Collective Enquiry 1

23 November 2015

Agriculture developed around 10,000 years ago.  Over 1 billion people are employed in world agriculture and 40% of the Earth’s productive land surface (i.e. land on which plants will grow) is used for agriculture. Climate change is both a product of and an influence on agricultural production. On the eve of the United Nations COP21 Climate Summit In Paris we invite you to share your reflections on the following quote:

While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.Thomas Jefferson


To find out about COP21 click here. Further reading around COP21 can be found here. You can read an article about the relationship between Agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions here.

November 24 2015 01:00:00


  • Listening to yourself and others is at the heart of the Enquiry.
  • Try sitting quietly with the Enquiry and waiting a few moments for a response to surface.
  • Try and read through some or all of the other responses before you write your own, remembering to come back to the original question rather than responding directly to someone elses’ statement (although they may influence your response)
  • When writing your reflections it’s fine to quote other people or their writings but we are unable to accept web links or downloads.
  • You can write a maximum of 2500 characters (around 400 words). Please make sure that you send your response at the end of 20 minute your period and no later.
  • You do not need to fill the word count and you can contribute to the enquiry by offering a silent response. Send your form in at the end of the 20 minutes so we know you were present at the Enquiry.
  • Do not worry about your writing style.
  • Please do not comment on or rebut anyone else’s statement.
  • Although you may want to consider the Enquiry in advance try to come to the Collective Enquiry with an open mind and be prepared to write something unexpected.
  •  This is a space to share your thoughts whatever your levels of knowledge and experience drawing on your own feelings and contemplative insight as well as rational thought.


Anne-Marie Culhane

Anne-Marie is one of the co-ordinator artists on Field of Wheat.

Ruth Levene

Ruth is one of the co-ordinator artists on Field of Wheat.

The Collective Responses

Peter Allen-Williams

As a pragmatic engineer I was initially taken aback by this philosophical statement and found it hard to relate to positively. But that changed.

I found my way to a response by thinking about owning land. Why should this idea just apply to farmers? Ruth and I own a property, our house and the land underneath it. I thought about “owning” and the implications of the statement for us, Ruth and myself.

In Aboriginal society individuals do not “own” particular bits of land, but this is unusual as most of modern Western society is built on a concept, incorporated into law, of an individual or corporate body “owning” ie having rights, sometimes absolute and sometimes proscribed, over ‘property’ which includes land.

Ownership I realise, is for me, about stewardship and stewardship comes with responsibilities. Responsibilities to care and improve. In my pragmatic way, I interpret this as leaving something better than I found it, if possible. Quakers also recognise that we are stewards of what God has given us.

Looking back, I can see this philosophy has underlain many decisions I’ve made during my life.

We come into this world with nothing tangible and we leave it similarly unencumbered. So why are we here, if not to contribute using our talents?

2015-11-23 05:30:59

Ruth Allen-Williams

As with all land, property and possessions, ‘ownership’ is transitory. While I am privileged to be a guardian of what I ‘own’ during my time on earth, I need to take responsibility for that ownership, so that whatever I have will be passed on to those who come after me in a better rather than a worse state than it was before.

So, as a member of this Collective, I see myself as a temporary joint custodian of the wheat. As such I hope to do what I can to support Peter our farmer in nurturing and protecting both the soil and the crop. I see this as a privilege and a responsibility as well as an opportunity to make a small but none the less valuable impact on a tiny patch of treasured earth.

2015-11-23 06:00:49


Who owns the land is probably less critical than the attitude of those doing the farming
Maintaining the productive capacity of the land and the health of its soils in particular is the greatest priority
Only 100k acres of the UKs 43m acres of agricultural area are sold each year
Institutions individuals utilities and govt have long since taken over from the aristocracy as the primary landowners and the split between owner occupier and tenant is two thirds to one thirds
26% of holdings account for 76 % of farmed area
The current system of land ownership stifled progression by discouraging exit
Few businesses in other industry sectors own the factories they utilise
Is ownership essential? Does rent serve as a greater driver of innovation than land ownership seen as a long term capital asset
Do CAP payments stifle innovation and would their reduction or removal stimulate a restructuring of land ownership that would boost commercial productivity?
Any historic threat of land being nationalised has been possibly replaced by the nationalisation of what farmers can do with land – it is the freedom of use that is the issue rather than ownership

