I’ve been working on a new page for the Basic Income Ireland website, about farmers and farming, and how a basic income could support intelligent farming and the people who are engaged in it, in the future. It is written for an Irish context although many of the points also have a more general application.
Here is what I have come up with so far. It incorporates feedback from four farmers of diverse backgrounds in Ireland. I’d love to hear what readers of this blog think.
Issues for farmers and farming
- Farming is a business, with many possible models of operating, including: family farms, large-scale farms owned by consortiums, worker-owned cooperatives, privately owned small-scale growing, and membership-based Community Supported Farms (generally known as CSAs). The trend in national and EU farming policy is to support agribusiness and associated large-scale intensive farming (see Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025). However, the state should be concerned to create a business environment where all types of farms and farming technologies can survive and prosper.
- Intensive, large-scale farming increases carbon emissions, is too intensive to be good for animal welfare, and is focussed on export of farm produce, to the detriment of self-reliance in food.
- Only about 7% of the Irish population is involved in farming. The most ecology- and animal-friendly way to increase food security is to have more people involved in a diversity of less intense ways of farming and growing and exploring new ecologically sound farming technologies.
- Farm incomes fluctuate, due to the cyclical nature of farming, especially on small farms. Prices received for produce also fluctuate. Some farmers have to buy animal feed, whose price also varies wildly. Farmers traditionally relied on bank overdrafts to smooth out the ups and downs but it is currently almost impossible to get overdraft facilities.
- Low-income (under €15k annually) farmers who have dependents can apply for Farm Assist. But this is a means-tested payment, which demands unproductive administrative time and which, like all means-tested payments, disadvantages those whose cases are marginal or not clear-cut.
- The farming population on traditional farms is ageing and there is a dearth of young people coming into this type of farming.
- Many older farmers work alone on their farms and experience isolation and loneliness.
- At the same time, many young people want to get into farming, especially organic farming and other ways of growing, using newer and more ecologically sound technologies. Many people are concerned with food sovereignty and security for the future and see food growing as a worthwhile and intellectually challenging occupation.
- Newcomers trying to start a farming business find it extremely difficult to get finance as lenders consider them a risky proposition.
- Land prices are high, and land difficult to acquire, especially in small parcels, which newcomers often seek. Direct payments to the farming sector via CAP drive up land prices.
- While farming is primarily rural, there is a need to support urban and suburban growing, community gardens, allotments, horticulture, etc
- The status of farmers is low among many sectors of the population. Many people see farming (especially on small farms) as an unrewarding occupation. Added to this, many landless city dwellers resent subsidies paid to parts of the farming sector.
- Many farmers are operating without subsidies, either from a principled objection to them, or because they do not qualify. Cash-flow difficulties are especially severe for them.
- There is a pressing need for reform of CAP subsidies. The current round of CAP reform disadvantages smaller marginal farms. Current reforms are working against the diversity and bigger farming population that is required for an intelligent food future.
How Basic Income could help
- Gives all business models of farming a chance to develop, including middle-sized and family farms, CSAs and cooperatives.
- Enables partnerships, which could alleviate the loneliness currently experienced by many farmers.
- Smooths out cash-flow problems for farmers, especially those operating without CAP payments.
- Supports urban and suburban farming, along with rural farming.
- Helps more people to get into farming and growing and to define themselves as farmers or growers.
- Allows older farmers to retire or step back from a farm business (they always have their basic income) and supports younger people to get into the occupation, possibly in partnership with an older farmer.
- Gives income to everyone in farming households, not just the head of household. Then, people have genuine choice about whether to engage in the farm business or not. Everyone involved has their own independent income (children’s BI is paid to the parent or guardian)
- Supports those pioneering new ecologically sound and low-carbon farming technologies capable of adapting to the variations in weather caused by global warming. These new technologies are also able to bring into production land that is currently considered marginal. All of this adds to food security.
- Has the capacity to decrease rural depopulation where it is a problem. It helps those who are attached to their locality to create a satisfying life and community in their home place (this might or might not be in farming, but it would create a social and economic system within which farmers and farming could thrive)
- Gives choice to farm employees, in common with all other employees.
- Support those who are pioneering intelligent, low-carbon and resilient forms of agriculture and food practices.
- Could help increase the percentage of the population involved in food growing. Greater involvement in food production always has big social and environmental benefits
- Could pave the way to the eventual elimination of CAP subsidies (and the CAP money could be diverted to funding basic income).
BI does not
- Sort out land prices or make land available
- Address all problems of rural life, such as transport and isolation
- Automatically ensure public interest in intelligent agricultural practices and food security and sovereignty. Also required is a cultural and educational drive to encourage more people to participate in farming, growing and food preparation.