THE REALITIES OF industrialised farming contrast painfully with the pastoral notions of an agricultural system that many people still hold dear. Rural communities are dying all over the industrialised world, yet its food system appears to go from strength to strength. In the mid-west, grain bowl of North America, and home to generations of family farmers, gavels are still smacking down on piles of rusting machinery, mournful animals, and acres of desolate farmland. The life and history of farm families are being dispersed to the four winds. Farms are swallowed up, so that another farm can compete better, until that too needs to get bigger again. During the past fifty years, four million farms have disappeared in the USA. That is equivalent to 219 for every single one of those 18,000 days. In the UK, 11 farms per day have closed.

Many advocates of economic progress and efficiency say these are predictable losses, and inevitable if we are to have progress. Farmers increase their productivity, the inefficient farms are weeded out, and the remaining ones are better able to compete on world markets. But each of these lost farm families used to have a close connection with the land, and with other farms in their communities. When they are disconnected, the memories and livelihoods are lost forever. Strangely, we call this progress.

In the 1940s, Walter Goldschmidt published a famous study of Californian rural change. He studied the two communities of Arvin and Dinuba in the San Joaquin Valley, similar in all respects except for farm size. Dinuba was characterised by small family farms, and Arvin by large corporate enterprises. The impact of these structures of farming was remarkable. In Dinuba, he found a better quality of life, superior public services and facilities, more parks, shops and retail trade, twice the number of organisations for civic and social improvement, and better participation by the public. The small farm community was seen as a better place to live because, as Michael Perelman later put it: “The small farm offered the opportunity for ‘attachment’ to local culture and care for the surrounding land”. A study thirty years later confirmed these findings – social connectedness, trust and participation in community life was greater where farm scale was smaller.

Various agri-environment schemes and organic farming support schemes, in Europe and the US, have been implemented in recent years to promote more sustainable farming practices and enhance the farmed landscape. There is some evidence from such schemes and projects which suggests that measures to increase agricultural sustainability, whether in the form of habitat improvement, integrated methods of production, or whole farm changes can lead to increased demand for on-farm employment. In particular, it has been generally recognised that labour use per hectare is higher on organic farms than on big industrial farms. More labour use arises because of more labour-intensive production activities including more complex rotation systems and mixed farming, a higher share of more labour-intensive crops (e.g. vegetables and fruit), less mechanisation and more on-farm processing and direct sales activities.

RECENT RESEARCH INVESTIGATED the amount of labour used by organic farming in the UK and Republic of Ireland by surveying 1143 organic farming enterprises. The 182,000 hectares of organic land on the sampled farms comprised 24% of all the organic and in-conversion land. Findings showed that organic farms employ 2.91 FTE (full time equivalent) jobs per farm compared with 1.24 FTE per conventional (non-organic) farm. Organic farms in England employ 3.4 FTE per farm, with those in Scotland employing 3.1, in Wales 2.0, Northern Ireland 1.8 and in the Republic of Ireland 1.6 FTE. The FTE per area for organic farms in the UK (4.3 FTE per 100 ha) was almost twice that for conventional farms.

Jobs per farm and per area varied substantially with enterprise type and farm size. Comparisons for the same broad enterprise type showed there were differences in jobs per farm and per area between English regions. Organic farms with processing and direct sales operations employed more (3.82 FTE) than those farms that did not (2.33 FTE per farm).

Small farms employ proportionally more people per area than large farms. The potential jobs dividend in the UK and Republic of Ireland if 20% of the farms of both countries were to become organic (compared with the present 1-2% of farms) would be an additional 73,200 and 9,200 FTE jobs for each country respectively. This amounts to increases of 19% and 6% over the current jobs in the farming sector. Organic farming already contributes to rural economies by supplying more jobs than conventional farming. An increase in organic farming area and number of farms would further contribute to the economic success of rural communities through increased on-farm jobs, and particularly if farm enterprises added value through processing, direct marketing and sales activities.

Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, has long drawn attention to what happens during an agricultural crisis, which he says, is a crisis of culture: “A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among people soundly established on the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the Earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country… If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility now perishing with them, we will lose it altogether.” The central question is really this: are we content with agricultural systems becoming larger in scale and producing anonymous commodities, or do we expect something more from them? Small family farms, especially if they are organic, do more than just produce food. They help to build a tangible culture of connections to the land.

Jules Pretty’s new book, The Earth Only Endures, is published by Earthscan.