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Keeping hope alive in the darkest night

Structural barriers, challenges and struggles in the work of making sustainable farming a reality

This communication aims to shine a light on the often underappreciated struggles and tensions in making sustainable and regenerative farming a reality. These challenges range from the interpersonal to the systemic, and all of the dynamic tensions in between. The essence of Middle Ground Growers and its name origins are rooted in that dance between polarities and the pragmatic navigation of the middle ground, between ‘where we are now’ and ‘where we want to be’. As explored in previous posts, the ‘where we are now’ is pretty dire in terms of ecological decline, only 50 harvests left at topsoil erosion rates (UN 2015), the sixth mass extinction of species (IPBES 2018), society-threatening climate change (IPCC 2022) and the social-spiritual disconnections that are tied into this complex global problem (with localised solutions). Given that the lion’s share of emissions, inequality and biodiversity loss is rooted in our land practices and industrial-colonial approaches, it is ripe time to begin bridging the gap between this predicament and an ecologically just and regenerative society. This bridging doesn’t come about from pure opposition and fighting against the status quo, and nor does it come from purely idealistic utopian visions or socially disengaged spirituality. Rather, it comes from a middle way approach that balances the oppositional and propositional, the adversarial and the exemplary, and the idealistic with the pragmatic. This sort of prefigurative activism requires and necessitates a transformative relationship with both the shadows of our selves and the wider structures of society. Practically, this means both doing the hard work of inner reflection to ensure we are not being part of the problem, and also a dynamic engagement with the challenging aspects of the status quo we wish to transform. This manifests in so many forms, from overcoming rural English xenophobia to working within a planning system built for the middle ages (and favouring the middle class).

There are so many challenges and struggles to explore, such as land access, training opportunities, cultural expectations of farming, economics of devalued food and many more barriers to the sustainable farming revolution, but this writing aims to specifically shine light on the story of the planning system and its structural tendency to inhibit small scale ecological farms whilst encouraging a ‘business as usual’ – that is, the business of further eroding ecology and entrenching inequality. This is not to critique the idea of planning policy in itself, but rather its outdated operating system which is not serving its original purpose. The planning system is actually something I agree with in principle, it’s the voice that says to individual landowners and developers “hey, other people have a stake in this land too and your decisions on it are not made in isolation – they affect the environment we all depend and they affect how our communities (and worlds) are shaped.” This is the potential of a planning system that is strong enough to stand up to destructive developments and encourage healthy developments that benefit ecology and community. This is where we could be, but here we are in this reality with a planning system that is actually blocking the emergence of viable small-scale farming, social resilience and genuine environmental solutions.

Our story of the past 2 years aims to shine a light on this reality, not as an armchair critique but as an opportunity for dialogue, reconciliation and transformation. Our story reflects one of many rural workers from low-income backgrounds and land stewards in their battle to simply be part of the solutions and live with positive impact. Many stories are more shocking and unjust, with some small-scale organic growers fighting for over a decade to simply have the adequate agricultural infrastructure to run a sustainable business from their farm – to grow food for their community and build local resilience. Meanwhile, huge developments on green belt land, non-affordable housing, mansion extensions and classic car garages in the countryside are granted permissions almost automatically.

Last year we applied for what should be a straightforward case of ‘permitted development’ on agricultural land, for a solar powered barn and two polytunnels, located next to an existing building of our neighbours Wessex Water, with visual mitigation through extensive tree planting and landscape design. We wanted a green roof and landscaped earth to set the building more into the landscape but the planning system encouraged a concrete roof and no landscaping works, so we conceded and altered the design, and then compromised more on barn location, features and practicality. Over 1 year on and we have been through 5 planning officers, over £12,000 in costs and an equivalent amount of stress. After being finally granted planning permission last Autumn, we successfully raised £95,000 with over 500 supporters in a crowdfunding campaign, enabling us to create the farm and set up the essential infrastructure to feed hundreds of local people. We have an existing agricultural business, run growing apprenticeships, employ people and have been providing food for local community, all the while improving the biodiversity, soil health and carbon sequestration of the land we work with.