Whilst reflecting a joke my grandfather told me sprung to mind and although an old joke it does pose an interesting take on ownership and hereditary rights
And then :-

A walker is challenged by a Land owner

” get off my land – it is private ”

The walker asks ” how can it be private ”

landowner replies – ” it has been passed down through my family for many many generations ”

Walker asks ” so how did your original ancestor take ownership ? ”

Landowner. ” my ancestor fought a brave battle and we have owned it since ”

Walker replied ” ok take your coat off and let’s have a fight for it now “

2015-11-23 06:30:09

Jon Orlek

The quote for me opens up questions about the relationship between land ownership and collective use. Issues around speculating on economic land values, empty buildings, post-industrial re-use. I am interested in the ability inhabit, occupying and share within this context. Coming from an -architecture background I have looked at land ownership models that try to take land out of speculation – community Land trusts, co-operative organisations, asset locks, etc. – in order to pursue collective interests such as living together. Stewarding land collectively in this way is a very slow process. So potential for collective projects sanctioned by private owners is compelling. But is it the same?

2015-11-23 09:00:16

Nick Groom

We own a few acres on the moor, where we keep sheep. I say we ‘own’ it – we are I suppose stewards of the land, and are trying to return it to being both bio-diverse and also productive; we run a small sheep syndicate, harvest and give away hay, and have planted hundreds of trees with the help of local environmental groups. Next to one of our enclosures is a field owned by two sisters who have lived in Canada for decades. The story is that they wanted ‘a piece of England’. Their land hasn’t been farmed for years: it is derelict, overrun with bracken, the walls collapsing. Across the lane is a large complex of enclosures recently bought by a trust fund. The story about that one is that it has been acquired to prevent the local hunt riding over the land. That land too is becoming derelict, the gates and buildings are broken down, the pasture turning to wasteland. I look at these ruins and think of the generations of smallholders and farmers who built the dry stone walls, levelled the ground, tended their crops and livestock, and lived, if only a little, off their own land. They built their communities on mutual respect for their environment, their culture, and their corner of society. Seeing the wreck into which what was once their land has now been allowed to fall is heart-breaking. Possessing a title deed does not mean that you can do whatever you want with the land; rather, it carries responsibilities: responsibilities to meet with and learn from the National Park Authority, or the Forestry Commission, or DEFRA, but most importantly from local farmers. It is a bond that ties one to a community as well as to the countryside – and to forget or ignore that is to vandalize that community. So I wonder whether Jefferson is right. Does the land belong to ‘all the people’? Civilization is not a single, monolithic entity, but a spectrum of values and activities: there is not one but many civilizations some admirable, some reprehensible. Jefferson’s lines make me think about the need for small, sustainable communities to be renewing and revitalizing their relationship with farming land, for every member of that community to feel a part of that land, rooted in it, not resting in it – and distinct from other communities farming other land in other places.

2015-11-23 10:00:30


I reflected first on the word soil:

The basis of civilisation
All flesh is grass,
All grass grows in soil
Soil grows, forms, develops, slowly
Compared to an individual’s life span.

Soil is the most complex physical, chemical, biological system on the plant
Multiphase interactions – gas, liquid, solid – billions of bacteria, viruses, tiny creature invisible to the naked eye, fungi, roots, water, air.
It changes beneath your feet as you walk across it, or under them over time
It is a space-time continuum.

Then that:

Climate change, soil formation, continental drift and many earth systems work on timescales beyond human lifetimes, but are influenced by the short term actions of people everywhere.

Land titles, land use, ideas and laws of ownership,
All made up,
By different civilisations,
In different ways.
Increasingly homogenised around erroneous economics,
Short term, power related drivers of innovation,
Illusions of control,
Struggles over sovereignty, beliefs, ideologies.

