Oli Rodker of the ELC and Landworkers' Alliance

The future of land ownership: interview with Oli Rodker of the Ecological Land Co-op and the Landworkers’ Alliance

This week we’re talking with Oli Rodker, founder director of the Ecological Land Co-operative and the Landworkers’ Alliance, about his work, and how we might change the nature of land ownership in the UK, where 0.06% of the population own 50% of rural land in England and Wales, according to the Country Land & Business Association.

What do you do?

I’m a director of the Ecological Land Co-op (ELC). We make it easier for people to manage land, both ecologically and productively. In a way that’s also what I’m doing with the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA), which is an association of small-scale, ecological farmers and producers. The LWA works as a union to represent and help its members, and to try to change and improve policy. The ELC works in practice by setting up new small farm opportunities, and obtaining planning permission for a residential house for each smallholding. This is the challenging part of what we do.

It’s about growing good healthy food and managing land well.

Why do you do it?

Because we are in an environmental crisis. Our current political economy and the way we deal with resources, including the key resource of land is extremely short-sighted, and is pushing us ever-deeper into a serious set of environmental problems, around land use, water use, climate change, species extinction and inequality over access to resources. We’re deeply immersed in it via the way we do things in our culture and our economy, and while there are a lot of people working to try to move us in a different direction, unfortunately they don’t currenly hold many levers of power at the moment. In order to hold the powerful levers, you have to be part of the system of power, and once you’re part of that system, it becomes hard to promote an alternative.

How did you get into all this?

I was involved in environmental campaigning when I was at university. I had a passion for small-scale farming from my grandparents, who had a smallholding in Sussex, where I used to spend a lot of time, although I grew up in London. For a while I was making a living as a furniture-maker and doing woodland work, so I was interested in forestry. From that I became more interested in land use – especially why it was difficult to make a living from forest management in this country in a sustainable way. That led me into wider food and land concerns.

What successes have you had?

Baby steps, really. The ELC is a very small co-operative / social enterprise that is taking on a number of entrenched problems to do with land use and small-scale / ecological farming, so it’s been slow work. We’ve had to raise money, find the right people and work hard to get good decisions out of planning departments. We certainly haven’t ‘cracked it’, but we’ve survived and grown. We’re now a much bigger and stronger organisation than we were 6 or 7 years ago. We’re hopefully in a position now to have some clearer successes in the next couple of years.

At the moment we’re waiting for a planning decisions from a couple of councils, and we’re hopefully on the cusp of buying 2 more sites before the end of this year. I think that in 18 months we’ll be in a demonstrably much stronger position. But I guess our biggest success is that we’re still going, and a lot of people are looking at us and saying that they’re inspired by what we do.

And with the Landworkers’ Alliance?

We’ve got nearly 1000 members now, which is very good for a small, grassroots enterprise. We employ someone to keep admin and strategy on track. Again, we’ve grown, and a lot of people are now aware of us. We’ve produced some good written policy recommendations, and probably due to the Brexit scenario we’ve found ourselves able to get access to DEFRA and to talk to people about agricultural policy in a way that hasn’t happened in probably a few decades since we’ve been inside the Common Agricultural Policy, where getting any change was virtually impossible. Now change is certainly being talked about – we just don’t know whether they’ll be good changes. So we’re talking to a lot of people, so we’ll have to wait to see the outcome of that.

But aside from policy, we have a strong social network of producers and smallholders, that can help its members to improve and to show what’s possible in terms of a food production system that is both truly sustainable and very productive. We’re building solidarity, which is very difficult to evaluate, but it’s something that wasn’t there 10 years ago. We’ve trying to change and improve policy, but there’s nothing we can point to yet.

There have been lots of events, such as Farm Hack events, looking at farm infrastructure, that have helped small farmers to innovate and improve their business strategy. There are new digital systems that are really useful for small producers. The Open Food Network has done a lot of good stuff. There’s a lot more awareness of the problems and possibilities of ecological farming than there was – which we’ve had something to do with, I think. Plus we’ve got some funding to help us keep going for the next couple of years. New projects are being launched. There’s a plan for an allied network of retail trading outlets, called Better Food Traders, which will try to link up independent food stores, so that the food that members of the Landworkers’ Alliance are producing has a way of getting out to customers – mainly in the cities, in a really affordable way that allows us to reach people on lower incomes.

Maresa from the Community-Supported Agriculture Network told me about that too. I think Julie Brown is involved with it. I did a Permaculture course with her many years ago. I’ll have to talk with her about how it’s going.

Yes, she’s the person you need to talk to. She’s applied for some funding to try to get that off the ground. It’s only at the planning stage at the moment, but it’s got to come. It’s another part of the chain, if you like – to build a network of non-corporate outlets for food. We really need to replace the whole food system – from field to fork, as they say.

