This is Part 2 of an interview by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org / NonCorporate.org with Lynne Davis of the Open Food Network as part of a series of interviews with people building the new economy. Here’s Part 1, and below is the transcript of the interview, plus the video.
Dave: I hear that you’ve joined the board of the Ecological Land Co-op
I left a couple of years ago. I left when Chris Smaje of Vallis Veg joined…
They’re such an inspiring organisation.
…and they’ve got planning permission in Wealden, which i think is the most difficult council in the country to get planning permission from.
Right yeah it’s nice that they’re now at the point of having a solid reputation and I think that plays a big role when it comes to working with different planners – they know that they’re fully legit. So often planners are scared of alternative abodes and lifestyles etc.
Chris Smaje is writing a book about the future for small farmers. He sent me a snippet – it was very good. Is life just too tough for small farmers. I mean will the kids just inevitably leave and go to the cities?
It’s an interesting question and certainly the predominant global trend of the past 300 years is urbanisation. Young people leaving and going to cities. If you look at how the UN and the different international institutions see development, it’s about raising the income of countries, increasing the productivity of agriculture is a key part of that, and that basically means fewer people on the land, producing the same or more food.
So it’s a big trend. But then we see a lot of people my age living in urban areas, and pretty much everyone I know has some kind of dream of one day moving to the countryside and having a smallholding. So I don’t know whether it’s totally lost – we’re finding a new balance. I feel that for the small producer there is an increasing number of opportunities to be able to sell and distribute your produce, and it’s widely accepted that, say, small-scale market gardening is a profitable way to have an enterprise on a small piece of land that’s viable. Fruit and veg is actually much more cost-effective on a small scale than it is on an enormous scale, so yeah it feels like interesting times; and I feel like in countries like the UK and the US we get stuck in this massive polarisation between competing forces and it’s where a lot of innovation happens.
I read a recent Medium article written by a farmer in the States about co-operative farming. So farms would get much bigger but they wouldn’t be owned just by one farmer. They’d belong to a group of farmers farming it cooperatively. His argument was that everybody doesn’t have to do everything. At the moment one small farmer would have to do all the bookkeeping, all the admin, all the deliveries and all the infrastructure and know about all the kinds of things produced on the farm. He or she would have to have a lot of different kinds of knowledge, whereas if you’re working with a cooperative you could be the specialist in dairy production or tomatoes in polytunnels. You know you could really focus and get that done really really well and other people will be doing the same thing. Somebody would be doing the books for the entire cooperative etc. So there’s more of a sense of community. I think it was a very interesting article.
Yeah I think I agree with that; and this kind of the sharing of resources and of infrastructure could happen in loads of different ways. There are successful models around the world that use a co-operative model – similar to what he’s talking about. Things like small-scale abattoirs, so people within an area have access quite locally to some of the processing facilities that they need. One of the things that stops small-scale veg being used in procurement – e.g. hospitals or schools – is that there aren’t ways to process or clean those vegetables that small scale producers can tap into. So if we had appropriate facilities for washing, cleaning, processing vegetables that lots of producers could tap into then that could be the source of vegetables for schools etc. So I think there’s a lot to be said for an infrastructure layer that supports smaller producers.
Distribution is definitely another example of that. Moving things from one place to another. I think that’s why the Open Food Network is so good – it makes it easier for small farmers and small producers; and anything that does that has got to be a fantastic idea. That’s what we’re aiming to do.
Have you got any ideas about how we bring different sectors of the new economy together – the food sector, money sector, energy sector, housing sector, the IT sector? There are lots of people thinking about how we build a new economy right now, but we’re still completely marginal. We really need to move in and start taking over the mainstream economy. Do you have any ideas about things things that might help in that direction?
It’s really hard. I feel like all of the solutions exist. I think when we look around at all of the ecological and social problems that we face, it’s not like we don’t have solutions to these problems. They’re out there but they fail to reach scale. It’s really hard to get that critical mass where things reach a tipping point and tip over into being the norm. It feels like we’re up against enormous barriers you know like economies of scale. Also, I feel that we often undervalue coming together and celebrating. Gatherings are often when the real innovation happens. Certainly in the food sector one of the big game changers has been the Oxford Real Farming Conference, which started as a fringe conference to the Oxford Farming Conference, where all of the big players in agribusiness come together. The Real Farming Conference started as a way to show that there are alternatives to that way of farming – and now it’s much much bigger than the original conference. It’s the focal point of the year for the sector. Everybody comes together. The ideas that come out of it and the connections that are made – it’s been really transformative and I think continues to be so.
