In this penultimate part of his extended article Mike Downham looks at different forms of local food production. Production and local democracy are fundamental to radical change. Tomorrows final instalment explores demands and organisation.
I’ll consider local food production under four headings: allotments, school gardens, community gardens, and farms.
Allotments have a long and mostly successful history. In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotments Act placed a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments, according to demand. Originally a plot was defined as 250 square metres, based on the area needed to produce enough vegetables for a family of four. With the escalation of land prices and the erosion of local authority funding by central government, local authorities, desperate to sell land they owned, fell behind with provision. This led to waiting times of as long as 10 years in some places. Length of waiting list became a criterion for additional provision, but with the loophole that there was no statutory timescale within which local authorities were expected to meet their obligation to increase provision. By 2007 most local authorities had responded to unmet demand by simply halving the size of plots. Communities responded by trying to persuade private landowners to lease land to associations of local residents. Their efforts often failed, or leases were grudgingly granted with conditions slanted to suit the changing whims of landlords. Private sites are now common but the people working them often experience insecurity of tenure.
Individual plots are relatively affordable, at around £50 a year, paid to the site Association, who pays the landowner. Though plots are worked individually, sites are in practice usually strongly collective in the sharing of knowledge, skills, implements, plants and seeds. For many plot-holders they are an important place of belonging.
For some people, particularly those living on their own or without children, a 250 metre plot is too big, and plots are often halved. Others, who have developed the knowledge and skills needed to produce reliably good crops of vegetables and fruit on every inch of their plots, would like to expand. “I just wish my plot was bigger” they say.
School children love to garden. Without necessarily articulating it they recognise that growing veg and fruit isn’t just play but an opportunity to contribute their work to necessary production. Even nursery children can contribute significantly, their small fingers well-suited to sowing seeds, planting out seedlings and fine weeding. You have to be 5 or 6 before you can wheel a barrow, usually best if you have a partner to help you not to cowp your load of muck before you get to your destination. Digging straight trenches in gangs works well with older children. All ages like watering and love harvesting. Even weeding, notoriously unpopular, turns out to be satisfying if the task of clearing a specific area is shared between the right number of hands or hoes.
The learning opportunities in all this are enormous – I’ve heard primary teachers say they can teach everything on the curriculum while children are working in a veg garden – plants, wildlife, habitats, ecosystems, climate, weather, maths, history, the meaning of work … and of course food.
But there are certain conditions for making school gardens a success which these days often don’t exist. The first of these is that the garden has to be significantly productive. Too often school gardens are side-lined to an area which is too small, may be shaded and impoverished by trees, bushes or hedges, and may be badly drained.
Secondly, there needs to be a teacher or a parent who has gardening knowledge and skills, and the time available to plan and work the garden with the children. There’s often no teacher in the school with the necessary skills and knowledge, and anyway their timetable may not give them enough time or flexibility to devote to learning in the garden. Parents sometimes or grand parents often come to the rescue, but they are increasingly unlikely to be able to give enough time now that two or more jobs per family is the norm, the grandparents preoccupied with caring for the pre-school children.
Thirdly, the whole educational experience in relation to food only has an impact if children have the opportunity to prepare and eat the food they’ve helped to grow, as experienced by children growing up on farms or in families with allotments or veg gardens at home. Most larger primary schools have their own kitchens where the school meals are prepared. Many of these schools have school gardens, but few if any of these gardens yield enough produce to contribute significantly to meals in the school.
Secondary schools contract out the preparation of their meals, so students who don’t have the privilege of living in families which produce vegetables are one further step removed from the experience of preparing food from vegetables they’ve helped to grow.
The current community gardening movement in Scotland began in the late 60s with a renewed interest in green spaces in cities. As health and social issues for working class people have escalated during the neoliberal period, so has the number of urban community gardens.
Though there is much diversity in the design and aims of these gardens, the main driver has been social or therapeutic, rather than scale of production. In terms of physical and mental health, community adhesion and organisation, and as habitats for wildlife, community gardens have become important for a large number of communities.