What’s a Farm Hack event, by the way?

Basically, a lot of small farmers and growers getting together to talk about the kit / technology that they use, or the ideas they’ve got about how to do things – practical ways of improving what they do. So it might be a bit of machinery on a tractor, or a hand-tool, or a digital tool – all sorts of things.

And the Landworkers’ Alliance is not just about food, is it?

No, we’re involved with forestry as well, and in fact any good use of land – ways of working it to provide needed resources. There are still good forestry and coppice workers left in the country, but not as many as there used to be. It needs policy change and better representation to improve their position, and we’re trying to help with that.

What are the biggest obstacles that you face?

It’s hard to know how to answer that because there are so many. If we start by looking at the history of land use in this country, and how so much land is concentrated in the hands of so few people, which means that most people don’t have access to land. That’s a major problem. Also, our current politics and economy, and the way that capitalism functions doesn’t make things easy. Planning policy is obviously a big one – and the way that planning policy is used, either intentionally or unintentionally, to prevent innovative ecological land usage. The urban / rural divide in this country is a problem – especially the way that people go to the city to earn money, then want to retire to a countryside that is green and pleasant, and doesn’t change, and looks pretty but doesn’t do very much, or employ many people.

So the problems are a mixture of history, culture, politics and economy. It all feels quite stacked against what we’re trying to do.

So how can these obstacles be overcome?

There are a number of ways they could be overcome, but I guess that in practice, what the ELC is trying to do is to become a strong, but still small organisation that can be a good model and a good example of how we can have democratically-controlled use of land, because our members control the co-op and elect the board, who make the decisions. So we’re a democratic organisation. We’re a community organisation because our farms are geared towards assisting their local economy – although we’re a community organisation that functions in a few different communities. We also limit the amount of interest that it’s possible to gain from investing in us as an investment vehicle, so that we can ensure that surplus is geared towards helping the organisation and the farms.

So we try to be an example that others can follow – that could create little hubs that are functioning in a different way from the mainstream economy. We can help develop a different culture, a different economy and a different politics, and hopefully a more equal and sustainable use of land and means of accessing resources. We’re hoping that other people in a range of locations might be inspired to do the same, and that these little hubs, together with national organisations like the Landworkers’ Alliance, with other similar movements, around community land trusts or social housing models, can start to exert enough influence to affect policies and the way that things are done in this country. We don’t have a blueprint for exactly how this could look like – it depends on a lot of different things – but we know the direction we’d like things to move in.

Haven’t some unlikely people been making some encouraging noises lately – like Michael Gove, for example?

He’s been making some potentially encouraging noises, yes. I wouldn’t say they’re exactly the right noises, because it’s impossible to know at this time how much he’s really committed to some of the things he’s saying. My perspective is that he’s a good politician, and he’s giving a slightly different story to different people, depending on what they want to hear. So to environmental groups he’s giving an environmental story, and to big conventional farmers he’s giving a story that’s much more about the status quo and ensuring that they don’t lose access to the chemicals and the systems that they use.

A subsidy system based on public ‘goods’ would be much better than a subsidy system for landowners based on the area of land they own. But we don’t know how much money is going to be available and we don’t how the detail is going to be worked out. So if a new subsidy system provides just as much money, but it goes towards helping ecological land use, then that would be great, but if it means that the biggest landowners still get the lion’s share of the money, and everyone else is fighting over crumbs, then it will be a missed opportunity.

At the moment, no-one gets any subsidies at all if they farm less than 5 hectares. Is there any chance that this might change.

There’s certainly been talk about it. The Landworkers’ Alliance have had talks with people in DEFRA about smaller businesses might amalgamate to put in a bigger application for subsidies. There are legitimate concerns from within DEFRA about the administration of lots of small schemes. For DEFRA, it’s cheaper to administer one big scheme than lots of separate ones. But at the end of the day, it needs to be possible for a small, maybe peri-urban market garden (a very traditional land use in this country) to get support just as much as for farmers growing thousands of acres of barley in Lincolnshire, for example.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Can you see any movement on that?

There’s movement, because after Brexit, there will need to be a new agricultural policy, and a new way of supporting farmers and people who produce food. If there’s no support, farming is far too volatile and to much a victim of global circumstances – both climate and economy – for people to be able to stay in it with any certainty. It’s impossible to know whether there’s a light at the end of the tunnel at the moment. We’re in a process of trying to make the outcomes as good as possible. That process is very much in the making, and it’s up to everybody to do what they can to make sure that any policy changes and support goes to good land use as opposed to bad land use.