In 2021 we set to work establishing an Ecological Farm for Bath thanks to overwhelming community support. We planted thousands of fruit, nut and wildlife trees in appropriate places after over a year of ecological designing and surveying work. We created a no-till market garden and an agroforestry system incorporating fruit trees, perennial berry bushes, wildflower strips with vegetable production. However we couldn’t run operations in an organised effective way or grow year round produce until the solar barn and polytunnels were built. Just before these infrastructural works commenced we received a message from the local council that they were reviewing their decision after someone with lots of money and power had launched a legal appeal (a ‘Judicial Review’) against a minute procedural error by the council.

Essentially the planning system delivers output and decisions based on the time, resources, lawyers and consultants that are inputted by each respective party. The two opposing wealthy neighbours had more voice and power than a sea of support from thousands of people. The positive supporting comments outweighed the negative objections overwhelmingly. Meanwhile the objectors built what we assume is a classic car barn and extension (planning permission given seamlessly) to their million pound rural home approximately 70m from our proposed development. The added irony is that this barn was built on land that was historically Midridge market gardens, one of many local food providers for the city of Bath (which now imports 98% of its food, a food vulnerability trend we are aiming to reverse). This shift towards local food which we are driving is supported in principle, and yet the council’s planning and political systems action this with the opposite effect – to further marginalise and discourage young farmers and local food production.

The objection to our planning proposal was based on a minute procedural error (an error on the council’s behalf which we have also paid the cost for in over £12,000 fees, whilst the objectors had their legal costs reimbursed by B&NES council). The expensive opposition lawyers were able to unpick the procedural error, take it to magistrates court, get a letter stamped by the queen, and win, putting our crops and livelihoods further at risk – this was a win through money and power rather than a just process of deliberation. This meant that the decision had to be ‘redetermined’, starting the process again, another 6 months of costs and stress whilst the planting and growing season marched on and our minimum wage incomes suffered even further. We had to scale back and grow less food for community, we had to run a complex operation from a temporary shipping container over winter and spring, and had to make huge compromises on quality, care and worker well-being without the adequate infrastructure.

Meanwhile the objectors sat comfortably filming and photographing us from their manor house and devoted thousands more pounds, consultants and lawyers to do their dirty work whilst scaring local people and politicians into either opposing us or at least not supporting us – at a time when we desperately needed strong voices to speak up for what is right. Several council workers felt their job was at risk if they spoke up, highlighting both the influence of money in politics and the limited powers given to local democratically elected officers. Within the neighbourhood and behind the safety of a computer screen, they spread false rumours that we were forming an ‘Extinction Rebellion stronghold’, attacking us with similarly sensationalised online abuse, forming Twitter groups against our project, commenting cynically on every hopeful post we made about local food resilience, and worst of all tried to turn several farmers against us before we’d even got a chance to meet these people we respected greatly and wanted to learn from.

We had to limit access to the site, pause operations and cancel a farm tour for our crowdfunders, based on threats and elaborate complaints to the Planning Enforcement and Highways department – one complaint seeming to suggest that our delivery bikes for the veg boxes would somehow put lives in danger at the local school alluding to a tragic road accident years ago that didn’t even involve bikes, meanwhile their polluting sports cars and 4x4s drive up and down the road every day, presumably to buy food which we could be growing for them on their doorstep. But its this phrase of ‘on their doorstep’ which is the crux of the objection – they stated in discussion that they were not opposed to farming or to organic growing, but advised that we should “grow in Manchester or somewhere else” instead. Their view had been of a monocultural grass field (albeit sprayed with chemicals and fertiliser) for a long time and they didn’t want to share the countryside or experience the fear/uncertainty of change – despite our project really being a return to the market gardening and local food culture of Somerset’s heritage.

