Regenerative farming and the education landscape

by | Mar 4, 2021

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation advocates a widespread transition to agroecological farming in order to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development goals. But we can only achieve this if we change the way we educate the next generation of farmers and producers writes our Regenerative Food and Farming lead, Caroline Aitken.

caroline aitken in orchard

TEN years is like the blink of an eye for the agricultural industry. The challenges we have seen this year arising out of the COVID 19 pandemic have shown us that farmers and producers can be resilient in difficult times.  They can change.

And in the next ten years we can expect more drivers for change to come from many directions; Brexit, environmental concerns as well as the potential impact of future pandemics.  At the other end of the food system these drivers are influencing consumer behaviour too, creating a shift in food culture which supports local sustainable farming and ethic food business.

Market research shows that: “Locally sourced, Fair Trade, and organic are increasingly important labels (to consumers) when buying food.” Farmers markets, delivery schemes and producer hubs have proliferated in recent years, competing with supermarkets on convenience, cost and choice. So, while nationwide we have seen a decline in medium to large farms, small farm businesses have been growing steadily for the last 15 years.

Community Supported Agriculture schemes (CSA), such as School Farm in Dartington, add a degree of security for the producer as well, by getting advance investment from customers who have a stake in a good local supply of high-quality food. Growing Communities in Hackney co-ordinates and supports a ‘patchwork’ of small urban and peri-urban food producers to supply farmers’ markets, cafes, shops and 1000 vegetable bags each week. Both enterprises have identified the need for training new entrants to this non-conventional approach. School Farm offers horticulture courses, while Growing Communities has its own training and start-up scheme. This kind of innovation is bringing change from the ground up; new enterprises like this are not waiting around for legislative support and subsidies.

Attitudes amongst conventional farmers are also shifting.  Recent studies have shown that they no longer use maximising productivity as their primary measure of success.  Now they also consider the protection of wildlife and natural resources as important aspects of their profession. There is growing interest in agroecology amongst all kinds of farmer, but this new approach requires a new set of knowledge and skills. overnment support and incentives would undoubtedly make transition easier for most farmers, the importance of training and education cannot be understated, and currently formal education in Britain is lacking.

In 2017 I carried out a study of the current educational provision for regenerative food and farming in the UK which revealed large gaps in further and higher education for sustainable and regenerative farming in Britain. Most courses focus primarily on conventional (large scale, chemical, specialised and mechanically intensive) practice and markets (supermarkets, global commodity markets), with sustainable practices and markets either not mentioned at all, or perhaps offered as an optional add-on to a standard course.

This has left those drawn to working in sustainable agriculture relying on short courses and personal study which tend to focus on specific practices rather than looking at principles and approaches. Business skills in agriculture courses are focused on specialised production for mass markets. Learning how to deal with supermarkets may be important for many farm businesses, but it’s not the only option and it leads young farmers into a challenging and fragile marketplace and often away from the agroecological transition.

I found that many new entrants to sustainable food and farming are non-agriculture graduates and career changers who are drawn to the lifestyle, culture and ethics of the movement.  Many had gained practical skills through volunteering, working on farms or taking short courses, but they struggled to gain the skills required to set up and run a small farming enterprise. Many cited this as their biggest challenge and some as a reason for failure.

Small mixed farming is a highly knowledgeable and skilled profession, and business skills are key to success, especially when looking to access local markets in innovative and collaborative ways. At Schumacher College we have now launched UK’s first undergraduate degree – BSc Regenerative Food and Farming – dedicated to training up a new generation of agroecological farmers and ethical food entrepreneurs. The College, part of the Dartington Trust, is set on the 1,200 acre Dartington Estate, close to the Transition Town of Totnes, where students will be able see theory in action and have the opportunity to learn from real pioneers and working food and farming businesses.

2030 is rapidly drawing closer, and educators must respond rapidly to the needs of new entrants to food and farming. Last year after wide consultation, the RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission created a 10-year transition plan.  And in France, the Ministry for Agriculture aims to transition to agroecological systems by 2025 and it has called on other EU nations to follow suit.

The growing network of small mixed farms using regenerative methods and serving local communities is the seed of transition, and now is it’s time to grow; the small guys are the big picture. The choices we make in the next ten years will determine the future health of our landscape, the biosphere, our economies and the food security of our family and our communities and thousands like them around the globe.

Caroline Aitken is leading the development of the Regenerative Food and Farming learning across Dartington Trust, with a particular focus on the new BSc in Regnerative Food and Farming at Schumacher College. The degree has brought undergraduate students back to the estate for the first time in ten years.