Jamie Pike grew up the youngest of three sons on a two hundred acre arable farm in Suffolk. His father, a second-generation farmer, worked all hours, seven days a week. It was a privileged life, he says, in so far as they always had food on the table and beautiful places to play, but he learnt early that farming was sheer hard work, and the effort you put in didn’t necessarily relate to how much you got out. “We were always at the whim of international grain prices” he says, “which meant that you could work around the clock and still not make a profit.” Neither of Jamie’s brothers wants to take over the farm, and whilst Jamie has a love of good food (he runs two restaurants in Bristol, The Canteen and No. 1 Harbourside), it isn’t enough to encourage him back into farming full-time.
Jamie is one of thousands of farmer’s sons across Europe who doesn’t want to take over the family farm. They have seen first hand the hard work and scarce rewards that can go hand in hand with growing or rearing food. Unlike their predecessors, this generation have the choice to leave and try another career path, one that will bring either more money or more time with their families. The lack of young blood entering farming is such cause for concern that CAP now has generational renewal high on its policy reform agenda. Only six percent of farmers in Europe are under the age of 35, while half of them are over 55. If you take these statistics at face value, it doesn’t take long to work out that within ten to fifteen years, we won’t have enough people to grow and produce our food.
However, these figures don’t tell the whole story. Whilst many youngsters from farming backgrounds are fleeing the land, there are more people at UK agricultural colleges than ever before. There appears to be upsurge of interest in farming, even if those interested may never own a farm. Helped no doubt by popular TV programmes like Jamie’s Heroes, there is a groundswell of young people who are going back to the land. Their backgrounds vary but they share a common passion; to reconnect with where food comes from, and find innovative ways to grow and distribute it. Without family farms at their disposal however, they are having to find unique solutions to realising their agricultural dreams.
One of these upstarts is Rossi Mitova, aged 25. She is an investment and finance graduate who turned her back on a career at Goldman Sachs after a life-changing visit to a friends farm in her native Bulgaria. “He was rearing rare-breed sheep and making cheese from their milk. I realised how relaxing it was being on a farm and I wanted to find a way to be in touch with nature but still live in a city.” The result was a web-based service called Farmhopping, which Rossi describes as a Facebook for farms. “I could see farms that were in need of financial help, but found that farming, as an industry, wasn’t always very good at marketing itself. Farmhopping puts farms in touch with people who can offer them financial help”.
On a practical level this means signing-up to pledge a certain amount to farms around the world, which in return allows you to message the farmers, receive produce from their farms and visit them for farm holidays. The financial contributions are used for specific projects like building a barn, buying a field or maintaining a beehive. Rossi says that you “become a part of that farming community but in a very modern way”. The website is still a work in progress, but so far she is thrilled by the response of her friends in the financial sector. “I am hoping that this will show how exciting farming can be, and in-turn help to solve some of the financial worries facing farms”.
Sticking with a more hands-on approach is Ed Hamer. He grew up in the picturesque village of Chagford on the edge of Dartmoor. He worked on farms as a youngster, but despite agricultural college and time spent on food growing projects overseas, he knew there was no chance of buying land in his hometown. Land in Devon is at a premium and often owned by people from elsewhere. He proposed setting up a CSA (Community Supported Agricultural scheme) to supply ecologically-produced vegetables to households in Chagford and neighbouring parishes. He and his business partner, Chinnie Kingsbury, rented a field on the edge of town and used a native-bred Dartmoor hill pony to till the land. By their third year they were supplying 75 boxes per week and had become financially self-sufficient.
Chagford is one of eighty CSA’s that are providing food to local communities around the country. “The advantage of them” says Ed ‘is that they sell directly to their customers so cut out transport, retail and marketing costs. Our prices haven’t changed in the last three years, whereas supermarket food prices have risen by up-to 13% over the same time-period. We’re a great example of the resilience of local food systems in a recession”. Ed makes no excuses for the fact that the CSA project was a way for him to stay in the area he grew-up in, and make a livelihood. “I was determined to stay in Chagford and bring up my family here, the success of the scheme means that I can”.
Another example of young people finding alternative sources of revenue to fund farming enterprises is Fordhall Farm in North Shropshire. In 2006, the young tenants of the 128-acre organic farm, Ben and Charlotte Hollins, were faced with the prospect of the land being sold to property developers unless they could come-up with the £800,000 needed to buy the land and continue a family farming tradition that dated back to the 1700’s. After a national media campaign, eight thousand people put their hands in their pockets and sent cheques to ensure that Fordhall would continue as the first community owned farm in the UK. This type of crowd funding, already popular in other cash-strapped industries like film, is gathering interest globally as way to make food projects happen without a single, significant, benefactor.
The National Federation of Young Farmers is well aware of the crisis faced by their industry unless more young people are helped onto the land. Spokesperson, Sarah Farmer, is keen to stress that farming holds many more opportunities than just “putting on a pair of Wellingtons and standing in a field”. However, they are trying to address the flight of young farmers by offering a matching service that brings together farmers who don’t have a successor, with young, would-be farmers who don’t own a farm. It’s not a new idea – share farming has been around for years – but if successful it could be rolled-out nationally and be of tremendous benefit to both the individuals involved and the country in general.
It is a scheme that also appeals to farmer’s son and restaurant owner, Jamie Pike, who doesn’t want to take over the family farm in Suffolk but doesn’t want to see it sold to developers either. Like most children of farmers, he cares deeply about the land and wants it stay productive. A share-farming agreement would ensure the farm was in good hands. “In the end, it’s not about ownership,” says Jamie “it’s about stewardship and partnership. The land isn’t ours to own anyway, we’re just looking after it for a short while”.
His attitude is reflective of a lot of young people involved in food production today. They have seen the damage caused by the over industrialisation of farming and the greed of big food companies. They want to be involved in growing and rearing food but not be beholden to the decisions of people they will never meet. They are not conventional farmers, and their numbers have yet to be counted, but their innovative and independent ways of finding co-operative funding models for agricultural projects, could certainly go a long way on helping to provide home-grown food for our growing population.
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