Landscape Futures & Food ~ part one
with Dr Lee-Ann Sutherland, Director of the James Hutton Institute's International Land Use Study Centre.
Q. Thanks so much for joining us, it's such a pleasure to have you here with us. Just to get things started, maybe you can tell us who you are and why do what you do?
I'm Lee-Ann Sutherland. I currently work at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. I'm not Scottish, I'm actually Canadian. I was raised on a farm in Canada. I think my interest in agriculture and farmers comes from that very early life on the farm, you know, working with cattle and pigs and my parents and my extended family, really, because I had a lot of farming relatives right around me. They just gave me this fascination for why farmers do what they do! And so I've been fortunate enough to take that into a professional career.
I'm currently the director of the International Land Use Study Centre at the James Hutton Institute, which is a new flagship initiative thinking about where do we go with land in the future and how do we promote really sustainable, viable ways to use land? And what kind of research goes along with that? So I'm really pleased to be here today.
Q. I didn't realise you had a farming background - that makes this conversation even more interesting!
Your book The Good Farmer is all about culture and identity in food and agriculture, it was published quite recently in 2021…
Do you think you could give us an overview of the concept of the good farmer and why it matters or why you found it to be important?
Sure! So the book was co-authored by four of us. We wrote different chapters with some of us leading more in some chapters than others because we've all been writing about what it means to be a good farmer for, goodness, at least 15 in some cases 20 years!
The good farmer concept came quite organically from what farmers were saying about themselves when we were talking to them about why they make the decisions they do. People generally like to think they're good at what they do and farmers are no different, I like to think I'm a good academic. We all like to think like we're good drivers, even though, you know, statistically, some of us probably aren't!
But it goes a lot deeper than that… farmers quite often have inherited land from their parents. They've been raised on a farm like I was. And so they have these deeply ingrained ideas about what it is to be a farmer and what it is to do their job well. And what's interesting for us academically is that there's a really strong visual component to this.
So farmers, like you and I, don't normally talk about how much money they make! You know, it's more implicit in what they're buying and selling and how they can afford to to keep up their property. So when you ask a farmer who are the good farmers in your area, they can normally tell you that or what the primary characteristics are and they're pretty consistent.
Most farmers like to see a nice, tidy, farmstead, they don't like to see a lot of junk lying around or rusted-out equipment and or things not put away, both because it suggests that you've got the time to take care of those things, you've got the money to take care of those things, to maintain your buildings and keep things in good order -and that extends to their fields and their livestock.
My father, who's in his 70s, can look out the car window and go, ‘Oh, that's a terrible field of hay!’ Because they know by looking what a good hay crop is, when it should be harvested, what the bales are doing still on the field at this time of year. And the same thing with livestock, they can tell just by looking - and quite often they can't even describe how they can tell. But they know if animals are healthy by looking from the roadside.
Why this particularly matters in relation to the agri environment is that farmers culturally don't like mess - and biodiversity is typically messy, right?! So they like seeing nice, even fields of grain with not a weed in sight because that says to them, this is a good farmer, he's got them all planted evenly. They're all growing at the same height. It's got the pesticide put on them properly. There's a right amount of inputs and that's going to be a good crop. They're going to produce lots of food. So farmers like to see themselves as good food producers.
This has been a real problem for farmers when they're thinking about converting to organic farming, for instance, where they don't have access to some of those inputs. Because one of the hardest things for farmers is seeing weeds come up in their fields, or they're scared that if they go into an organic farming programme, for instance, they're not going to be able to to treat their animals with the antibiotics that they need or that they're going to be in a dilemma where they have to wait and think, should I treat this one or not? When actually their instinct as a good farmer is to treat right away because they don't want this animal to be in pain.
I think with farmers, quite often, what appears to be a resistance to agro- environmental measures or conversion to organic farming or that kind of thing often is ingrained in this really deep sense of what it is to be a good farmer and wanting to demonstrate that they're a good farmer, not just to themselves, but to all their neighbours around them as well.
Q. Hmm, that's fascinating and it makes me wonder, this idea of the good farmer - is it a global phenomenon? How do you see it emerging culturally?
So most of the research on the good farmer has been done in the global west. So you see publications from the UK in particular, but also the United States, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark. I think there's been some of France, maybe Italy. So it's very much European and North America and some Australian literature as well. So it's hard to say how that translates into other contexts. We've had some interesting discussions even about whether the term good farmer is a very English term!
When you think about the term good in English, it's literally got about 17 different definitions right?! So how well that translates into other languages, even within Europe, is interesting butI think it's a fairly universal human phenomenon to want to feel like you're good at what you do. How that translates to people who are maybe working on a subsistence basis, where they really don't have the luxury to think about that they're just worried about, you know, surviving I'm not really sure.