So certainly the power of coming together. But in the co-operative sector, often when gatherings happen there’s a critique that’s it’s not very diverse, and that’s it’s quite hard to make that shift from from being a place of a lot of white people of a certain class into something that feels inclusive for everyone and that’s work we all have to do. Good food appears to be the pursuit of white middle-class people and so we have to take a long hard look at ourselves and address that. I think the co-operative sector suffers from that to a degree as well.
I’m from a working-class town and I go back and I think it’s happening there too. There are lots of foodie TV programmes now and my family do buy a little bit of organic and they’ve switched from white bread to wholemeal bread, and things like that – plus a lot less meat.
Right – the movement towards meat reduction has really gained strength. Is it Generation Y that comes after the Millennials? And the YouTube movements and things like this – these media streams are really powerful in changing people’s behaviours. I think the power of media in changing what we see as normal causes behaviour change. Behaviour change isn’t really something that we can ask anyone to do – ‘hey you, change your behaviour!’ It doesn’t quite work like that. We all try to fit in and be normal so we want to do what our friends do and what we think everybody else does, and we see what everybody else does through media largely and through our friendship circles. And it’s becoming more normal to eat less meat and to think about vegetables, to use reusable coffee cups etc. So there’s some hope there. But the shifts are still quite individualistic, and we need to be more systemic about it.
I often think that the state is not very helpful. I mean the big corporations don’t pay their fair share of tax like small producers do, and I know that there are subsidies for large farmers but there are no subsidies for small farmers under under a certain area. It annoys me so much that there’s so much that they could do to help and they just not doing it.
The the subsidy thing – I think we’re going to see changes happening. I think there will be a move away from a ‘per hectare’ payment. Also, we can look at the markets and we can look at government, but there’s talk recently about this third pillar which is community. It feels like communities are being undervalued quite a lot. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market is thought to do so much for us, and government, the state looks after you from cradle to grave. We put a lot of trust and also responsibility on markets and government to solve our problems but community’s been overlooked, and I do feel like there should be a responsibility within markets and government to start to re-establish communities. It’s something that we’ve seen in the past. Certainly markets have played a role in building communities in a bleaker times than now.
An actual real market can be the heart of the community. But not a market that can be exploited by multinational corporations – just for small local producers. I used to work in Romania and I tried to explain to Romanians what a farmers’ market is.
Yes, for them that’s just a market.
So you know that we are building the Open Credit Network – to build a new money system. It would be great if the Open Food Network could somehow use mutual credit as an exchange system for the small food providers.
It certainly comes up a lot within the Open Food Network community that some kind of credit network could be hugely beneficial. It’s really tricky to find the balance, because one blockage we often find is that producers need to buy things that will not be on the credit network, and that will just always be the case. If the network can encompass as much as the normal economy, which is obviously the goal and hope, great, but meanwhile buying potting mix, buying seed, paying your rent, paying your electricity bills. The scale of the challenge is not to be underestimated but certainly it’s an exciting one to explore. I love Hull Coin for example – they’ve used cryptocurrencies to try and solve part of this problem because often with the credit networks may you start to run up against the FSA, FCA, whatever it’s called these days, so what Hull Coin have done is quite exciting.
On NonCorporate.org we help people extricate themselves from the corporate sector and get the stuff that they need from non corporate sources – especially local and small-scale sources – so I definitely need to get you on to NonCorporate as a provider.
I’ll also sign you up to the to the blog so you can see the other interviews that we do and they can see you.
Yeah, I had a look. Some great people on your interviewee list.
Yeah, I’m just obsessed with trying to bring people together to network and build the whole sector, really.
It’s such important work – creating the new world that we want to live in.
It’s been really great talking with you.
- Pretty much everyone I know has some kind of dream of one day moving to the countryside and having a smallholding.
- We all try to fit in and be normal so we want to do what our friends do and what we think everybody else does, and we see what everybody else does through media largely and through our friendship circles. And it’s becoming more normal to eat less meat and to think about vegetables, to use reusable coffee cups etc. So there’s some hope there. But the shifts are still quite individualistic, and we need to be more systemic about it.
- We put a lot of trust and also responsibility on markets and government to solve our problems but community’s been overlooked, and I do feel like there should be a responsibility within markets and government to start to re-establish communities. It’s something that we’ve seen in the past. Certainly markets have played a role in building communities in a bleaker times than now.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Jen Scott June 26th, 2020
Great interview, really enjoyed hearing about this fantastic work. Wondered about the medium piece from the US on farming cooperatives that you mentioned, is there a link to it? Was it written by Chris Newman by any chance?