We humans do not own the earth,
But we affect what happens on it.
The challenge of seeing all our civilisation as diverse expressions
Of ways of living in diverse cultures and environments
On a small, blue and white, pearl of a planet
Come down to how we share our resources, and cooperate to manage them for now and future generations,
And soil is a fundamental base on which that depends.
Healthy, living soils, farmed sustainably, for the long term.

2015-11-23 10:30:36

Stuart Allen

Initial thoughts of civilisation and how I question the extent to which it is civilised; to establish boarders and punish ‘tresspassers’ before addressing relationships, friendships, conversations… Much like the fight plant life has (ie trees battling for sunlight), we each seek fame and security in an ever evolving world of turmoil, tragedy and triumph in the face of existance. Life in relation to soil is a positive experience; flecks of tiny universes all rubbing up against one another; rolling past, orbiting, colliding like the galaxy we call home…
-Emma Lewis-Jones, Dance4

2015-11-23 11:00:30

Shelley Castle

I am an urban being and although I’m drawn to the land I know very little about it. I know it through food, film and story, although I now live a little more closely to it having moved to Devon 8 years ago.

I know one local farmer quite well. When I first met him what struck me was his intimate knowledge of the land he farms. Knowledge like folklore handed down through story and experience, his family having farmed that land for over 300 years. The way he talks about ‘his’ land is poetry although in some people’s terms he would be deemed ‘uneducated’, having been mostly schooled by the land itself and his farmer father. This intimate knowledge is the gold seam that runs through his relationship with the landscape. He seems to me to be one with badgers, diseases, weather, his sheep and orchards, as well as the wild areas he leaves through casual ‘neglect’ due to his increasing age. His knowledge and wisdom feel to me like a priceless form of education but one that is regularly undervalued and even mocked. Once the villagers came to help, now they aren’t even at home because they’re driving to Plymouth to work, and the distance between the people he works to feed and himself, the process of farming and land has become a gulf of which he is painfully aware.

I’m happy for a farmer to own the land because whether he owns it or not feels less important now than how he farms it. I’m scared of the ignorance and misinformation we all live by and I’m also nervous of theoretical solutions, utopia and ideals in relationship to the very ground we live on. I’m carried away by practical solutions, intelligent experience-led ways of living, reality. So for me Jefferson’s words, whilst stirring and vital, feel like they are from the very system they appear to want to challenge.

How ironic that this man fathered six children with his teenage slave, only giving the children freedom when they reached 21. I suppose what I feel about his statement is that in theory it might belong to ‘the people’ but in practice what do we know? I would love to know more farmers and I would love a future in which those farmers became more closely related with ‘the people’ so that collectively there is cross-pollination of ideas, passions, stories, experience between the land and everything that inhabits it, lives from it. It feels to me like that might be a more equitable and differentiated ownership than one which even makes ‘ownership’ as a concept so central.

2015-11-23 11:30:14

Emily Wilczek

“While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.” Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s statement is people-centric and places “civilisation” as the bedrock of life. Whilst I question the idea of land ownership (why should anyone have a right to “own” land that predates even the existence of humans), and could easily see myself agreeing with Jefferson, I would perhaps modify his statement to say that land does not belong to all the people, but to all the Earth. The complexities of our ecosystems are such that in the long term we cannot consider ourselves in isolation to the rest of the planet, and care for the ground beneath us should be for the greater good of all life, not just humans. We need to act consciously as caretakers of land that we have come to call our own, all the time recognising that the idea of private property is a fallacy upheld by current ideologies.

