesticides are killing the countryside and the animals that inhabit it, just as financial pressures and other stresses are globally killing the farmers that work it. But when farming practices are well managed, they can help preserve and restore habitats, and improve soil and water quality. 

Productive farming, human communities, and a thriving natural world can co-exist, and we need to highlight examples that cultivate this cooperation.

There are schemes like the UK’s Country Stewardship rural development programme, run by Natural England, that help famers and land managers look after the environment. I live near the East Devon AONB. Here, a group set up in 2016 called the East Devon Farmers Group (EDFG) comprises 54 farmers whose land covers over 3,900 hectares.

The group is successfully increasing the standard and scale of conservation management in the area by connecting land managers and farms, and supported by, amongst others, the AONB, farmers, the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project, and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West. F

armers have even requested activities that go beyond the original environmental remit. One participant said: “Getting together helps identify common needs and problems and joint initiatives to solve them.” (And beyond conservation, these networks and dialogues must also be vital in wider farmer wellbeing – crucial when one farmer a week in the UK dies by suicide. The wellbeing of farmers feels deeply linked to the health of rural places and communities).

Conversations must start

I recently came across the term ‘sustainable intensification’, which describes the process of increasing yields without adversely impacting the environment. It feels like a convenient, greedy and greenwashy concept. So instead, how might we collaboratively restore our natural world, whilst supporting healthy and profitable food, farmers and communities? There are a few places we might start:  

1. Experimenting with practices like no-dig or no-till planting, which fans claim produces results that are equal to or even superior to traditional growing, and permaculture, which writer Emma Chapman describes as being “…often viewed as a set of gardening techniques, but it has in fact developed into a whole design philosophy, and for some people a philosophy for life. Its central theme is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems. Its goals and priorities coincide with what many people see as the core requirements for sustainability."

If the Earth and its 4.5 billion-year long research and development phase knows what’s best for ecosystem nurturing and productivity, then what might be possible by bringing these earth-friendly practices into commercial farms? Or do they call for a move to smaller agriculture, with households and communities growing and producing only the food they need for themselves? 

2. Linked to that, urban and community farms, where farming sustains the hyper-local, or uses spaces not usually suited to agriculture, could help conserve or even initiate urban connection to the food we eat, as well as reduce air miles between production and plate. Imagine if hospitals, schools and prisons grew the food needed to sustain their users. 

3. Opening up conversations and understanding between farmers and conservationists; between pro-culling and anti-culling groups; between rural and urban realities. The big challenges – climate change, environmental degradation, a growing population – do and will impact everyone. This is the common ground from which these conversations must start. We need facilitators and visionaries who can hold this space and nurture the seeds of collaboration. 

4. We should also listen to rural (and urban) writers and voices who deeply know a place, and can tell us how it changes and what it tells us about ourselves. Voices like Wendell Berry, who farms in Kentucky, and also integrates ecological and agricultural reverence through his poetry and essays, or James Rebanks who describes the current and historic shapes of sheep farming in the Lake District, or Annie Dillard whose walking and looking habits in the Blue Ridge Mountains revealed worlds within worlds. 

It will not be farmers working in harmony with nature that threatens the ability to feed the world. It will be the amplification of the antagonism between farming and the environment. This, alongside big business and the power that looms and decrees from a distance.

The conservation of farming, nature and communities is connected. Pitting farming and the environment as enemies will only distract from the work to be done – namely:

1. learning from examples of thriving connections between the two,

2. handing leadership of conservation and farming over to the people who deeply understand the history, stories, strengths and needs of a place; and

3. realising that the kind of industrial-scale agriculture touted as the only way to feed the world will actually never be enough to feed either a rapidly growing population, or the bank accounts of the powers that stretch both farmers and wildlife to breaking point. 

This Author

Elizabeth Wainwright is a contributing editor to The Ecologist, with a special focus on thought leadership. She also co-leads community development charity Arukah Network. You can find her on Twitter @LizWainwright. 

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