A Visionary Future with Basic Income for Farmers

Basic income for every farmer could help end poverty for farmers and better protect nature.

Author: Joanna Poulton

In the verdant landscapes of the United Kingdom, amidst rolling fields and once bustling market towns, a quiet revolution is stirring. It's a revolution not of protest or upheaval, but of vision and pragmatism—a vision that sees beyond the challenges of today to the possibilities of tomorrow. At its heart lies a simple yet powerful idea: a basic income for farmers, farmworkers, and food producers. This concept, once relegated to the fringes of political discourse, is now gaining traction as a transformative tool to address longstanding issues within the agricultural sector while ushering in a new era of stability and sustainability.

Basic Income for Farmers (BI4FARMERS) is a new lobby group that advocates for a regular, unconditional cash payment made directly to farmers and agricultural workers in the UK. The group is made up of predominantly small-scale growers, farmers and farmworkers who have fallen through the cracks of government support.

The aim of the campaign is to encourage farmers, farmworkers and food producers to discuss possible solutions to the financial barriers they face. Their report launched in April 2024 was developed over 6 months of voluntary time and energy of the working group. It is the consolidation of several organised online conversations with groups of agricultural workers. These conversations are ongoing and will form the basis for deeper exploration in the next phase of the work.

Next, BI4FARMERS intends to scope out what a basic income for farmers policy could look like with further input from people on the ground. Later this year they will begin research into how a pilot scheme could be designed and delivered to collect data on the efficacy of the policy and make the case for systemic change in the financing of farming that is so clearly needed.

The group has gained a huge amount of media coverage in recent months with TV, radio and printed press appearances. With over 150 farmers actively engaged in the campaign and over 1000 followers on their social media channels, word of their work is spreading fast.

Seeding Stability: Addressing Inequality and Uncertainty

In the fertile soil of the UK, inequality runs deep, nourished by a history of land ownership patterns and market dynamics that have favoured the few at the expense of the many. Small-scale farmers and market gardeners, often operating on the margins, face a precarious existence, buffeted by fluctuating prices, unpredictable weather patterns, and the relentless march of industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, farmworkers toil in the shadows, their contributions vital yet undervalued and tenant farmers' livelihoods are often subject to the whims of insecure tenancy agreements.

The problems are clear, we need transformative policies to support adaption to the climate and ecological crisis. Policies that socially recognise the importance of agricultural workers whilst shortening supply chains and intercepting our over reliance on imported produce that often undercuts the work of UK based farmers .

It is hard to deny the reality of low incomes amongst the farming community. In 2023 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), the lowest annual income an individual should receive to meet the demands of living in the UK to be £29,500. Figures collected by Defra on farm household incomes, which include any income unrelated to the main farm business, showed that the average income was £17,800 a staggering £20,700 short of the MIS for each individual.

Basic income offers a social and economic recognition of agricultural work, a lifeline—a steady stream of support that flows unconditionally into the hands of those who steward the land. By providing financial security and stability, it empowers agricultural workers to invest in their operations, pursue transition to sustainable practices, and weather the inevitable storms, both literally and those of economic uncertainty. By removing the constant squeeze of the market, our food producers can cultivate a future rooted in resilience and security. This could look like investing time and money in strategic tree cover to reduce flooding or having enough of a buffer to experiment with diversifying crops. It could look like having enough time to take on trainees to share the load and expanding into more sustainable practices, both environmentally and in terms of personal longevity and wellbeing.

Investing in the people at the heart of agriculture

A guiding principle of the Basic Income for Farmers campaign is trust. They are a group of farmers, growers, food activists and academics who inherently trust farmers as custodians of the land to use the payments in the best way they see fit as they continue to care for their communities through raising crops and livestock.

The primary policy objective of a basic income for farmers is to guarantee a level of financial security to all agricultural workers that underpins and is topped up by the income made from farming. This is a ground up investment in the people at the heart of agriculture.

