Guy Singh-Watson; What is the cost of industrial agriculture?

It takes the heart out of farming, it takes the skill out of farming, to me it takes the pride out of farming. So I’m out here in our chard field today I’ve come out here actually to work out whether it’s economic to pick this stuff or not and I reckon it’s economic for me but I don’t think it’d be economic for us as a business. 30 years ago I used to grow lots of spinach and chard and we used to come out and and just pick it by hand in fact I had one particularly nimble picker called Tara and she used to do a lovely job of it. It was a bit slow and it was highly dependent on having a very well motivated and skilled picker. Over the years we started growing more and more of it and then we heard there was this machine which would cut spinach and chard, and it was a wonderful machine and it cost about thirty thousand pounds it had a bandsaw blade which goes along the bed and it’s many many times faster, a huge improvement but the problem is you have to grow a perfect crop for the machine to work. There has to be no weeds in it, no blemishes, no pest damage so on a good day it works really well but so often it doesn’t work and it kind of seems in some ways sort of symptomatic of what’s gone wrong with agriculture you know the scale has got bigger it’s become deskilled and dependent on machines and it’s become tremendously wasteful. The sort of mixed farming that my father started with back in 1951 where you would have sheep, beef and dairy, he had pigs, we grew grain, it was a proper mixed farm generating a lot of the fertility within the farm, that’s a thing of the past now really, all the farms that are growing now are large-scale producers. People with three, four hundred, even a thousand cows and it’s all monocultures to feed them, a very impoverished environment in terms of diversity and richness. Very few large scale producers would grow the 100 crops we grow you would specialise in growing root vegetables, or salads or brassicas, a very narrow range and that is favoured by mechanisation because you can then buy the machines to deal with those particular crops. So I ask myself why do I care, why does it matter? It matters partly for the environment, the more you’re driven towards this uniform system of cropping, that’s terrible for the environment. The environment likes diversity and it really doesn’t like all the pesticides many farmers would be using to achieve that uniformity. It takes the heart out of farming, it takes the skill out of farming, to me it takes the pride out farming. So all that specialisation is driven by a number of things, the price of food for one. In the UK people spend about ten percent of their disposable income on food and that’s all food. Obviously vegetables are a tiny part of that. I reckon most people spend more money on their mobile every week than they do on their vegetables. It makes me quite upset but those are the priorities which people have set so we find ourselves obliged to produce this food so cheaply. The second is the supermarkets, they don’t want to deal with small producers producing a few hundred kilos of a varied product. They want someone who’s going to guarantee that they’re going to deliver 100 tonnes all of which to be between 10 and 15 cm long and completely blemish free and for 52 weeks of the year and if they can’t grow in England they’re gonna get it from Spain or California and it’s just completely unsustainable. It’s unsustainable in environmental terms and it’s unsustainable in human terms, and it’s unsustainable socially, but it’s really really difficult to break out of this paradigm I do think small producers do have to club together in how they market their produce and I think we’ve got a fantastic model here with our cooperative South Devon Organic Producers they all bring it here to Riverford where we pack it and distribute it. I think that is a really good model and I think it’s one that could be applied elsewhere. So I really want to challenge the assumption that being successful means bigger machines, it means more specialisation. I want to find a smaller way of farming. Amid all that specialisation and march to scale there’s Riverford and we’re kind of, yes we have grown into a large business, but we’re also a bit of a freak we don’t really do things the way other people do we’re still growing a 100 different crops of vegetables, still quite a lot of the work is done by hand and we have this tremendous diversity on the farm and I want to look for ways to actually enhance that rather than reduce it, but at the same time produce vegetables which are affordable and accessible to everyone.

5 thoughts on “Guy Singh-Watson; What is the cost of industrial agriculture?

  1. bravo, well stated guy, and im on a riverford theme tonight, well actually it's 5:12 am as i type, ekk, onto the next rant , loving this 🙂

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