This Land is Your Land?

We've written recently about several of our farmer suppliers, and the daily life and challenges they’ve faced on their farms. And yet, it may be surprising to learn that it’s not actually “their farm”. Many of our suppliers are, in fact, tenant farmers, meaning that they rent the land from a landlord, as one would rent a flat. Rewind a few centuries and this harkens back to the days of feudalism: lords and fiefdoms, serfs and fealty.  Luckily, most of the world no longer practices Westerosian land management, yet land rights in the UK continue to be mired in complex and often ancient relationships where the Crown, church or estate lineages manage vast swaths of land. Landowners, naturally, want to profit from their land. Farmers offer the labour and resources to make land productive. Through many hard won rights and legislation, tenant farmers have earned a much more equitable footing in their relationship with landowners, but the system still presents modern day questions of power, access and usage.

Why would a farmer who doesn’t own the land want to put so much toil and time into it?  Much like you would want to live in a comfortable and nicely decorated rented home, a farmer wants to do his or her best to care for a rented plot of land. Tenant farming in 2020 is estimated to comprise 33 to 40% of the land in England and Wales. This is a giant proportion of land across the country. Local Green’s customers understand the value of food, and it is a bit concerning to think that so much of food production is attributed to renters. What happens if they’re evicted or the land is sold? In our present day, tenants benefit from many protections, and there is a more balanced relationship between landlord and farmer. However, it wasn’t always like this.  In previous generations, some farmers were at the whim of the landlord, and were dictated which crops to grow and how to do it. They often owed a portion of their harvest to landlords and could fall into debt or ruin because of a bad year. Land was not a commodity most common people could readily own, so there was little choice for the small farmer but to rent. Two key organizations champion the modern day tenant farmers’ rights to work and prosper: The Tenant Farmer’s Association (TFA) and The Landworkers’ Alliance.

Formed in 1981, the TFA advocates for farmers’ interests at many levels. It promotes lasting landlord/tenant relationships through long-term, flexible tenancy agreements; tackles issues of food access and security; and seeks viable opportunities for new entrants to agriculture. Land is still expensive and there is a finite quantity of it. Just like getting on the housing property ladder, many farmers rent to get on the agricultural ladder. The TFA states, “One of the biggest barriers for new entrants into farming is lack of opportunity.” This also works at the other end of the spectrum. Many older tenant farmers cannot consider retirement as an option, as this often means foregoing both their livelihood and secure housing. Often those picturesque country farmhouses come as a package deal, and if you give up your lease to farm, you give up your lease to live there too. If older farmers can’t retire and make way for younger farmers, mobility up the ladder gets stuck. The TFA also advocates for county councils to view their landholdings as “vital to the sustainability of providing a viable entry point and ongoing development for those seeking a career in agriculture.”

Local Greens is always banging on about fair wages, predictable markets and sustainable practices, all of which hit at the core of the TFA’s mission. They have found that, “Major retailers dominate the market to the extent that they squeeze out alternative routes to market and hold too much power in the relationships they have with suppliers.” If a supermarket will only pay pennies for your organic potatoes, but the government will subsidise you to grow soya, you choose the one that is going to pay the rent. This isn’t, however, what a domestic consumer wants. Further research indicates that consumers want high quality, fresh, seasonal food with local provenance. If small famers cannot survive the cost to provide fresh crops, we the consumer are “forced to accept lower quality alternatives which have travelled many miles around the globe.” TFA is working towards a fair balance of power between producers, processors and retailers in the food chain – a mission we wholeheartedly support.

The Landworkers’ Alliance takes this message further and employs social justice to create a better food and land-use system for everyone. This union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers, has a “vision of a future where people can work with dignity to earn a decent living and everyone can access local, healthy and affordable food…a food and land-use system based on agroecology, food sovereignty and sustainable forestry that furthers social and environmental justice.” This message speaks to the exploitation tenant farmers historically endured, and discrimination in the food system that carries on today. Our earth has finite resources, as we know, and access to food is a human right that transcends income, status or background. In promoting their ideals, the Landworkers’ Alliance aims to put communities back into the heart of policy making and craft solutions that tackle social and environmental crises.

The idea of food sovereignty embodies this message. In a formal definition, this is, “The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, process and consume healthy and local food at the heart of our agriculture and food systems, instead of the demands of market and transnational companies.”  In basic terms, it prizes farmers and people ahead of commodities. “We want to see power put back in the hands of producers and communities rather than supermarkets and industrial processors,” the Alliance asserts. This ties in hand with agroecology, which is a fancier way of saying sustainable or organic farming. Farmers who subscribe to this practice understand that we’re all tenants in a way, looking after the Earth for future generations. They see the value in promoting a culture where the land matters, where people matter and where skills and knowledge are shared with the next generation to carry on. There is still a long way to go to equally balance the distribution of environmental benefits across communities, but tenant farmers and land-workers have a strong and active ally combating inequality in the Landworkers’ Alliance.

The work of a farmer is never easy, and tenant farmers have made many gains to ensure their work is valued and secure in our contemporary food system. There is much more to do to make the food system more equitable, and Local Greens hopes the message of all land-workers resonates across communities. No matter who we are, we all need food, and we can’t do that without the commitment of farmers, pickers and packers.

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