How this policy would impact the people in the UK farming sector is absolutely central to the development of a basic income for farmers. Over the course of their initial work BI4FARMERS hosted in-depth discussions with 18 farmers and growers and surveyed (online) 130 farmers and growers with the same in-depth questions. During these conversations they asked what they would spend a basic income on and answers fell into three categories:

Mental Health Matters

Improved health and well-being is a well established outcome for basic income, and it is highly likely this would also be the case for a basic income for farmers.

The impact of low incomes on health is widely understood: people can lose up to 10 years of their life from a low income. The sacrifices made by agricultural workers are shown most starkly when looking at the evidence on mental health within the sector. In February 2024, 95% of young farmers cited mental health as the biggest hidden danger in the sector. The farming community has a lower level of average mental well-being than the UK population as a whole and those who work in skilled agricultural and related trades are 1.7 times more likely to die by suicide. This should be a source of national shame.

The issue of farmers not feeling valued by the public was highlighted many times in the House of Commons inquiry into Rural Mental Health. A clear relationship between farming business’ health and farmer mental health has been shown. Other key sources of stress included regulation, compliance and inspection, loss of subsidies/future trade deals and the future of farming. A basic income for farmers is a clear message of support for agricultural workers and a necessary investment in the sector. It would increase farmer’s ability to maintain the health of their business and manage challenging seasonal work. It would alleviate the stress caused by the loss of subsidies (or fill a historic gap of never receiving them) without introducing the pressure of new compliance, inspection, and regulatory measures.

A basic income for farmers is an investment into both existing experts and new entrants to farming, enabling businesses to grow and adapt.

A Truly Just Transition towards localisation and degrowth

For a just transition farming needs to become a viable livelihood.

Transitioning into more ecological and regenerative farming practices can have high upfront costs and can require more human power on farms. Growing practices that increase biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are desirable and practical, they just need a workforce that is properly equipped to implement them. A basic income, as a direct, unconditional payment to individual farmers, is a fit for purpose tool to encourage this work by providing farmers with financial security when they are working through the less profitable periods of initially implementing practices like weaning off herbicides and pesticides, planting companion crops and pollination corridors, making their own compost, using herbal leys and green manures, building beetle banks, laying hedges, mulching and much more.

Other incentives towards the adoption of more sustainable practices are of course essential for a full transformation to a robust farming sector that truly addresses environmental and nature crises. These include education and training programmes, subsidies for favourable practices like the Environmental Land Management schemes and legislation against harmful practices. Yet a basic income provides flexibility and security at the level of the individual that underpins these higher level measures, buffering workers and their incomes during the transition.

Imagine a landscape dotted with fewer fields of monocultures and more thriving agroecological enterprises, community-supported farms, and regenerative food hubs. With basic income as a foundation, farmers and food producers would be free to experiment with crops and techniques such as trialling heritage grain and building healthy soils, explore niche interests in farming rather than always being on the back foot, and implement flood, drought and wind resilient pactices, techniques and infrastructure.

From agroforestry and permaculture to farm-to-table ventures, the possibilities are endless.

Diversity of workers is resilience

Jo Poulton, BI4FARMERS Campaign Co-ordinator reflects on why she established the campaign:

“I am a young-landless-seasonal farmworker who spent the first 18 months in the industry volunteering at projects and taking on unpaid internships just to gain a foundation of skill that would hopefully help me find paid employment. Once I did find paid employment I was shocked by the low and irregular income but also by the fact a lot of the time my bosses weren’t even paying themselves. I struggled to see what I was aspiring towards and I was one of the lucky ones to have some savings to support me during this time. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it is for others who face even more barriers to entry in this work.”

There is a growing problem of the reducing numbers of young people getting into farming causing a decline in the farming work force. Barriers to new entrants are numerous, and often income related.The average age of UK farmers is 59, meaning farmers are approaching retirement age with no viable succession plans for their farms in sight. It is widely understood that we need to inspire younger generations to get into farm work but amidst a cost-of-living crisis, when most people are spending 30% of their income on mortgage repayments or rent, with the risk of establishing a food enterprise being so high - how can we stabilise the existence of food producers to enable new entrants a way in?

