The Market Garden Multiplication Model A model for shifting our food system 1 acre at a time …
The market garden multiplication model is a localised plan for the transition of our food systems towards an ecologically viable small farm future. This is modelled on the context of Bath and North East Somerset but could be applied, with appropriate local variations, to regions around the UK. Just 50 years ago here in Bath, Somerset, market gardens surrounded the city - diverse, small-scale growing enterprises dotted around the hills of this fertile valley. Now, in 2021, a handful of small growers remain, and some ancient orchards have survived the road-building and rapid development of the past five decades. Only very recently has market gardening emerged with a renewed vigor and popularity - in contrast to the overall trend of the population leaving farming, there is a global counter-movement of (increasingly young) small scale growers reclaiming food sovereignty, land stewardship and ecological growing. This quiet yet powerful revolution is arriving just at the brink of no return:
just as our natural systems are reaching ecological tipping points,
as climate change spirals out of control (25% due to land use and agriculture IPCC 2018),
as land ownership becomes increasingly concentrated,
as indigenous wisdom disappears (at the rate of a language a week!),
as species go extinct (100-200 per day IPBES 2020),
as ecological growing practices become extinct,
as topsoil erodes (50 harvests left according to the UN 2015)
the list goes on, but basta! (Enough!). This post is about solutions, and the courageous path forward in such dark times. Its easy to be paralysed into inaction in the face of such overlapping crises, or feel numb to it as I did for years. Whilst we can and should honour and attend to the grief we feel for the Earth, we also need to honour the work at hand, and the beauty of transformation at this late stage - all good stories tease us in this way, taking unexpected turns and it really is up to us how the next chapter plays out.
Based on the initial premise that our industrial factory food production machines and the corresponding land (ab)use of deforestation, topsoil erosion and desertification, are primary drivers of climate change and ecological decline, it is worth examining how our food system can shift rapidly and immediately, without repeating mistakes of so called Green Revolutions. The second premise is that land use changes and agroecological farming have potential to sequester more carbon than any (real or imagined) technological solution, and the potential to rapidly increase biodiversity, water retention and topsoil regeneration, as well as the revival of local communities and cultures, it seems bizarre that food and land use do not feature so centrally in local, national and global climate action plans. The land should lead the way, and it needs to start locally (albeit with global awareness) then ripple out and multiply exponentially catching like a wildfire, reviving soils, souls and societies. This leads me onto the Market Garden Multiplier model, which is not so much a model but something that I already observe happening, requiring a catalyzation and ‘scaling up and out’. Currently, new market gardens are ‘cropping up’ around the UK in every region. These market gardens are rooted in economies of scale - but of a different kind to what neoliberalism has told us. It is, as market gardens are proving, not only more ecological but more economical to produce fresh food locally without machines and chemicals. Especially when long term factors of soil health and biodiversity are taken into account - but even without these it is clear that a new economy of appropriate scale is being (re-)birthed. Growing literally next-door to customers/supporters reduces and simplifies overheads dramatically, eliminating the need for complex storage, processing, transport and dozens of ‘middle men’ (and fossil fuel energy). Instead: directly selling to local people, building reciprocal relationships and community resilience, whilst boosting the circular economies of gift and reciprocity.