2015-11-23 12:00:20


Most of us pay little attention to those few inches of topsoil from which most of our food derives. In fact the very words we use, soil and dirt also carry pejorative undertones. There is a fear of the earth carrying germs which need to be scrubbed off with antibacterial soaps. Most of the microorganisms in the soil are beneficial, vital for our health and wellbeing. Children, playing outside, connected to the soil helps build immune systems. It is now known that our serotonin levels are enhanced by the living soil, making us happier. Years ago, adverts in the Farmers weekly, showed farmers in a perpetual battle against pests and weeds, which needed to be fought with military style tactics. The predominant mindset is still that we have dominion over nature which we can tame and subdue with our great intellectual powers. Agriculture allowed us to build our great cities and civilisations but they only lasted as long as the soil stayed productive. Annual flooding of the Nile delta brings with it fresh deposits to fertilise, enabling the ancient Egyptians to continuously cultivate. Other civilizations, without this annual bounty, destroyed their soils and ultimately themselves. Modern soils are being depleted at an ever increasing rate at the same time that our understanding of them is growing. Estuaries disgorge brown plumes, way out so sea, carrying away the heart of the soil. Ploughed land is the most susceptible to erosion, the industrial combination of chemicals, with enormous fields and heavy machinery are the main factors for the demise of our soils. Soils consist of complex interlocking systems of liquids, gases, minerals, kingdoms of life and dead organic matter. Yet we treat them as inert substrates to hold the roots of the plants. Many UK soils are now classified as dead; we lose millions of tonnes through erosion every year. This has to stop. The Curry report said that small mixed farms were the most sustainable, sustaining soils, wildlife, food security, employment and rural resilience, yet the industry of farming sells us the lie that big is better, more productive with fewer people working the land. This sold to us as a good thing as it frees workers from a life of drudgery. However most of the world’s food is produced by small farms, mainly by women and these, acre for acre are more productive and resilient than industrial monocultures which claim to be the only way to feed an ever growing world population, the very opposite is the truth.

2015-11-23 13:00:22

Carol Farrow

My immediate response to Thomas Jefferson’s quote was to think of the Enclosure Acts and their devastating effect on rural communities and small subsistence farmers in particular. The implications are much bigger than that of course and bigger even than Jefferson’s vision of “civilisation resting on the soil”. Indeed, the whole of our precious (and possibly unique) planet is dependent on the soil, and our oceans and atmosphere and the myriad of chemicals and life forms that constitute planet Earth. We’re all custodians of our planet and the farmer is custodian of the land he toils, whomever owns the title deeds (a mere human legal construct, after all). As a temporary custodian, the farmer needs to be mindful of the impact their choices have on the sustainability of the land and the planet, just as I believe we all should be. I have a great admiration for the small, independent farmers I’ve known who live close to the land they toil or the animals they tend on it. Their knowledge, care and respect for nature is awe inspiring and often unsung. They’re trying to be good custodians.
Field of Wheat has made me realise more than I have ever wanted to before, that we all need to think big. I, need to think big! The planet is being killed and poisoned by capital driven human enterprise. Collectively, we need to become more mindful and turn this around for the sake of future inhabitants, human and nonhuman. The world’s population is growing fast and a good proportion of it suffers food poverty. Growing crops instead of animals to eat could transform that and reduce some of the emissions harming the planet. I’m not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Not quite …but I do know I should be if I want to be a good custodian.

2015-11-23 14:30:20


As I read through earlier responses I realise how different my train of thought has been to the quote. However, as I am assured that all responses are equally valid I shall continue along this path.
The words “civilisation itself rests upon the soil” really struck me. It brought to mind how pretty much everything we use, everything we build our “civilisation” upon has its roots in soil. Every modern day resource can be traced back to the soil. Glass, metals that build aeroplanes, space rockets, mobile phones, the crystals and silicon chips inside and the external casing of our computers, even the materials used in the production of plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.
It struck me how removed our relationship from the soil has become- we walk on roads (made from soil/ tightly packed gravel etc), as Nicky said we quickly scrub the earth off our hands, we rarely make the connection between what we are using, creating, making, combining, squeezing, extracting and the very earth upon which life is supported.
Of course it used to be much more immediate- clay huts, wattle and daub housing, pots:- digging and creating in one continued action. And in some countries this relationship still exists. In some areas people eat clay soils as a medicine for treating diarrhoea and use them for treating skin diseases or ulcers. In some traditions (such as Uganda), pregnant women use clay from termite mounds as a source of minerals. Animals such as birds use sand to enhance digestion of food in their gizzards. Bentonite is used as a nutrient. Soil is also a source of salt for animals. Many antibiotics are based on soil fungi (e.g. Penicillium notatum).
In my world, we just go and buy stuff. With (and I speak very generally of course) very little awareness or connection to that beautiful rich and varied substance that we sifted through our fingers, breathing in its aromas, at the farm when many of us from this collective first met.
It saddens me.
And it makes me appreciate this project all the more, and it makes me appreciate this very earth all the more. Because for all of its debatable virtues and imperfections; “civilisation itself truly rests upon the soil”. Thomas Jefferson

