• Viola King Forbes

Who Ploughs the Fields and Scatters?

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

My experience on a British farm, and why getting to know our farmers is the first step towards a sustainable food system.
This month's update from the food and farming working group is from Viola King Forbes (Geography, Jesus College, m.2018). Viola is an environmental geographer specialising in nature-based solutions, the food system, and the research-policy nexus. Here she writes about her dissertation completed in 2021 as part of her undergraduate degree. She has since had experience working on a farm, and is now working for Oxford's LEAP Project at the Oxford Martin School.

We all know what happened last year. I barely need explain why my summer of dissertation research was spent on Zoom and not travelling the farmland of the UK. My experience, in that respect, is much like the rest of the world.

Rather, I write to reveal that which most of us don’t know; that which I was practically oblivious to, and still have barely begun to understand. I write for those who, when asked what percentage of UK land they thought was agricultural, answered 20%, 10%, or even, in one case, expressed surprise that the UK still had farmers at all.

The answer, if you’re wondering, is almost 72%.

I don’t mean to shame those replied with such small figures – they were the majority and indeed, why would they know? In a country where the majority of our food is imported, carted into cities, and peered at through layers of plastic, why would anyone suspect that the vegetables on their plate might been pulled from the ground less than 20 kilometres away, and what difference does it make anyway?

But of course, it matters greatly. It matters because the state of the food system and those who work in it affects our ability to solve some of the most complex problems that face humanity. Agriculture contributes 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The number of vitamins in the food we eat continues to fall, and obesity continues to rise. Antimicrobial resistance threatens our health systems, and rural poverty remains hidden. Despite knowing all this, I still have no idea exactly where every piece of food I eat has come from, or how to make the choices that encourage the right kind of change. Knowing where our food comes from is the first step towards a better food system, and doing so requires speaking to those who produce it.

In the UK, farmers are currently under a unique set of pressures. Moves to improve environmental standards in the UK require farmers to produce more food, with a lower impact. However, the UK also has the lowest food prices in Western Europe and many worry this will be maintained by the importation of food produced under environmental standards that would be illegal in the UK. Farmers therefore find themselves in a lose-lose situation.

However, some change is happening, and I wanted to know how.

My dissertation focussed on the success stories. I spoke to farmers up and down the country who had managed to change their farming practices, ahead of the curve, and were doing okay.

What became abundantly clear was that success could not be achieved alone. The farmers who had most successfully transitioned were those who were embedded in networks such as the Nature Friendly Farming Networkor the Pasture Fed Livestock Association. They kept in touch with each other, bounced ideas off each other, and spread risk by sharing what had worked for them. Social media also appeared to play a big role in this as one farmer described; ‘I could list a dozen or twenty people who have been really 30 exceptionally a big influence on me in a positive way and that is a little community of people fostered through social media.’

Those who felt they were doing it alone were finding it much harder. They felt alienated by the conventional farming community, including their own family, and underappreciated by the public who might not even know they exist, let alone how much support they need.

During my research process, I became very aware of my own distance and lack of knowledge concerning the actual lived experience of farming. So, this September, I volunteered on a small organic farm in Derbyshire. I was only there for ten days, barely enough time to scratch the surface, but enough to witness just how hard farming is. I really enjoyed my time there, but it is an undeniably precarious profession; one of ceaseless problem solving, entirely dependent on the land, the weather, and luck. Bob, the farmer, is 71 and still working sometimes until midnight to keep things going. Luckily, he loves it, and had cultivated a great community of friends, family, and volunteers who supported the farm. However, for many without such support, the pressures are too great.

Not everyone has the free time to volunteer on a farm (though I’ll be back and would recommend it to all of those who do), but I think the disconnect between producers and consumers must be addressed in some way. It’s not just a matter of understanding the experiences of others. Realising the pressures farmers face is key if we wish to achieve goals of net-zero, nutrition security, and zero poverty. An overworked, underpaid, unnoticed workforce cannot constantly meet new demands without the structures in place to do so. Building those structures starts with getting to know our farmers and the food they put on our plates.

For anyone interested in working on an organic farm, check out https://wwoof.net/.