Q. And how have you thought about ways that being a good farmer has been evolving in recent years? Particularly facing environmental crises? Is there a new concept of the good farmer emerging?
There is, actually, and it’s really interesting! And it's not just environmental crisis it's also the financial duress that farmers have been under.
When the concept was first developed, it was very much seen as kind of an explanation for farmers’ resistance to change - why it is that they were reluctant to try new things. You have the money that you get, for example, by joining an agro environmental measure. But then there was the cultural cost. And that's what we were arguing - there's this strong cultural cost, not just the economic cost associated with going into an environmental measure and taking farmland out of production or reducing its productivity levels. But…
…what we found is that in the last 10 years in particular, there was kind of an equation that good farming equals profitable farming and profitable farming equals intensive agriculture. So you get this kind of direct connexion between liking these even, weed-free fields because that means a profitable farm. Well, what's been happening is that actually that's not profitable anymore and it makes farmers kind of sit back and go, ‘wait a minute? I can do everything right. I can have this amazing crop and still not make money. If I can't make money, I can't carry on as a farmer?’
So you can't be a good farmer if you're not a farmer at all. Right? So what you see is that then they kind of take a step back and say, ‘Oh! I need to rethink this - actually maybe producing the most from my land isn't the most important thing. It's about being the most cost-effective farmer. So maybe I use fewer inputs, but then it doesn't cost me anywhere near as much to get almost as much in the way of return.’
I have other work that looks at triggers for change in farmer decision making and that's where you see this kind of transformational change. There are these moments: disease outbreaks are one of them, losing money for a period of time is another one or having a farm successor come into the built business with a new idea. Farmers will kind of step back a bit and go, ‘Is this really the right path that I should be on? Should I do something different’ And that's where your moments of opportunity are for really shifting the trajectory of a farm toward something much better for the environment.
Q. Do you think there's something deeply productive about ‘the farmer’ in general or whether that's something that we've constructed post-World War Two with the need for production on a completely new scale following the urbanisation of our societies?
How flexible is this idea of the good farmer and how historical is it?
A colleague of mine, Rob Burton, started the most popular articles on this subject - he did a historical analysis looking back at newspaper clippings over 150 years, in the UK. And he did find some evidence of references to good farming or good farming practises back one hundred and fifty years ago.
But you've got to remember that a few hundred years ago, we were still guessing about what made plants grow! We were just randomly putting on things on fields to find out what would work.
So you can't disentangle the idea of the good farmer from, as you say, this kind of modernisation of agriculture that's happened. But it's also brought a modernisation of society where we've all become much more high-tech and much more production and consumption oriented. I mean, as a society, we consume so much more than we used to. So it's not just farmers. I think it's part of a the whole kind of broader cultural shift around consumption. I'm not sure there was ever a point that farmers were thought of as good farmers for reasons other than food production. I mean, to be fair, farmers as pillars of the community goes back to all the agrarian literature, particularly coming out of America but also over here about farming being the basic profession on which all others are built. So there's always been that kind of moral ethic associated with being a good farmer, which is about being a good person. But again, it's been oriented around production. So I think we may have over-emphasised the production side and the whole environmental side was always just kind of taken for granted.
Q. We're moving in the direction of farming stewardship schemes when we hear economists speak about future agricultural incentives…
Could we end up with hyper-productive farmers on one end using super-technological tools. And then, on the other, farmers who make no profit from what they produce. The food is almost marginal and they're just maintaining the landscape?
Yeah, I mean, coming from North America, the farm subsidies that they have in the European Union were quite amazing to me when I got here because that's not what we're accustomed to back home at all! And I know here in the UK there is clearly a very strong push to farmers as stewards of the landscape. But…
farmers do see it as their primary occupation to produce food - that is their whole identity. And they decoupled agricultural subsidies two years ago now so that farmers are getting money for maintaining the environment, but not necessarily for producing. Farmers used the money to produce anyway because they really felt ethically, that was what the money was for.
And I think the other interesting thing about good farming is that farmers will all tell you that if they see themselves as environmental stewards, whether they are maintaining the land by the standards that an ecologist, for instance, think are appropriate or not. And the mantra is very much, well, we need the land to continue producing food for the next generation, chances are I'm going to leave this farm to one of my kids. They're going to need to use the land so I can't destroy the land and I won't destroy the land. So there's just really different understandings of what it means to maintain land in good condition in terms of what a farmer thinks about. And obviously, there's that broad range even within farming and what the scientific community think.
Q. Speaking about land - you've recently become the director of the new International Land Use Study Centre, at The James Hutton Institute.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the centre is looking to help meet the environmental challenges that we're facing with land use?
