Rooting for Change: The UK’s Small-Scale Farms Sowing the Seeds for a Sustainable Future

Rooting for Change: The UK’s Small-Scale Farms Sowing the Seeds for a Sustainable Future

As the future of UK farming is being moulded by Brexit, climate change and the pandemic, it’s traditional, smaller farms that are cultivating social and environmental benefits, and helping to regenerate the landscape.

This article first appears in Vol. 33:

is admiring a fat pumpkin ripening in Dorset’s late-summer
sun. She has spent the morning chatting to farmers Lally and Tomas,
who grow organic vegetables from an Edenic market garden just
outside Wootton Fitzpaine. The produce might be thriving, but these
young producers are competing with an industrialised system – and
they want reform. “Pricing doesn’t reflect the real cost of food,”
says Lally, clambering into their yellow Volkswagen van for lunch.
“We need to consider the cost of labour, the cost of inputs, the
cost to the Earth – which is, in turn, a cost to ourselves. To all
of us.”

In recent years, more than 35,000 small-scale British farms have
closed down, mired in financial difficulty. Yet a quiet activism
has taken root. “I’ve grown up around small-scale growers in west
explains Joya, revealing the inspiration behind her photo series
profiling young, diverse growers leading the way in regenerative
agriculture. “They’re role models,” she adds

The future of UK farming is being moulded by Brexit, climate
change and the pandemic. For years, farmers and land workers have
contended with policies favourable to large-scale agribusiness and
retail – a system criticised for both degrading the environment and
underwriting cheap food. Yet it’s the more traditional, smaller
farms that are cultivating social and environmental benefits,
helping to regenerate the landscape.

On behalf of the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a union
campaigning for better food and land-use systems, Joya travelled
between rural farms and peri-urban plots determined to reclaim
their stake by way of regenerative agriculture. One half of the
two-woman team behind The Right to Roam, she has made community-based
environmental activism the focus of her documentary making, raising
awareness around Colombia’s Varadero Reef and ocean plastics in
Bali. But it was only when planting seedlings in spring 2020, that
she had something of an epiphany. “There’s so much to fight for
here on home turf,” she says. “Looking at this farming movement
through the lens of climate change gives me hope because solutions
are being developed in these projects.”

Several kilometres east along the Jurassic Coast, Tamarisk Farm
has braced the seawinds for centuries. Its fields quilt the
landscape, a haven for native flora and fauna – adder’s-tongue
fern, the sleepy dormouse – that is declining elsewhere in
. Cereals intertwine with cover crop: chicory blooms
alongside palomino-coloured wheat. The plants work in tandem to fix
nitrogen; some cycling and others storing carbon. “Grasses benefit
and the wheat benefits,” explains farmer Ellen Simon. “After, this
will all be grazed.” In turn, Ruby Red Devon cows fertilise the
land. An agroecological farming system is a carefully balanced one:
animals and crops support one another. Everything has a function.
Nothing goes to waste.

It’s a similar story at Haye Farm in
East Devon
, home of Harry Boglione – a salt-of-the-earth
character whose Barbour jacket bears telltale muddy elbows – his
partner Emily Perry and their two children. Their house backs on to
a market garden stuffed with cavolo nero and purple kale. Beyond it
rises a hill where plucky hens are neighboured by rare Gloucester
Old Spot pigs. Like Ellen, Harry plays to the rhythm of the
landscape; livestock grazes among trees, taking shade beneath their
branches, trimming back shoots and creating fertile, squelchy muck.
This happy coexistence “will last for hundreds of thousands of
years,” Emily chimes.

For many regenerative farmers, it’s not just about reducing
carbon emissions but designing a system that redresses power
structures and social injustice embedded in current agricultural
practices. A system that can withstand economic or environmental
stress, and will provide long after they’ve left. Seed-saving is
one way to safeguard the future. At harvest, the finest plant is
left to run to seed, dispersing its climatic wisdom. When planted,
its tendrils unfurl with confidence, hardier with each passing

“People don’t understand you can grow tropical crops in the UK,”
says Paulette Henry of Black Rootz Collective, a project that grows
produce relatively new to British shores. The group took over a
disused council greenhouse in Wolves Lane, Haringey, in 2019.
Scalloped-edged leaves of Jamaican thyme grow alongside pear-shaped
gourds. “Elders who moved here from the West Indies grew what they
recognised, and it has since acclimatised,” she says. “Now, chocho
grows well.”

Just as seeds are inscribed with knowledge, multi-gen
initiatives such as Black Rootz pass down horticulture to the young
and interested. Helping the community grow, together, is key.
“Children need to know where food comes from, the science behind
it, and about self- sustainability,” says Lead Grower Sandra
Salazar D’eca.

Indeed, the pandemic has exposed the fragility of the food
system. The “just-in-time” supply line cracked. Farmers were left
with soured, unsold produce; supermarket shelves were stripped;
more families than before became reliant on food banks. Now more
than ever we need a community-driven, localised food system in
which resources can be directed where they are needed most.

It’s this kind of system which is cropping up with the help of
social enterprise Growing Communities. Pass through Dagenham East
station and you may spot a bespectacled Alice Holden among freshly
harvested lettuces and deep-emerald cucumbers. Her gentle persona
is at odds with the breakneck speed at which she zips around the
greenhouse, stripping a plant of dwarf beans mid-conversation.
Alice supplies Growing Communities’ veg-box scheme which gathers
produce from small, sustainable farmers within 100km of London to
guarantee fewer food miles. “I also get a guaranteed market,” she
says. “Each week, they take anything I have.”

Growing Communities not only ensures fair payment for farmers,
but is working towards providing affordable organic produce. It’s
Food Credit Scheme ensures quality vegetables go to low-income
families nearby. Inclusivity is the cornerstone of Alice’s farming
practice – likewise Black Rootz and other members of the LWA. They
are not only feeding at fair prices, but shifting the public
perspective. To eat nutritious food is a human right.

Joya hopes her photographs will encourage people to be more
proactive in cultivating or supporting a more sustainable food
system. “Maybe they’ll set up a small garden or visit an organic
food market,” she imagines. It’s in these choices we find a point
of connection with those who feed us, an appreciation of the toil
growing takes and an understanding of the rhythm of the natural
world as we bite into the seasons. “We eat every day,” Joya adds.
“And in that small ritual, if we engage with what’s on our plates –
in the story of food and its production – we can find sustainable
solutions to big problems.”

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