LF: We’ve heard a lot about the problems with the global food system, from high food miles to depleted topsoil to food insecurity in the countries of the South. Can you explain how these problems have come about?
JS: These crises are linked to the widespread trend towards ever-larger, energy-intensive monocultures and factory farming. This trend is mostly driven by corporate pressure on both government and farmers, encouraging the latter to rely on expensive, polluting (and often unnecessary) artificial inputs. This kind of farming is oriented towards long-distance trade, which creates dependency on global markets to meet even basic food needs. It’s a system that cannot provide a sustainable source of healthy food in the long term.
A combination of factors reinforces these unsustainable policies. For example, when farmers sell their production into the global food system, they can be pressured by giant marketing organisations and supermarkets to accept prices that are below their production costs. With government tax and subsidy policies tilted in favour of large producers, the smaller farmers will sooner or later be pushed off the land, with their holdings absorbed into large, well-capitalized industrial farms. Young farmers – who have little capital and face rising land prices – have no entry into this system. This is why the average age of farmers is rising so steadily.
LF: What can be done to address these problems?
JS: I suggest we launch an ambitious scheme with the aim of achieving the following objectives:
- Facilitating the development of an increasing number of smallholdings and family farms, in addition to helping to maintain existing small farms.
- Obtaining high levels of productivity and quality through diversification of production, labour intensification and the adoption of organic and agro-ecological farming systems.
- Creating opportunities for useful and satisfying work for young people which will enable them to earn an income they can live on
- Developing new marketing systems that pay economic prices to farmers for high-quality, healthy food.
LF: You mention creating better work opportunities for young people in farming. Do you think many young people are interested in that?
JS: There is good reason to believe that large numbers of young people would like to take up sustainable farming, if circumstances would allow them to do so and if suitable training and technical and economic back-up were available. They are held back mainly by lack of affordable land and housing. That is why I believe that these objectives could be achieved through the establishment of “Agrivillages”.
LF: Can you describe Agrivillages?
JS: Agrivillages would be designed to include the following characteristics:
- The nucleus of the village would be a high-density complex of attractively designed houses of different sizes and specifications. Maximum use would be made of local materials and high levels of energy efficiency would be specified. To achieve an essential critical mass the village would be unlikely to comprise less than 100 units initially, with plenty of room for building more accommodation at a later stage.
- The village would need to be located with easy access to at least 200 acres of adjacent cultivable agricultural land. Plots of land of varying sizes would be made available to the inhabitants of the village for the production of all kinds of food crops. The aim would be to experiment with different ways of symbiotically combining trees, plants and animal production (including fish), to achieve high levels of sustainable productivity per hectare.
- An area of land would be available for development of enterprises associated with the processing and marketing of food products grown on the surrounding land (e.g. shops, restaurants, market place, dairy, bakery, butchery, abattoir, anaerobic digestion plant).
- If possible, an agricultural research organization should be located in or near the village. It would not only carry out general agricultural research work but would also provide technical support and advice to smallholders and collaborate with them in doing practical small-scale research projects.
- Flexible office and workshop facilities would be provided for people who wish to make use of modern communications systems to enable them to work from home, rather than commuting to an office.
- The aim would be to make the village as near as possible to being self-sufficient in energy.
LF: Are there any examples where people have set up something similar to an Agrivillage?
JS: Agrivillages would incorporate the ideas behind the Televillage, which is a modern interpretation of the ancient idea of the village being a place where people both live and work. A good example is the Televillage in Crickhowell, Wales. It includes 39 homes plus 1,300 sq m of workspace in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Twenty homes for rent have also been constructed on adjoining land to match the Televillage dwellings.
Incorporating Televillage design into an Agrivillage would provide a community that is more diversified than one devoted exclusively to farming and food processing. Community members would thus have opportunities to pursue more than one occupation.
LF: How would someone go about starting an Agrivillage?
JS: The first essential requirement for getting started will be to find one or more suitable locations where the landowner is willing to exchange the land ownership for shares in a new company at the current value of the land, or alternatively sell the land to Agrivillage investors. The next essential step will be to identify investors who are willing to provide investment funds to support the development of an Agrivillage project on the chosen site. Their investments would be made primarily in the acquisition and development of land and buildings, thus providing a solid asset base for the investment.
Perhaps the most crucial factor is designing a scheme that will win the approval of the local planners. Our Agrivillage team includes a trained planner with expertise in designing high quality projects that meet the most exacting requirements of local planning departments. Once planning permission is obtained, the planning gain will serve to subsidise the whole project, for the benefit of all concerned.
Properties and land would be made available either for sale or for renting, as determined by the investors, and prices would cater to a range of incomes. The ownership structure would be designed to emphasise the community model of development, by ensuring that all the inhabitants participated in ownership even if they started by leasing.
Photo: Daniel Lázaro Meléndez