And most importantly your activity in the Framework project!
So the International Land Use Study Centre is a flagship initiative of the James Hutton Institute. The Institute was formed back in 2011 from a merger of the Scottish Crop Research Institute and the McCawley Land Use Research Institute. So literally half of what Hutton does already has to do with land use.
And so we have members of staff that, you know, they model climate change impacts on land and land capability. We've got ecologists that look at how land is best used for biodiversity in a variety of different scales. We've got social scientists like myself that look at, you know, how is land managed, how are people making decisions about land? And it's not just farmland. How are they making decisions about forestry or other natural resources? And we also have a cohort of scientists that look at rural communities. So what kind of businesses are are based in land? And so the idea with the flagship initiative was to really put someone in place to spearhead making what we do a lot more well known to bring in more collaborators internationally.
That's why we're particularly keen on projects like Framework, but also to develop our methods and our reputation in relation to these challenges. What this flagship centre offers is the opportunity to gather together stakeholders and talk about what are the most important, most pressing things that we need to be developing in the future? And actually, I can't tell you what those are yet! We're having workshops where we've got a lot of representatives from across Europe and the United Kingdom. We've met people from the U.S., India, that sort of Africa, that sort of range coming together to talk about, you know, what's coming over the horizon - we're going to do some horizon scanning.
But of course, we're dealing with some of the major issues right now! We're working in peatland restoration, we're working in climate change, we're working at this question of how do we enable farmers to make transformative changes? We're looking at land capability in relation to climate change. But what is going to be the next thing? What's going to be actually really important five years from now, 10 years from now? Is it reaching net zero? Is that going to be a big challenge? Is it still going to be peatland restoration? Maybe it is? Is it going to be outdoor access?
I have this thing that we haven't talked about so much that it. That land is for all people. And right now, so much of the decision making is based on farmers and, you know, they own the land and it's their livelihood and so that makes sense. But their land is more than that. It's important to well-being and is a part of our national heritage and our biodiversity.
Carbon sequestration, all kinds of things happen on land and I really think we need to have a broader range of people out engaging with land. So I think that's the social justice aspect and I think you mentioned that back at the beginning that quite honestly, the people that use land or spend time on land right now in proportion to the rest of the society are disproportionately white and disproportionately men that are recognised as making those decisions. So I think there's a big social justice issue that I'm quite keen to tackle internationally in our centre that brings people together and gets people from a broader range of backgrounds involved in land and the decisions that we make and how we can best work with land going forward.
There are definitely huge tensions… farmers not wanting people to tell them how to run their farm; much like you wouldn't expect people to tell you how to run your yard or a house in the country with an acre of land around it. That said, farmers in the UK or in Europe are quite accustomed to receiving subsidies, so they realise that there's a cost to that. If you're going to take government money, then you need to do some things that the government wants you to.
But in terms of where the real tensions are when it comes to land use? That’s the middle ground land - land in really poor quality and in remote areas. It's hard to get to and maybe it’s scenic so you might have some contestation between using it for livestock or for tourism and rewilding. Your really high quality land? I think we're probably all agree needs to stay in agricultural production because we need the food. But it's this middle ground that could go into forestry, or could be used for recreation and outdoor access, or could be used for food production or could be used for more biodiversity geographically and in terms of land capability. That is certainly where the tensions will lie.
Q. Just to close, when we speak about practices like Agroecology and broad topics like nature-based solutions and biodiversity-sensitive farming… do you think that these are ways that we can break down these different land use silos?
For sure, Yeah! I wouldn't be involved in the Framework project if I didn't think that agroecological approaches can be effective, but it's about communicating them to farmers in a way that farmers understand and enabling farmers to work with it themselves to kind of suck it and see, I suppose, is the expression - without there being a lot of penalties involved. Or some kind of carrot and stick thing where you're kind of pushing them into a decision that they're not comfortable making. Farmers want to take care of the environment. So I think if we can demonstrate that these agroecological approaches are effective, then they will understand that direction.
But I think the single best thing that we can do for encouraging transformation in agricultural systems is to encourage young people into farming, either as successors or as expert new entrants. Because that is where you get the kind of step change in what happens on farms and in a lot of cases a new person coming up in our contemporary culture that really values the environment, who’s really conscious of climate change, coming onto a farm and looking at the land resource differently and willing to do things differently.
Q. Thank you so much. It's such a perfect way to end - on this notion of the good farmer and ways that we can move forward with that notion and just keep refreshing it and making it more adapted to the farming that we currently need.
Thank you so much for joining us!
Conversation edited for clarity and format. Interview by Alexandra Georges-Picot.
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