The bigger environmental organisations have much more of an ‘ear’ inside DEFRA, as has the National Farmers’ Union, and we’re not really privy to all of those conversations. Although we’re being met and talked to in a way that would have seemed unlikely 5 years ago, we don’t really know what else is going on, or what’s going to happen. And even if we take Michael Gove at his word, we don’t know how long he’s going to stay in position. So it’s very much all to play for, and there’s a lot of work to do. It’s not a one-department issue either, as the ‘People’s Food Policy’ showed. It’s also to do with economy, finance, land use, labour conditions and a range of issues covering several government departments. That requires some overall strategic thinking with sustainability at its core, rather than short-term finance or votes. This kind of thinking is difficult to come by in government circles sometimes.

You mentioned the People’s Food Policy. You were involved in writing that, weren’t you? What do you hope it’s used for?

It’s a campaigning tool for a better food system. It talks about food sovereignty as an overarching goal and a theory, around supporting local producers and having an environmentally-sensitive production system, and it talks about the different things that are going to have to change if we’re going to have a better food system in this country. We import vast amounts of food that we could produce ourselves using a great land use model in doing so. At the same time, we could stop supporting all sorts of terrible practices overseas. To go down that route will require political pressure and for voters to show that they care about those things.

There’s an organisation in France called Terre de Liens that I believe you’ve visited. They started around the same time as the ELC, but they’re now many times bigger than the ELC. How did they manage that – what’s the difference between the situation in the UK and in France?

Well, it’s not because they’re really great and we’re rubbish – I promise. It’s a very different situation in France. Culturally and historically, they have a different relationship with food. They’re proud of their food production, and it’s fewer generations ago since most people had farmers in their family. Producing good food is part of their world-view of themselves, and there’s a higher level of care about land-use and farming generally. The UK industrialised first, and getting away from agriculture was seen as progress.

More specifically, France has a different legal, financial and fiscal framework, and it’s been much easier for Terre de Liens to raise large amounts of money to support what they do from private investment, based on the way that investments are taxed. It’s more beneficial for people to invest in TdL than the ELC. So they’ve been able to grow much more quickly, also based on people’s desire to see a local food system stay in place in France. They now have hundreds of farms around the country. They have an issue in that they tend to buy old farm buildings, and they often need a lot of upkeep, and small farm incomes are small, so it’s often difficult to maintain the properties. The ELC is about people building new homes, because the cost of buying existing housing is so exorbitantly high in the UK.

So they have different challenges, including the challenges that come with being a much bigger organisation. We see them as an inspiration and an ally. Actually there are similar organisations in quite a few other European countries, and there’s a network of them called something like ‘Access to Land’. So I’d say it’s a continental movement, and food sovereignty is a global movement – La Via Campesina is a global peasants’ movement.

What can individuals do to help, including small farmers?

Small producers cold certainly join the Land Workers’ Alliance if they’re not members already. They can also join the ELC and help make sure that we’re headed in the right direction. For non-producers, probably the most important thing is to find and support local, sustainable producers. In different places there are going to be different outlets. So in London there’s the Community Food Growers Network – a network of community gardens. There are similar groups all over the country.

After that, there’s all sorts of political pressure that can be exerted in terms of campaigning. There are documents that can help in this respect on the LWA website and the ELC website. It’s all about being in solidarity with local, sustainable growers, to provide them with income and to produce a stronger political movement. Power is still held very unequally in this country, so it’s up to the majority of us to find ways to work together.

That’s music to my ears. At Noncorporate / Lowimpact, we’re looking to help increase the market share of the non-corporate economy, which inevitably means that the market share of multinational corporations has to shrink. That’s very difficult, as they have so much wealth and power. What are your thoughts about that?

What we need is people producing the things that we need in a truly sustainable way. However, the word sustainable has been much abused, but in reality we still need to do it – yes, through co-ops or other types of social enterprises. It depends a bit about how we define ‘corporate’ as to whether corporations can be part of it – but I’d say not with the current model, i.e. not while shareholder value is more important than productive and ethical output. That can’t be part of a long-term future for our economy.

I agree that the word sustainable has been abused. I was reading somewhere recently that actually, ‘unsustainable’ means ‘self-terminating’ – i.e. something that cannot be sustained without terminating entity doing it. It’s not about saving iconic animals or feeling good about ourselves by recycling. If we are not living sustainably on this planet, we’re on a self-terminating path.

