Is small holding the future of farming? Nick Meynen reports from Flanders’ field.

There’s a fast-spreading farming model that gives farmers hope, spares soils and cures our climate. Belgium farmer, Tom Troonbeeckx, explains: “It started with 50 people paying me at the start of season one for a share of the harvest. They come whenever they like and take what’s ready. As much as they can eat.”

This open-access farm-buffet is based on trust, and apparently, it works.

Tom’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm was Belgium’s first, but things snowballed from there. Fifteen years later, Tom feeds 300 people – including me. His volunteers started other CSA farms and today there are 50 of them, in Flanders alone. In Belgium, tens of thousands of people now get good vegetables and fruits from CSA farms. Unlike Prince Charles’s farms, Tom needs no taxpayer money.

The secret of his success is certainly not technical. What little machinery there is on the farm looks like it came from the time when the tractor was cutting edge. Tom’s innovation is social and ecological.

We trust our farmer because we have eye-contact with him. That sounds simple but it is revolutionary. Decades of industrialisation in farming have increased the distance between consumer and farmer to a point where very few people can say they know where their food comes from, let alone that they know who produced it. The scandals in the food industry and the raised awareness around a healthy diet have created a need for trust in the food we eat. There’s just nothing that beats eye-contact for creating trust.

But the genius of CSA farming is that farming is just the start. In today’s society, creating community gives roots to the CSA farm. In our farm we started organising farm-parties with food workshops, live music and a big campfire. This helps to bond with the place and the other people. And, in turn, it helps when Tom asks for a couple of helping hands for a workday a few times a year. People mostly show up because they enjoy helping for a day.

CSA farming is a win-win-win – for the farmer, for us, clients, and for the environment. Tom loves talking to people who eat the fruits of his labour, instead of negotiating with a big buyer. Important for him is also that the risks of the farm are shared, because we all pay upfront, no matter how good or bad the harvest will be.

But what’s in it for consumers? Well, for starters, the shop is open 24/7 and has way more vegetable variety than the average shop (OK, we don’t get avocados). The food is organic, fresh and local. We feel better knowing that for our food, there will be no mega-machinery, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, packaging, truck cooling, supermarket heating, shopping carts, lift trucks or parking lots. That’s also the third win. After all, the average consumer burns four barrels of oil a year by just buying food at the supermarket. But Tom also boosts biodiversity. He keeps our seed heritage alive after over 93% of seed species were lost forever in the previous century.

“The risks of the farm are shared, because we all pay upfront, no matter how good or bad the harvest will be.”

Environmental and social justice are core ingredients of CSA farming. Hard as it is to imagine, we choose how much we pay for Tom’s work. Tom leaves it to us to consider if we find ourselves below average, average or above average earners. He names the average donation he needs to make ends meet and then lets us choose, within a certain range, how much we want to pay. It’s the price of a smartphone.

CSA farming is about relocating the supply-chain, reinvigorating a sense of community and redefining the value of money. Consider this: on the day Lehman Brothers went belly-up, several bankers made frantic calls to their wives telling them urgently to stock up on supermarket supplies. They thought that the money system would freeze and supply chains would grind to a halt. Industrial agriculture will at some point crash by a lack of both oil and soil. Will you have an insurance policy for that?

People sometimes say it takes character to go to the farm every week, rain or sunshine, to do your own harvesting. There’s a mental hurdle to take in the pampered society we live in, but it is not more than that: a mental hurdle at the start. Most people who jump stay, because the experience of CSA farming turns out to be beneficial for much more than access to good food. Some even see it as a spiritual reawakening. But while the motivations to embrace CSA farming are personal and diverse, the facts are all pointing in the same direction; it just makes a whole lot of common sense to do it.

According to the Food and Agriculture organisation, our farmland is good for another 60 years. Industrial farming now consumes soil over a 100-times faster than nature makes soil. When push comes to shove, mankind is little more than an upright chimp nurtured by a thin atmosphere above and an even thinner band of soil beneath. We need both. It is the continuation of industrial agriculture and the false belief that we can just continue to do what we do now that is truly scary. Even a group of scientists paid by the UN’s Trade and Development Agency now says that “Small farms are the only way to feed the world.” Another study showed that people who work small vegetable gardens produce four to 11 times more food per hectare than large-scale farmers.

I asked Asger Mindegaard, who works in the European Environmental Bureau’s agriculture team, for his 50 cents on what the future of farming in Europe looks like. He pointed to the importance of the current reform process of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy. Details are yet to emerge about the European Commission’s new Farm-to-Fork strategy, but Asger hopes to see a major role for systems such as regenerative agroforestry. “Trees on farms will be an important part of a more sustainable, productive and resilient agriculture in the future. But it is important to choose the right species, location and configuration. When done well, regenerative agroforestry can bring profound benefits to ecosystems, farmers and consumers.”

“Industrial agriculture will at some point crash by a lack of both oil and soil. Will you have an insurance policy for that?”

For the future of farming, distance to a city or centre with high population density might matter a lot more than it does today. When a critical mass of people lives near to fertile land, CSA farming seems the obvious business model. For more remote agricultural lands, regenerative agroforestry on small farms looks promising. Why don’t we stop taxing people to pay for a massive subsidy scheme that is wrecking our soil, planet and farmers … and use just a fraction of it to train farmers on how to transition to CSA farming or agroforestry? The current way we feed ourselves, through industrial agriculture and importing 40% of what we eat to the European continent cannot continue. But whether you are a doomer or eternal optimist doesn’t really matter because the data are what they are: industrial farming is a giant sinking ship. It is in your self-interest as well as in the interest of the generations after you that you jump ship as soon as you can.

Nick Meynen

Nick is a professional environmental activist with as job title “policy officer for environmental and economic justice at the European Environmental Bureau”. He’s also an investigative journalist and author of …

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