2015-11-23 15:00:16

Tom Powell

The thought of common ‘ownership’ of land or soil made me feel that as a culture we are much more used to thinking of the oceans or the atmosphere as our collective responsibility, but don’t tend to think of the soil in the same way. It’s interesting that these days the term ‘the tragedy of the commons’ is synonymous with our inability to manage global sustainability problems in dealing with overfishing, oil exploitation and climate change, but is rarely linked, here at least, to its origin in the difficulty of sustainably managing common land as a loose collective of subsistence farmers.

The lack of relevance of the term to its original meaning really highlights the fundamental change in our relationship with the land brought about by the enclosure of the common lands and concentration of land ownership. Since very few of us are directly linked to the health of the soil for our livelihoods, we have lost a sense of responsibility for it. But just as we feel that our choices in what we eat or buy or how we travel can affect those other global commons, shouldn’t we try still to feel connected to the land through what we eat and how it is grown?

As a species, as ‘all man’, we have taken ‘ownership’ of the land by appropriating a truly enormous extent of it, declaring its use essential to our survival above that of other species. This isn’t a conscious decision made by the species as a collective, but now we’re aware of the fact, mustn’t we also learn to work sympathetically with the myriad processes and interactions that the soil facilitates, and take responsibility for ensuring that they function healthily on that land?

2015-11-23 15:30:40

Peter Lundgren, The Farmer

This is a challenging one.
The obvious inference is that the top 4 inches of soil supports all land-based life and therefore is of paramount importance to everyone. But within the quote is the more contentious issue of who should own the land.
Is it right that an individual can control assess to huge tracts of land and deny others the opportunity to live and work on the land? And is it right that only the wealthy can buy land? A couple of years ago I visited a MST farm in Parana, Brazil (MST is a landless peasants organisation capable of putting a million members on the streets in protest). This 400 acre farm had been abandoned by the owning family and had then been squatted by MST who claimed ownership and set up some 20 families who farmed their own rented block of land but managed the whole farm as a cooperative. The cooperative had set up a school and a cheese factory and it was obvious that this experiment in social ownership of land was working well with many families waiting their turn to join the cooperative. MST has squatted many farms successfully and amazingly they seem to get control of the land without anyone reaching for an Armalite and shedding blood. Visiting the farm and meeting some of the MST activists gave me an understanding of the issue but I can’t say that I know the answer – I’m fairly sure the MST approach wouldn’t work here!
I like to think that I’m reasonably relaxed about sharing my land with others but at the same time my family and myself have made sacrifices to buy this land and I would be loath to give it up – even if civilization had a better claim to the land.
And if civilization had the land what would it do with the land? I’m reminded of a story in the village where its said that a well know local wit (who’s name escapes me but we shall call Ken) was tending the garden of an elderly lady who lived on the High Street. The garden had become overgrown and untidy and Ken had volunteered his time to help the elderly lady. He was again in the garden working away on a Sunday morning when the vicar walked past. ‘Thats a good job you and the Lord are making of that garden Ken’ said the vicar. Ken replied ‘well that’s as may be but you should have seen the state of it when the Lord had it to hisself!’

2015-11-23 16:00:19

Lucy Neal

I think of humble earthworms when I think of land – hidden from view, oxygenating, replenishing, turning the soil; getting on with the business of making humus to help things grow. This keeps me focused on things that matter: land is part of Earth, an animate living being, not just a source of food, materials and energy. I recall a local resident where I live in London, Esther, explaining how she learnt land was sacred growing up on a farm in Ireland where earthworms cultivated the soil, moving whole stones to the surface when the family weren’t looking.