It’s too much for a lot of people to see, but I agree. Burning fossil fuels is in effect a life-terminating activity, and yet we all do it, because it’s so difficult not to. I drive to visit potential ELC sites, because life would just be too difficult and expensive if I didn’t, and I wouldn’t really be able to do what I do. I don’t fly because that’s not the case with flying. But there are some things that are very difficult to avoid doing. I guess lots of people say the same thing – but for example, I could visit sites on the train and with a bicycle. If we had the funding to pay for train tickets and for my extra time and hassle to do it, that would be great. I could work on the train – so maybe that’s something we can do soon, if we have the funds – if we could get some of the subsidy currently going to industrial agriculture for example – or if train prices fall! But at the moment we have to make decisions about how we allocate resources.

Do you have any thoughts about how we might co-ordinate and grow the non-corporate economy? How are we going to get off this destructive path that we’re on, in other words?

Sadly, I’d say that the evidence from history is that partly it will take some sort of major crisis or catastrophe, because only when people are faced with imminent danger or collapse do they seriously look at bigger and better alternatives. Otherwise they’re enabled to keep thinking that the status quo can be maintained indefinitely. Plenty of crises are already happening – there are food shortages, wars, droughts, desertification etc. We’re just largely insulated from them in the UK. When those crises increase in size and in geographical scope, we have to be ready with information and propaganda about sustainable alternatives. So its definitely not just about sitting around waiting for a crisis to hit us. That would be very short sighted. We have to work now to create the models that both improve things now, and that will be ready to grow, if things get worse. We have to persuade people that alternatives are viable, and we can only do that by building practical examples now. There will almost definitely be a movement of people with let’s say more backward answers to the problem – based on authoritarian regimes, which will sound plausible and attractive to many because they’ll require less work from people.

Nobody can change the world on their own, but you can look for alliances and networks of like-minded people to increase the effectiveness of all partners, so that we can start to punch above our weight. Getting different parts of the non-corporate, or Solidarity economy to get to know each other better is important, because we all need to eat, to be housed, to communicate, to travel etc. in any kind of decent future, so people building alternatives do need to know what people who are building alternatives in different sectors are up to, so that we can support each other. Also, some solutions are simply a matter of political decisions, and if we apply the right kind of pressure, I don’t think those decisions are that far away. This is something else that needs co-ordination, and continued pressure. There are lots of things we can do to change the way land is owned in this country, although it won’t be popular with certain people and certain sectors because it will reduce their market share. That’s exactly what we have to get people to demand, both in their consumption choices and in their political choices.

That’s what the People’s Food Policy does – it’s full of real things that we can do. Which actions we prioritise, and in which order things happen is up for discussion – but none of them are rocket science.

I’m going to be talking to key people working in the non-corporate economy, like yourself. If you could say something to those people, what would it be?

I think it’s worth spending time to understand different sectors, to see if we are facing similar problems, with potentially similar solutions. I hope people in different sectors read blog articles like this. I was interested to read the interview with Jon Halle, explaining the situation in the energy sector, for example. I also think it would be good to get key people together every now and then, to meet face-to-face, because those kinds of social occasions are imperative for people to feel part of the same movement. If that’s what you want to facilitate with NonCorporate, I welcome that.

Another thing I think is important is that a lot of these initiatives can be clustered in real places and time – e.g. finding community hubs or nodes that can be real models for an alternative economy, where people get their goods and services from the non-corporate sector, and where the quality of life is clearly not reduced by doing so – quite the opposite in fact. There’s so much skepticism and cynicism around, and lack of faith in the possibility of real change, that making actual, material, working examples is so important – something you can point at and say ‘look at the people in that community – they get what they need from local, small-scale and non-corporate sources, and not only has their community not suffered, it’s improved in terms of quality of life’. That could also attract people who see that that kind of community has a secure supply of food, energy and the essentials of life in case of any kind of collapse. It doesn’t have to only be wealthy people who can achieve that.

I was talking to one of the founders of Bridport Cohousing. The conversation was about normal, everyday things like companionship, sharing facilities, living in a nice place, planting trees etc, and then suddenly she dropped into the conversation that if civilisation fell over, she wants to be in a place that can provide a lot of its own food and energy, and be able to defend themselves. Quite startling that so many people are thinking about this now. I also read an article by Douglas Rushkoff, who went to give a talk to a group of billionaires about future technologies, during which he realised that what they actually wanted to talk about was how they could survive and control their private armies after the collapse of civilisation.

Yes, a lot of people think that’s coming – they just don’t know what to do about it. So showing some existing alternative models, where non-corporate initiatives connect together, is essential I think. New ELC settlements could provide hubs, or things could develop in towns that are already some way down the path of looking at alternatives – like Stroud, Totnes, Machynlleth etc.

Thanks Oli – we’re going to organise a face-to-face meeting of key people from various sectors of the non-corporate economy. I’ll keep you up to speed.

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