Small-scale farming needs big-scale support

A cow posing on a farm's yard

A promising network of small-scale agroecological farms is spreading also in Finland, yet their potential remains untapped without active citizenship and a new economic strategy. The warm season is coming back, lawns are greening, trees are blooming, and birds are flying back north from their trans-continental winter holidays. The human inhabitants of Finland too are breaking free of their heavy winter garments and starting to enjoy the familiar caress of sunlight on their skins. Some of them may be taking a stroll around the several public parks of Helsinki and, if they happen to pass by Herttoniemi, they might stumble upon an unusual and yet well-known type of estate. A farm.

Farming at the heart of Helsinki

Stadin Puutarhuri is one of the many small-scale agroecological farms that are sprouting all over Europe. The importance of Stadin goes beyond the production of healthy food that regenerates the environment, instead of depleting it, as industrial agriculture does. The farm is an ideal place of encounter for citizens and food producers. This type of proximity farms provides residents with the means to reconnect with the rhythms and potentials offered by the local ecosystem in which they live. When next year the current growers, Tom and Emily, will move to Porvoo to their new farmstead, other like-minded entrepreneurs will take over. The new farmers intend to experiment with novel techniques, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) and self-harvesting, which will most likely strengthen the relevance of the farm for Helsinki residents.

A picture from the inside of a small-scale farm

Environmental awareness is growing in post-industrial societies. Better practices are necessary and contagious. Yet, far from following an exponential growth curve, agroecology is struggling with becoming the predominant form of food production and consumption. Why?

What is standing in the way?

Time in modern society is accelerating and life cycles of any sort are getting faster. However, agriculture cannot accelerate at the same rate without massively increasing artificial inputs; such as chemical fertilisers and pesticides, trans-oceanic commercial routes, monocultures, hefty machines, or the massification of productive infrastructure. These agricultural products are made available to urban dwellers, ever busier running their individual lives, by supermarkets, which have swiftly seized on the sustainability trend.

Mexican avocados, Spanish red peppers and pre-washed lettuce are wrapped up in disposable (yet ‘recycled’ or ‘CO2 free’, ça va sans dire) plastic bags and made ready to be consumed any month of the year. Grocery retailers are aggressively competing to keep prices low. Direct producers’ revenue is often less than 20% of the end price. The contemporary consumeristic lifestyle runs on a system that is highly incompatible with making agroecology and small-scale proximity farming predominant.

This apparent lack of alternatives speaks about entrenched economic power and conflicting interests. The agricultural sector is dominated by an oligopoly of basically four multinational corporations. In 2019, more than half of European agricultural land was managed by only 3 % of the farm enterprises. The latest wave of globalisation has seen an upsurge in the process of market-based capital accumulation. The big players are getting bigger, while the small ‘suffer what they must’. Ceteris paribus, the only chance for agroecology to become mainstream is the establishment of a franchising business of small capital-intensive, hence expensive, neighbourhood farms that work as sales arms of a handful of global multinational corporations. If this is where we are heading, a classical philosopher like Aristotle would ask: “is this desirable?”

A cow posing on a farm's yard

While changing both citizens will and market logic is a necessary component of the puzzle, it is not enough to ensure long-term changes on a planetary level. Since the aim is not to win a single battle, but not to fight the war in the first place, there is patently a problem of coordination and collective enterprise. In this scenario, the highest forms of collective organisation bear responsibility for envisioning the route ahead.

State power (and not exclusively at the level of the nation-state) should be harnessed to reach the object of social desire. Agroecological practices should be ascribed to the core of new imaginaries, such as Green New Deal plans. And the starting point of these state visions should be a systematic re-localisation of economies, whenever possible, and by all means. To secure these measures for the long-term, agroecological principles should be discussed as a constitutional agreement that goes beyond the short-termism of individual legislative mandates.

Concluding with a feel-good remark

The task ahead is arduous and vast, but it also means that there exist several leverage points for change. Any action that can quickly transition agriculture away from the current intensive destructive practices is vital, either as individuals becoming more members of a community and less consumers, or as citizens collectively demanding a profound restructuring of our post-democratic institutions.

Some summer squash straight from the farm

Of course, farmers are at the core of this revolution. Even farms labelled as ‘organic’ are often far from practising the best available techniques, as those disseminated by virtuous entrepreneurs and scientists like Joel Salatin, Jean-Martin Fortier, Allan Savory, Richard Perkins, Chris Smaje and Michael Pollans, among others. These are supported also by movements and organisations such as Vía Campesina, Landworkers’ Alliance, the Savory Institute, that are spreading the principles of regenerative agriculture, holistic management, polyfarming, or community-based agriculture.

Back to our farmers, Emily and Tom, they are doing their best to ensure that Stadin will be a success story, regardless of who is in charge. Just like any other farmer involved in the agroecological movement, their goal is to spread hands-on knowledge about how to leave a better place than what they found. And now, after so many pessimist figures, allow me a conclusive and a bit cheesy remark: even without a land to manage or a gardening background, shouldn’t we all have the same farming mentality, and make sure we always leave a better place than what we found?

Pictures: Rubén Vezzoni

Ruben Vezzoni driving a car

Rubén Vezzoni works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. His research deals with the political economy of climate change, and more specifically with a critique of the origins and possible directions of Green Fiscal Policy. His PhD is funded by Nessling Foundation.