Keeping earthworms in mind scales things down for me, when reflecting on how the world’s urgent social and ecological problems boil down to being rooted in conflict for wealth and power over land. In England 69% of the country is owned by 0.6% of people – a pattern of privitisation that’s accelerated through our history from the enclosures acts – which we successfully exported across the world.

I wonder what Jefferson’s views were of English laws on that front in the 18th century? Were his Welsh/Scottish ancestors evicted?maybe his reference to ‘belonging to all the people’ comes from that?

The great poet John Clare, documented this period of loss and theft from the common wo/man: Oliver Goldsmith wrote:

A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more

Can we find a way to that kind of civilisation – where access to land and ‘her wholesome store’ has priority over increasing privatisation? The Isle of Eigg’s an inspiring example of community managed land, showing land’s fundemental to strong, resilient communities. Is a reclaiming of the commons possible? Will land reform in Scotland pave the way for more equitable access to land so that knowing the land can take precedence over greed for possessing it?

It’s possible Jefferson could not have foreseen a time when civilisation felt so fragile – certainly not the bedrock he assumed. The Dark Mountain manifesto observes this fragility: ‘we live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away and foundations snatched from under us’.

So, back to the humble earthworm. Darwin called them ‘small agencies’ within the broader agency of living things and marvelled at their earth moving qualities. We are organisms of the soil too and like them can change things for the better a little bit of soil at a time.

2015-11-23 16:30:56


At 75 looking back I can see changes in my attitude towards all of this. In my youth I never gave “the environment” a thought. Parents and relatives growing their own food was a fact of life and the enjoyment and sense of fulfilment they derived from this(as well as some of the frustrations) was never discussed, but must have been felt – particularly when the working week was spent in a repetitive and often boring job. Something of a revival is being seen latterly in this regard, as people queue for allotment spaces and community orchards are springing up, all with attendant social activities and its all good. None of this activity takes place on land owned by individuals but it does not seem to detract from the pleasure gained from both the produce and the activity. So maybe this is a start and a good example which most people can relate to, and in join in with, if they wish. As one grows older possessions, for their own sake, become more and more meaningless unless of course they have a sentimental or personal attachment and as my husband and I dispose of more and more of ours then there is a certain sense of euphoria attached to this activity! For the last seven years I have tended a garden in a rented house both for my own personal satisfaction and in the hope that when I leave it will be in a better state than when I found it – I was surprised and saddened when I learnt that when we leave it will probably be turned into an “infinity pool”. This in some small way enables me to imagine how devastating it must be for a conscientious farmer to see his acres and acres of land, whether he owns them or not, becoming more and more unproductive through forces beyond his control, such as climate change, and where careful “ownership” or “guardianship” can not longer be a guarantee of sustainable productivity, despite his best efforts.
Some nations, but by no means all, are paying lip service to the issues of climate change in the coming weeks. My worry is, particularly in the light of current catastrophic events, how progress can be made with environmental issues without the WHOLE WORLD taking these matters very seriously ….and potential devastation is in danger of being sidelined alongside other dreadful things which are happening right now on our planet.

2015-11-23 17:30:51


Ah the answer lies in the soil, this is the UN year of the Soil. I remember hearing an interview with a mining company representative – they were about to start mining in Devon, saying that everything was made from things dug up from the ground or grown in it. It seems that modern industrial agriculture is also an extractive industry in many ways with the soil becoming more and more degraded – and I felt for Peter describing how winter wheat has to be an option even though there are problems with it for the soil because of commodity prices.

2015-11-23 21:00:31


I wish to start this by saying that, as an earth scientist, I do not wish to draw a distinction between soil, land and the earth. Likewise I expand from farmer to owner, as I cannot see that there is a distinction between farmer, quarry owner, building owner, in terms of being steward of a piece of land.

