We’re not often tempted to look west to the USA for models of future sustainability, what with the gaz-guzzlin’ and so on, but they left us behind a long time ago when it comes to agriculture. We’re only just getting going on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) over here – we now have 80 or so active projects in the country, long may they prosper. But the small farmers of the US stole a march on us over 30 years ago, and there are now so many CSA farms that they long ago lost count (at least 1,500 active farms, probably more). There are also countless farmers’ markets and urban agriculture initiatives, a few of which I went to visit last year in New York City. There is a thriving movement of young farmers and new entrants to farming. Cornell, a top Ivy League university even has a New Farmer Hub to provide skills and support to those going into careers on the land. Unlike traditional agricultural colleges, it concentrates not on large monocrop agribusiness, but on small, ecologically-focused mixed farming.
I can only speculate on why we are so far behind. We are a conservative society, yes. Land prices are restrictively high, and planning restrictions make living on the land near impossible. But we also have a culture that does little to value the idea of sustainable farming. Few kids grow up wanting to be farmers, and for those who do, the conventional route teaches how to manage a thousand hectares with one man, a tractor and a sizeable budget for agricultural inputs. This is all tied up with a paradigm of modernity that forcibly strips us of our relationship with land and the basic act of growing our own sustenance. We are encouraged to think that we live in a rootless knowledge economy where food production will happen elsewhere or take care of itself. Education is a good place to start changing this culture. But for now, as the BBC Bitesize web site cheerfully informs us:
Economic indicators are used to assess how economically developed a country is… A low number of people working in agriculture is an indication that a country is developed. The UK has only 2% of the workforce employed in agriculture. Vietnam, meanwhile, has 72% of its workforce employed in agriculture.