Among the many benefits of community gardens, the therapeutic opportunity they offer to people with mental health issues stands out as a priority. At this moment there’s a conjuncture between on the one hand a new wave, precipitated by lockdown, in the epidemic of mental health issues spawned by neoliberalism 40 years ago and inflamed over the last ten of those years by austerity; and on the other hand the dialectic response to that epidemic now emerging in the revolutionary form of tearing up 60 years of psychiatry. Community gardens have the potential to play an important part in the new multidisciplinary mental health service.
But most community gardens are not productive to a significant scale. One reason for this is that they are generally sited on land whose fertility and soil structure have been compromised by previous industrial use. They are physically hard to work, and fertility isn’t easy to restore unless there is a farm or stable nearby. As with education, the health and social benefits of growing fruit and vegetables are enhanced if production is significant in relation to use by the number of people involved
By ‘farm’ I mean any area of land for commercial food production too large to be farmed by hand, whatever its acreage. Defining a farm according to its acreage isn’t helpful because production methods depend on what is being produced, which in turn depends on the quality of the particular piece of land. It’s perfectly possible to raise a cow, a few sheep or goats, or hens on an acre of poor land without mechanisation or draft animal power, but very difficult to grow vegetables or fruit by hand on an acre of good land, unless it’s in a walled garden or covered by greenhouses or polytunnels. The term ‘market garden’, which attempted to capture 1-10 acres of land good enough for the production of vegetables and fruit, was never well-defined and has fallen out of use. With the escalation of land commodification, if you google ‘smallholdings’ you are offered for sale at extortionate prices every manner of land which can just about get away with not being called a garden along with a house. In the Highlands and Islands we also have crofts, which, despite their importance to remote communities and in relation to the radical legislation governing their land tenure, I’ll leave to one side because they aren’t able to contribute significantly to food production for urban populations by virtue of their location.
Farms, so defined, will play a highly significant part in a radical GND. Scotland is particularly well provided with land and climate suitable for growing vegetables, fruit and cereals in the east and for raising cattle and sheep in the west. Much of this land is close enough to the centres of population to supply locally, and the quantity of food production land is adequate for the size of Scotland’s population. There are not many countries in the world which are in this fortunate position. In this context agricultural skills and knowledge have remained strong despite industrialisation. Exceptional skills in low-cost field-scale vegetable production have developed in the face of low profitability, absence of subsidies (in contrast to other agricultural products) and increasingly fickle weather as a result of global warming.
Yet a staggering 80% of food is imported (that’s a UK-wide figure – I’m not aware of a separate figure for Scotland but there’s no reason to think it would be much different). The chief reason for this mismatch is of course the global commodification of food. What determines the food we eat isn’t where it comes from, how healthy it is, or the impacts of its production and distribution on carbon emissions and biodiversity, but how profitable it is to the big food corporations.
But the other big reason we don’t eat more food produced in Scotland is the price of land. If people had affordable access to land, we could have more allotments, more community gardens sited on good growing land, not the left-over, infertile land which nobody wants, and bigger and better school gardens.
And if affordable land was available we could have more farms producing for the local market, with lots of new job opportunities – a range of jobs all of which would be satisfying because they have a close connection to a product essential to society, and which would include jobs to suit people with different physical and mental abilities . We could have farms of 1 to 5 acres for people who want to have a go at producing food commercially for the first time, whether young people looking to make farming their career, or people who have lost their jobs or never had one, or retirees, or people ready to expand from a successful allotment or community garden. We could have community-run 10-acre farms acting as local food hubs, providing training, advice, start-off tools, seeds and plants for a local network of allotments, community gardens, school gardens and small farms, as well as producing for the local market. We could have larger farms for secondary schools and colleges, as common in the days before land prices exploded.
In the final part of this article to be published on 13th June Mike looks the kinds of demands we can raise and how we organise . If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.