Jefferson is well meaning, but really land belongs to all earthbound beings. We ignore this at our peril and ignore this we do. Life systems exist within the earth system with complete interdependency and in the same way that an organism needs the functioning of all of its parts to function optimally, so the earth needs all of it’s organisms. We each view our surroundings with a perception derived from our own experience and need, and those perceptions may become very much misguided if our influences are such. The concept of ownership leads to selfishness, which in turn leads to a loss of empathy to our fellow humans and our fellow living organisms. We believe we can rule them, control them and achieve success. But success is the same as failure in that it is only part of a process, and where does ruling and control lead us? To the need to rule and control more, and more, in a capitalist haze of perceived success. Fossil fuels have given us immense capacity to burn our way to great success. But we are cutting off the limbs of our Earth, and there are not too many to cut off before it falls to its knees. It will stand up again one day, but whether its parasite known as humankind remains on its back remains to be seen. With capitalism and consumerism we think we own the land, the water, the air, the earth.
Because we have forgotten, through the use of fossil fuels, that we depend on the land. Soon we will rediscover that the land owns us.

2015-11-23 22:00:15

Parsons Cerulli Family

Andro Linklater wrote a fascinating book on the history of land ownership (I’m unable to remember exact details) but he noted that historically, the value of land increased as owners (generally farmers) increased the fertility of the soil and made it more productive and able to support more employees. Linklater charts the history of land as capital, and the gradual shift from those that usede the land as a commons, to those that owned it and benefitted from its value as a financial asset.

As someone who has grown food on a few shared allotments over the years, I’ve realised both how much space is needed to grow a reasonable amount of food, but also the value of good soil. Our initial plot, formerly a garden run by the council, had been dosed with weedkiller and this had permeated the soil and caused plants to be stunted or die for a number of years. Our new allotment was inherited from a maverick organic gardener, who had died suddenly. Although the plot was chaotic and full of rubbish, the soil was incredibly rich, and sprouted a huge variety of plants, and our collective endeavours to grow food have brought satisfaction and reward to all of us.

Recently, as architects, we have worked with a group building new houses on a site in Sheffield which has now been classed as contaminated land – costly to remediate either by ‘capping-off’ with imported soil or impermeable paving, or removal and replacement.The land in this case has a market value as space, but a cost as ‘bad soil’. As the groups are keen to grow food on site, they must now pay for previous owners’ bad practice (and their likely cost-savings).

We can’t ignore the soil – everything comes from it, and returns to it, and so it the land must be a commons, with farmers acting as a responsible stewards in the interest of others – owenership is responsibilty, and temporary stewardship.

2015-11-23 23:00:40

John Letts

If civilisation rests upon the soil, then the demise of our civilization is inevitable unless we change our way of farming. We’re rapidly destroying the soil with the chemicals we apply to our crops. Ironically, we’re also destroying, with bombs and bullets, the civilizations where farming developed in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. Are these two things linked? We‘re told that farmers must use fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers in order to grow food to feed people, but this modern system of farming will not ‘feed the world’ and has much more to do with profit than necessity. In the early 1900s, when farmers began to use chemical sprays, most people were unaware of the impact these chemicals had on the environment and humans. For the last 50 years at least, the impact has been clear. Some farmers have chosen to opt out of the conventional system, but most have stayed within it because they couldn’t see an alternative or refused to see the alternative… and instead, witnessed the slow death of their farms economically and environmentally and of farming communities in general. And yet the experts still encourage farmers to get bigger, to buy larger tractors and combine harvesters, to use the most recently released wheat varieties and chemicals, and to maximise their yield at any cost – but the farmer get less per ton of grain today than he did 40 years ago, even though they produce 3 times as much grain. Who is making the profit? What is driving the system? Agriculture evolved because it was an necessary, and sustainable, way of feeding people. Early agricultural techniques did not kill essential soil fungi with fungicides, and today we have the skills to grow all the food we need sustainably, while also enriching the environment rather than destroying it. The corporate profit-drive state has harnessed individual desires and fears to create an industrial agricultural system that will eventually destroy the planet if we don’t change our ways. In the end we are all to blame. We bemoan the loss of high street shops and markets and thriving, human scale, city centres, but we shop at supermarkets and we fret when the value of our shares in Tesco or Sainsburys drops. It is us, the people, who have allowed this system to destroy our soil and our lives, and it is us who must stop it – by supporting and alternative. Linking with a grower is the first step. But it is only the beginning.

2015-11-24 00:30:59