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Fruits and thorns of scale

These birthing years of Middle Ground Growers have taken us on a collective journey of human scale farming in a world of mechanisation and disconnection from food, giving us a taste of what ‘Small is Beautiful’ feels like. We aim to reach appropriate scale for our farm and enterprise and then to multiply and pollinate to have many more regenerative farms in the region, rather than one farm growing endlessly and dominating. Small is indeed still beautiful, to build on E.F Schumacher’s thesis (Small is Beautiful 1984), and this message is ever-more relevant in today’s world where very few areas of life are at the human scale. We exist in a culture of ‘gigantism’ and exponential growth – a paradox and impossibility in a world with planetary boundaries, many of which we have already exceeded (Rockstrom 2009, Raworth 2016). Small is not only beautiful, but it is also pragmatic, ecological and necessary, as a previous blog post explored. This writing aims to further this inquiry and deepen the prognosis, adding in the nuanced lessons that come with finding an appropriate scale in todays world.




 

Small is beautiful, and it is also not to be over-romanticised or dogmatised. Here lies the nuance, we need to find appropriate scale, and think on an ecosystemic level like nature, whilst rooting our actions in the here and now locality of our being and becoming. Nature does not garden or farm in a small, fenced area measured by acres or tractor alleys. She gardens and tends to the whole earth, with each species expressing themselves and their gifts to the ecological web of continual regeneration. We need to not idealise any specific scale, but to hold the ecological scale in our hearts whilst acting on a local level in our place. So small is indeed beautiful, and we need a restored balance towards this in our world of gigantism, but we also need to tend to the whole garden of earth beyond our fences and siloed bubbles. It’s very easy on one level to create a paradise lot and keep our tiny piece of earth or garden nice and beautiful, and this is a great act of love in itself, but it is just the first step into caring for all land, places and beings equally. Tending a small-scale garden patch is a gateway drug towards tending the garden of earth, and engaging in the wider work to regenerate a bioregion, a water catchment area, a forest or another ecosystem. This does not mean we need to individually do all of this work at once. It means we need to shift our mindset, root our action in the wider ecosystem, and open to collaboration across boundaries. As we know from psychological research the global climate narrative can actually be disempowering and counterproductive at times, as it is too big to consider and process into action for most people (Hoggett 2019). The place-based narrative of community action towards local solutinos (with some global thinking and wider ripples) is much more empowering, pragmatic and accessible.




 

“We cannot do great things. Only small things with great love” Mother Teresa

 

A few decades since Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and the world has got bigger in many ways, larger and larger companies and farms dominate the landscapes and techscapes, whilst individual lives have got overwhelmingly global and big from the 24/7 device in their pockets. None of this has necessarily helped the earth, or made people genuinely happier it seems. We are also approaching an AI world, where scale potentially melts into a pot of technological battle for ideas within an attention economy. We are accelerating blindly into a world where the human-scale real life work is lost, where hands are on phones rather than in soil, eyes are on screens not the stars. We consequently are gaining endless stimulation and ‘knowledge’ at the cost of wisdom, presence and rest. We can, however, create and choose our future realities, with the values we act from and the tomorrow’s we create in today. Part of this work is to reclaim human-scale work and regenerate our relationships to land, people and place. These relationships feel more possible and meaningful in a human-scale growing operation. Rather than one man on a tractor on 1000 hectares growing one factory crop sprayed with toxins, or a dystopian robotic lab-grown food future, we can instead co-create a human-scale food system, voting 3 times a day with every bite of regenerative food, and with every conversation we have, with our career choices, how we educate our children about food, and the choices we make about scale.

 

Small is beautiful, but the question of scale is not straightforward or black & white. Living the question of scale is a journey we are all on at individual and collective levels. At Middle Ground Growers we have tried our best to navigate between the ideal of small-scale distributed food systems, and the pragmatic need to reach appropriate scale of impact and capacity, and to think like an ecosystem/bioregion. We began as a tiny veg box scheme of 25 members a week receiving fresh organic produce delivered by bike within a 1 mile range. Now, just a few years later, we supply nearly 200 veg boxes per week, a farmers market and 12 local outlets in town. Its been really beneficial to ‘upscale’, both ecologically and practically. With a wider customer base and reliable monthly income, we’ve been able to choose electric bikes for our deliveries, pay 5 growers a living wage year round and invest in the tools and infrastructure that allow our work to be done effectively and enjoyably. Its still tight economically, as most veg operations are in todays economics that don’t value primary producers. But we make it work, in our drive to rebirth this local food culture into the new reality. Our work is having much greater social impact as we grow, able to host paid traineeships, offer volunteering opportunities, and deliver to more homes on a sliding scale accessible pricing scheme.

