Go with the flow - RSA

Go with the flow

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  • Public Services & Communities

Human geography is heavily influenced by physical geography, but the links have become less visible to us. As part of the RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission UK tour, I followed the River Trent through Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, revealing the connections – and the missed connections – that our rivers offer.

You’ve probably crossed the River Trent many times. Not that you would have noticed. You’ll most likely have been on the M1, near Nottingham, or near Newark on the A1 or on the East Coast rail line. Or perhaps on a Pendolino train, tilting, gently, near the obscure village of Mavesyn Ridware.

For as long as civilisations have travelled the country, the Trent has been a barrier and a marker: North of the Trent you are in ‘The North’. From the 18th Century, efforts were made to make the Trent easier for boats to navigate. From the late 19th Century, pollution from industry and sewage started to destroy fish stocks in the river. In our modern world, navigated by Google Maps and facilitated by invisible infrastructure that delivers water and fish without a thought, it is easy to forget that these life-giving water courses have shaped landscapes for millions of years, and civilisation for thousands.

The River Trent shown through soil types (left) mapped by Soilscape (Cranfield University/Defra); Google Maps (right)

I started my trip in Newark, a town described by many as a ‘farmer’s town’, but no one I spoke to knew any farmers personally. “All my friends are plumbers, builders, sparkies, policemen…they travel out of the town for work”. A farmer I spoke to was positive about farming being relatively lucrative here: “I don’t go to other parts of the country and see anything they’ve got that makes me jealous”. But sustaining prosperity comes from entrepreneurialism and diversification. “We make as much money from the farmyard as we do from the farm, and that is tragic really”, says Alan, who calls himself ‘Mr. Diversification’. On his farm, city-dwellers park their caravan, keep their horse stabled and go fishing in a lake stocked with trout. Alongside fields of barley contracted to turn into pints of Kronenbourg this autumn, and Alan has boosted his subsidy payments through planting field margins with a seed and nectar mix specifically to attract bees (see below).

Even in prosperous farming country, it is the informal economy, and the spirit of neighbourliness and reciprocity that allows small farm businesses to operate effectively. Farms contract with each other to trim hedges, dig ditches, grow and graze in each other’s fields and harvest each other’s crop. Farmers cooperate with one another to link up footpaths and conservation areas, and swap tips on navigating the paperwork that is part of operating a farming business. Dealing with the flood risk has been a challenge in this part of the world for centuries, and still concerns the farmers whom I spent a morning with, who grow crops on land adjacent to the River Devon – which flows into the Trent at Newark.

Following the flow of money

Basic payments to farmers (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, administered by Defra and the Rural Payments Agency) are calculated by the acre, incentivising farmers to farm very poor fields, such as those prone to flooding. An alternative would be to convert them to woodland, for forestry or for nature conservation. But woodland lowers the value of land – in part because land values for farmland reflect the anticipation of future farming subsidy. Alan got a grant from the Forestry Commission, and used it to pay a company which employed 26 students, over four days, to plant 64,000 poplar trees. Alan’s grant wasn’t associated with flood prevention, but the poplar forest soil is a sponge for flood waters, helping to mitigate and filter peak flows, rather than contribute runoff as might happen with ploughed and cultivated fields. Alan’s poplars are an example of the ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘public goods’ that farmers and land managers provide. The live debate in future rural and agricultural policy is whether and how new markets for these goods could and should be created. Along the Trent, there is clearly money washing through the system that could be repurposed to provide multiple benefits.

Around Newark, housing development makes some farmers and landowners very rich. The connections to the rest of the country make the area an attractive location for new housing and on the edge of town several fields have the fluttering flags of developers. At present, housebuilders are usually expected to mitigate flood risk to new homes within their own development boundary. In flood risk areas, this means they need to buy land – often productive farmland – that is then engineered or planted to protect new homes. Alan’s idea is that the resources involved in housing development might be more effectively used through schemes that could link downstream developers to upstream landowners, who have a greater range of options in absorbing and storing water before it becomes a flood potential. The fields this would involve are by definition the flood-prone and difficult to farm fields. And it means you could build more homes per acre downstream.

Like other ideas, it requires coordination and institutions that can mediate between private businesses, and often across the boundaries of planning authorities. There are programmes already operating at a catchment scale to address water quality and ‘slow the flow’, and several think-tanks (such as Bright Blue) are positive about catchment-scale policy and markets. But it is by engaging directly with farmers, and connecting rural challenges to urban challenges, that the RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission will be able to ‘follow the money’, and effectively and optimally deploy resources within our economy.

Nationally, about 60% of farmland that comes up for sale gets bought by other farmers, but it is also bought by private investors, and for ‘lifestyle’ purposes, to protect a cherished view, to avoid the risk you don’t like a new neighbour. Like elsewhere in the UK, farms in this part of the country are getting bigger. I visited a farming family that had sold their dairy herd and equipment, and established successful holiday accommodation adjacent to their farmyard. Mark’s regret is that he didn’t give up dairying earlier. His fear had been that his mother would feel offended by his decision to exit the business that her generation had built. She wasn’t.

The main concern of Mark is the future of community life in villages around here, as housing becomes increasingly unaffordable.