This story has barely skimmed the surface of our challenges this year, and it could go into more details of how the objectors went to every length to stop us, how we lost our land lease at another growing site due to the landowners ‘changing plans for the land’, how we lost a business partner amidst this time (in part from the xenophobia of the objectors), how Natural England threatened to stop growing operations (based on elaborate complaints from the objectors), how our access rights to our own land were falsely challenged by illegal trespass notices from solicitors, how our soil association organic certification was put at risk from the objectors efforts to spread misinformation, how we had further threats then planning enforcement officers come to the land for them only to apologise and realise we hadn’t done anything wrong… The only officers that have bothered to come to the site and meet us were overwhelmed by the discrepancy between complaints and reality – the reality being that the only inappropriate development was the classic car garage of the objectors and their large white house in the middle of the countryside.

All the while we’ve been running the operation as best we can, growing fresh food for 200 people each week delivered by bike, supplying more local restaurants and shops, shifting baths food supply to local and regenerative, training new growers, facilitating workshops, establishing 2 new market gardens with our previous trainees, collaborating with so many great organisations like Avon Wildlife Trust and Landworkers Alliance, speaking at local events to promote food resilience and sustainability, spreading hope, and so much more…

Last month, we finally reached the stage where the permissions were due to crystallise. The basis for recent months delays had been due to an obscure legal loophole that allowed the objectors lawyers to get a third party screening opinion as to whether the application needs an environmental impact assessment (which costs us over £10,000 and can take years and is not in the history of planning ever been deemed appropriate for simple agricultural infrastructure on agricultural land at our small scale). The case was pushed higher and higher as responsibility dissolved and power entrenched, until it reached the Secretary of State who confirmed that the development obviously does not need the EIA Assessment, therefore dismissing the objectors empty complaint which was really just a delay tactic. It appeared that the coast was finally clearer, just in time as the busy growing season was in full swing and we were suffering without any infrastructure, shade, shelter, packing space, safe storage or worker welfare facilities. The objectors then pulled out a highly unseasonal move, to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision and judicially review this process for the second time, signifying another 6 months or so delay and significant costs for us which we cannot afford as 3 young farmers who have already committed every penny of our own savings to give to this project, to offer to community in service, to give to life.

Once again our livelihoods, land, hope, spirits and mental health are thrown up in the air and handed to the fates of a broken planning system and cost/time-consuming bureaucracy. This is not to mention the indirect negative effects on hundreds of people, shops and restaurants that have committed to local food, and over 500 crowdfunder supporters that have invested to back this project so generously. Pitted against the entitlement of a wealthy objector and the injustices of a politicised planning system which favours business as usual whilst eroding our very chances for sustainable solutions, ecological restoration and local food resilience.

The story goes on, and we engage determinedly (if a little exhaustedly!) with the old systems and mindsets, because shifting these is one of the greatest (but not easiest) levers for transformative change. Trailblazing the way for this is not easy, as all the doors are currently closed to anything non-conventional, and the early pioneer projects have to blast them open to make way for others. So it’s not all sunshine and unicorns, but it is deeply purposeful and rewarding work, challenging us to grow into our potential each day through both the land work and all of the social engagement, conflict resolution and authentic communication required of us in this unique time. We may not have the resources or power-over that dominates the old systems of thought, but we do have an endless drive to channel our gifts into the regeneration of life, land and people. We’re here for the long term and we’re going to build this vision one way or another, but to do this we need help to sustain this momentum and to battle compassionately with love and rage against the financial resources, systemic inertia and institutional corruption of today’s dominant culture. We have strong intention to heal divides and break down the barriers that separate us, especially with those who have different opinions. We have an internal fire power and spiritual resource that is resilient to the turbulences of change work, however difficult the temporary struggles feel. We have togetherness, deep collaboration and an ocean of supportive people that understand the need for positive change. We not only have a clear vision guiding us, but we can taste this more beautiful future within each day and feel renewed inspiration from the harmonious re-integration of land and people in sacred work.

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