 



Despite these (and other) benefits of finding appropriate scale in our context, it also comes with its challenges and thorns. As the organisation grows, we come up against the existing defunct systems which manifests as a many-headed beast. From dysfunctional planning systems who privilege the NIMBYs, to legal systems who serve the wealthy, to landlords who evict at a whim, we have faced 3 years of challenges from today’s paradigm. This is a sign that the work is becoming more impactful, and actually challenges the existing systems of power which are destroying the Earth. As we grow we also face an array of regulations and procedures built for and by industrial farming industries, which surmounts to what feels like a different safety inspection or regulation every week – despite our food being grown without any toxic chemicals unlike the majority. The trust of farmers has gone, along with people’s connection to their food source, and bureaucracy has taken over in a commodified labelled world of extractive supply chains. With scale we also reach challenges of potential mission drift and ethics of compromise. Our local bike delivery was entirely feasible and practical when cycling to 25 homes within 2 miles. Now we deliver to nearly 200 homes on 3 electric cargo bikes, and deliver tonnes of wholesale and market produce on these bikes every week – which takes its toll on them (and us sometimes!). We’re blessed with an ace mechanic/welder Sammy Elmore, and a team committed to sustainable local delivery ethics, but some things are just inevitably more difficult with scale.  




 

With a growing customer base we have to approach our ‘product’ differently to cater to a wider audience, beyond the early adopters and the environmentally-minded folk who were our core crew in early years. As we reach out to more people, we reach different expectations and norms, more accustomed to supermarket food and highly identical, packaged, uniform produce (artificially made so at the cost of nature and food waste, but its what looks good on the shelf in this commodity food culture). So we have to meet a higher standard of appearance and uniformity to sell to wider audiences and for our wholesale demand. Our local organic produce is real, alive food grown without chemicals and with love, and is vastly better in terms of quality for health, planet and people. But this doesn’t always reflect in pure aesthetics or uniformity, for the simple reason that nature doesn’t work like a factory. We can of course make things look better and meet the world of demand where its at, but at the end of the day this will lead to wasting more food and discarding perfectly good crops (as the mainstream food system does, to a tune of 30-40% of all food wasted). We can coat food in chemicals and plastic to give some aesthetic retail illusion to disconnected consumers, but this is not what we’re doing this for, so we choose not to take this compromise. Other compromises are a more difficult decision – for our customers receiving a weekly fruit box from us, do we supplement this from farms further afield when the local and UK supply inevitably runs out by the Hungry Gap? Or do we pause fruit boxes and lose the income and customers, yet knowing that people will still eat fruit and likely source it from a less regenerative source, less organic, not delivered by bike, not zero waste packaging etc. These sorts of decisions come in each week, as we navigate finding a healthy scale whilst maintaining our values, vision and mission in a world seemingly at odds with them.   

 

This is where the power of Community Supported Agriculture comes in. We learn and grow together with our communities of supporters, and gather their collective wisdom to make the best decision for people and planet, all within keeping a functional thriving project going and providing our growers with a real livelihood. We communicate the dilemmas and make a collective decision, for example to charge £1 for our bike home deliveries, so that we can cover the bike costs and time adequately, and we offer a sliding scale accessible pricing so that this increase doesn’t prevent anyone from eating local organic food – a right we believe everyone should have, but one that also needs support from our local and national institutions. Food and land subsidies continue to reward the larger scale conventional farms, leaving small community farms out the picture, and there is little support to reduce food poverty or make resilient local food systems that benefit all. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) takes matters into our own hands and says we won’t wait for these top-down solutions that seem so far off in today’s upside down world of ‘leadership’.  CSAs entail a relationship between the grower and the recipient community of food/nourishment, and the risks and rewards of farming are more evenly distributed. This is a model we move continuously towards, to engage our community more in the growing and take them along on the learning journey with us. Our vision is for many CSAs of appropriate scale, one for every village or region, that can autonomously grow for people on their doorstep, whilst being part of a healthy wider regional food system in which we support each other. This movement is emerging in our Avon bioregion and seeking funding and support, see weareavon.com for the wider vision and mission.

 

Ultimately it is up to each individual farm and project in their context to find their sweet spot and appropriate scale, and its difficult not to be dragged into the dominant ‘get big or get out’ maxim that dominated the 20th century and took us on this disastrous path of monocultures, top soil loss and ecological decline. In reality many of these giant farms are in debt and reliant on subsidies, whereas there is a new wave of appropriate scale farms supplying direct to community, who are thriving economically and ecologically even in todays challenging conditions. The ‘get big or get out idealogy’ was driven by the economics and mindset of yesterday, not driven by the choice of farmers who care for their land. Its an ideology no longer useful to us as farmers or to the land we care for in the long term.

 

The ‘answer’ of scale will be different for every context. There are many wonderful examples of 100 hectare plus regenerative farms that do indeed think and act on an ecosystem level, mimicking nature and producing abundant food, such as Mark Shephards New Forest Farm (see Restoration Agriculture 2016). Our main growing base at Weston Spring Farm feels like an appropriate scale and ‘middle ground’ at 15.5 acres, where we grow a huge abundance of food from just half this land, and leave the rest for nature. And yet our vision for appropriate scale also goes beyond the farm boundaries, as we collaborate with other growers in the region for an emerging Producers Co-operative to provide a range of year-round regenerative foods for our communities, and we envisage a wider Land trust to free up areas for new entrant growers and regenerative projects across the whole bioregion. In this way we aim to engage with the ecosystemic and bioregional mindset, whilst rooting our action at the local, place-based scale. A beautiful scale is not small, large, 1 acre or 100 acres , it is the scale at which the human heart can feel at home and give back to life.

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