People come here for the lifestyle. It’s beautiful. It’s the kind of place they want to live. They can be outside on the bike trail after work. They can drive to Derby in 45 minutes. Their idea of supporting the village is bring their mates to the pub on Saturday night. That’s great, don’t get me wrong. But will they stand for the council? Will they coach the lads football team? It is not the same. Because at the same time the local bloke driving a tractor for a £14,000 salary hasn’t got a hope of living in that village.

Community life has changed in the Derbyshire Dales. Public services, over the long-term, are becoming less accessible to rural areas. People I spoke to were resigned to the continuing specialisation and consolidation of public services – colleges, hospitals and community services – into the region’s major towns. One farmer, after 70 years of raising sheep, had just moved to the town of Wirksworth. He was getting used to only knowing people “by face”. But to access social care and support – when needed – would have proved much more difficult in more remote communities.

Dairy farming adjacent to the River Trent near Nottingham

In some villages, a defibrillator in the car park of the village hall is the only expression of the National Health Service. In this context charities and voluntary organisations like Rural Action Derbyshire take on a crucial role in supporting communities to sustain themselves, working on a range of issues from food poverty and fuel poverty to mental health among farmers. The consensus seemed to be that extending public service provision was unrealistic. For a woman who I heard relies on infrequent and expensive buses for a 30 mile roundtrip for every antenatal appointment, the message is transmitted, clearly if silently: ours is a society that has conceded we don’t have a plan for the poorer half of society to raise families in rural villages. Poverty doesn’t sit well in our idealised image of the bucolic countryside we drive through. Because rural poverty is dispersed it is less visible. The bus is in fact the only place poverty is reliably concentrated.

Making farming pay

But the fate of our urban and our rural areas are, of course, intimately connected - as they have always been. Brexit has prompted a heightened awareness of this, as future policy and subsidy regimes are considered. Everyone I spoke to was trying to come to terms with, trying to get their head around, and trying to plan for Brexit. Farmers I spoke to know there is no easy answer: “there isn’t even a Brexit solution that is even satisfactory to two-thirds of people”. One senior leader in rural economic development told me that “some farmers are already budgeting for no basic payments from next year. Another raft of farmers are burying their heads and hoping subsidies will double.”

The re-evaluation of subsidies for farming is an existential issue. Over half of total farm income in 2017 was from subsidy. “Farmers don’t want money for nothing. We want to live off stock and produce. The only way is to make people value the cost of production.” I heard this several times, through gritted teeth, clenched fists. As citizens and consumers, we are all complicit. Arguing that food should be more expensive does not make for a popular political agenda. But it has become a political imperative in designing future policy to recognise the full resources devoted to sustaining our system of food production - through tax-funded subsidy, through our utility bills which pay to remove chemicals from our water supply, and through millions of hours of unpaid worker that farmers and their families undertake to look after the countryside.

Think like a river, act like a river catchment

Over several millennia, we have for the most part turned a natural landscape in to a food-producing landscape. It is a landscape we cherish – this is borne out emphatically in surveys. What strikes me, after a week of interviews and a year contributing to the Commission is that we’ve largely lost the ability to think at the scales that make the most sense in the natural environment.

We’re largely ignorant that our economic geography still reflects a response to our physical landscapes. 100 years ago we had lots more farmers in Parliament, and the average person, even if not living in the countryside, would have a broader base of knowledge of how to cultivate and cook food, raise animals and hunt them, using hand tools for gardening and fixing machinery. Diet would more closely reflect the region’s season’s produce, and life was generally less weather-proof. For all the advanced and specialised knowledge available today, most people aren’t supported to join up their knowledge, whereas a leading academic of 100 years ago could hold academic posts in zoology, botany, civics and sociology. Carrying our specialised knowledge, today we more often see the countryside through a vehicle window, and with a specialised lens as a place for recreation, for conserving biodiversity or for agriculture.

Patrick Geddes thought at the regional scale about the links between the products, tools and settlement patterns of agricultural landscape

The average person today travels four times the distance, annually, than the average person in 1950. The speed at which we travel affects what we notice, what we appreciate, and whether we can engage. Policymakers should spend a week on a bike, or a boat. With the myriad challenges we are attempting tackle, and the unique opportunity to redesign policy for long-term durability, I’m convinced we should look at our most durable underlying infrastructure. River catchments offer a natural scale at which to build accountability and integrate land use. We’ve got to rediscover this in order to figure out how neighbouring land uses and users can be accountable to one another, and how land uses and users can develop and spread practices that deliver multiple and simultaneous - rather than specialised - benefits.

Individual names in this article have been anonymised.

Follow the RSA's Food Farming and Countryside Commission on Twitter and Instagram

Jonathan tweets at @jschifferes


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  • Travelling slow gives time to explore and discover and actually see what is there sadly in our rushing world many appear to have lost the skills to do this. 

    There is an enormous divide between urban and rural in our society- I'd include in this many who go to live in the countryside  but don't really engage in the community or get involved. Many don't really engage with nature - we are producing a risk averse population who don't like mud or  bad weather ( recent LEAF survey) which needs to be addressed alongside education at all levels about where and how our food is produced including the implications of various systems.

    Totally agree about the need for not just interdisciplinary but truly transdisciplinary crossing traditional subject boundaries to take a joined up holistic approach and move from the current silo mentality and actually solve real world problems.

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