In light (or shadow) of the urgent crises listed above, how does this model upscale and transform societies at a significant scale? One part of the answer is mass training of new entrant farmers. Part of this - due to the required speed - will necessarily be through online and virtual platforms, where one market gardener posts an educational video and millions view this within days (see Richard Perkins, Charles Dowding, Curtis Stone, JM Fortier on Youtube). Social media may serve to whet the appetites and entice millions of young people to engage and become inspired by ecological growing (this too is already happening). But much of the real training, after these introductions and background theory from videos and websites, will occur on the ground at the thousands of small farms across the UK (and the world). A mass roll-out of traineeships - with each farm taking on just 4 or so new growers for part-time learning in exchange for labour, supported by all of the online content and mentored by second year trainees, apprentices and head growers (again, this is already happening - see Landworkers Alliance). Multiplying these traineeships by thousands of farms already offers potential for a revolutionary moment and a new consciousness, alongside the return of land-based skills, natural wisdom and earthly connection. But, here’s the real clincher for this movement to multiply and propagate indefinitely, until every barren field or desert is transformed into diverse ecological paradise:
Each trainee or apprentice is guided to take on a plot of their own, first just on ¼ acre, given several years to master this and find a market for fresh local produce (demand is through the roof in the post-covid normal), and then offered opportunities to gradually upscale (or downscale/refine), take on her/his own trainees and begin to partake in the multiplier matrix. Now let's look at some parameters and numbers. The number of small farms in the UK is approx. 150,000. Lets say 20% take on this model adapted to their contextual farm situation - 30,000 farms. Each takes on 4 trainees - 120,000 trainees. An average of 2 from 4 trainees take it forward with commitment and begin a market garden or land-based livelihood - 60,000 new market gardens (or related land-solution projects) begin. Assuming each new market gardener requires 5 years to establish (most that I see around me require just 2 or 3 years), there are 60,000 more established small farms by 2026. In the meantime, each of our existing 30,000 small farms is training 4 new growers each year, 50% of which take it forward. By 2031, 300,000 more small farms have taken root. When the model is followed, and each new trainee is able to learn over the years and then take on 4 new trainees etc. - the number of new ecological plots enters into silly 6 digit numbers - millions of new 1 acre(ish) farms. It would be less than 10 years before all fertile land in the UK was converted to this small-scale agro-ecological market gardening, and all of Britain fed locally. But not all of this land would even be needed, or desirable for market gardens, which is of course where other models and solutions come in - around sustainable animal husbandry, restoration, reforestation and ecological enterprises (say the other 2 trainees began mushroom businesses, insect farms, fruit/nut orchards, natural beekeeping etc.). This model is a leverage point for systemic transformation, beginning with our land and food systems. To name a few ripple effects from this leverage point:
Revitalising local economies, creating gift and reciprocity economies and regionalised currencies.
Shifting culture (e.g. towards living seasonally, embodying regenerative cultures of care)
Reconnection to the land, meaningful work and nature.
Health - personal, social and planetary.
Real employment opportunities for autonomous and empowered work.
Increased biodiversity, cleaner water/air, carbon sequestering farms, top-soil regeneration, more beautiful and diverse landscapes.
A model is easy; reality is complex and erratic. What gives this model plausibility, credibility and resilience? Firstly, its already happening. Secondly, it needs to upscale and catalyse if we are to survive this century without social-ecological collapse. Thirdly, the previous barriers to this model are rapidly dissolving in this unique moment of history. What are the barriers to this vision for entrant growers?
Access to land
Access to start-up capital
Access to markets
1) Access to land is a significant barrier, and often puts young growers off trying. And yet availability of land is far from scarce. Dozens of empty fields, in part encouraged by government farming policies and skewed subsidies for massive farms. Many of these massive farms are reaching either retirement of forced decline through a debt-based industrial agriculture, freeing up thousands of acres for potential land reform and a revolution of small scale growing and ecological restoration. Thousands of acres of council land, coincided with ambitious climate emergency declarations from the same councils, and commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2030 - an impossibility without tapping into the sequestering potential of their land assets. Thousands more acres just from Prince Charles alone, who publicly cares about climate change and privately blocks the land reform which could regenerate our barren countryside of green desert. Thousands of acres owned by the church and institutions - also declaring climate emergencies and pledging ‘concrete action.’ 2) Start-up capital is a huge barrier, especially for young people already debt-ridden from having the joy of studying for jobs that likely won't exist next decade - a decade of either climate chaos, automated techno-dystopia, small farm future or rapid transiton (whereby all work is channelled towards this). Similar forces to those that control the land can also provide potential leverage to free up capital. Grants from local councils as part of their climate emergency and post-covid economic recovery funds. Private estate owners funding market gardens on their land (perhaps out of necessity and security for food provision, but all the same shifting resources towards part of the solution). Trillions of pound currently invested in fossil fuels and its declining infrastructure, will and must be transferred towards the few growth sectors in a new degrowth world - farming, renewables, tree planting, local economies.
3) Access to markets is becoming less of a barrier with growing awareness (and action) around organic food and local production - especially since the pandemic where some local farms experienced an increase in veg box demand 20 fold, signing up hundreds on their waiting lists. As the inevitable crises and shocks of the vulnerable global food supply system become clearer (covid-19 providing a glimpse), and the age of cheap oil comes to an end, markets will shift to local food out of necessity, whilst hopefully also realising a desire for this being a better way to live and exchange.
The Market Garden Multiplier model is already happening. This is not a thesis but an observation from an organic farmer and organiser, backed by the same observations around the country. In this moment lies one of the greatest opportunities of history, to rewrite the obituary of our species from the brink of collapse, re-storying this decade as the great years of transformation and regeneration - led by a mass movement of land workers and ecological stewards committed to earth care and people care.
Hamish Evans email@example.com