A Basic Income For Farmers has the potential to catalyse a transformation in the diversity of the agricultural sector by dismantling barriers to entry and fostering greater inclusivity. Currently, the high cost of land, equipment, and other inputs often acts as a formidable barrier, preventing aspiring farmers, particularly those from underrepresented communities, from entering the sector. By providing a reliable source of income, basic income empowers individuals from diverse backgrounds to pursue their agricultural ambitions without the burden of financial insecurity.

This newfound accessibility would not only enrich the sector with a broader array of perspectives, skills, and practices but also fosters resilience by reducing dependence on monocultures and corporate agribusiness. As a result, the agricultural landscape becomes more vibrant, dynamic, and responsive to the needs of local communities, paving the way for a more sustainable and equitable future.

New entrants to the agriculture sector do not only benefit the food system but the economy at large. Analysis from the Food and Land Use Coalition in 2019 found that a global investment in training young farmer entrepreneurs of £75- 90 billion over the next decade would deliver a three-fold economic return of £230 billion. It is not only young people fresh out of education that would benefit from the door to the industry being more open; The Royal Horticultural Society also reported that a significant number of apprentice applicants were career changers, with 25–34 year olds accounting for 39% of applicants and 35–44 year olds for 17%. For people to enter the industry, they need an income that sustains them. A basic income for farmers addresses this directly, providing new entrants with an income without putting pressure on the already squeezed profits of farming businesses.

Cultivating Connection: Strengthening Social Fabric and Resilience

In the rush of modern life, it's easy to forget the bonds that bind us—to the land, to each other, to our shared humanity. Yet, in the quiet corners of rural Britain, communities still gather around kitchen tables and village greens, sharing stories, sharing burdens, and sharing dreams.

Basic income nurtures these connections, serving not only as a source of financial support but also as a catalyst for social cohesion and collective action. By providing a common foundation of security and dignity, it fosters trust, solidarity, and a sense of belonging. In times of crisis, whether it be a pandemic or a record breaking weather event, these networks of resilience become lifelines, knitting together the fabric of society and ensuring that no one is left behind.

A Case for A Basic Income for Farmers Policy Proposal outcomes

These short, intermediate and long term outcomes are drawn from the evidence in the discussion paper and the conversations had during the first phase of work on a basic income for farmers. They draw from the theory of change in the Scottish basic income pilot feasibility study.

Short-Term Outcomes (2 - 3 years, likely duration of a pilot)

Intermediate Outcomes (permanent policy)

Long-Term Policy (permanent policy)

Navigating Challenges: Addressing Concerns and Ensuring Sustainability

Of course, the path to this visionary future is not without its obstacles. Sceptics raise valid concerns about the cost of implementing basic income, the potential for abuse or exploitation, and the broader implications for the agricultural sector and the economy as a whole.

Yet, as proponents of basic income, we must meet these challenges with honesty, humility, and resolve. We acknowledge that the road ahead may be long and winding, fraught with uncertainties and setbacks. But we also recognise that the status quo is unsustainable, that the old ways of doing things have led us to the brink of ecological and social collapse.

To address these concerns, we must engage in open dialogue, drawing on the wisdom of farmers, economists, policymakers, and grassroots activists. We must pilot and test innovative models, learning from both successes and failures. And above all, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to justice, equity, and sustainability, knowing that the seeds we sow today will bear fruit for generations to come.

The key areas that should be consulted on further with farmers, experts in farming policy and policy researchers are:

Eligibility: How the recipients of the basic income for farmers are defined must be designed in consultation with farmers and without alienating key groups like new entrants, workers with essential skill sets or small scale farmers. Consideration of migrant and seasonal labour is key.

Payment level and frequency: Level and frequency are intrinsically linked to the impact of the policy, so it is important to get this right based on research into a funding model and consultation.

Funding: A sustainable and redistributive funding model is required, research on the design and impacts of such a model should be produced in the short term.

Infrastructure for delivery: Payment delivery must be seamless, it is possible that existing infrastructure could be adapted but further consultation on the requirements of this infrastructure and experience of the current systems is needed.

Interaction with other schemes: It is imperative that it does not make recipients or their businesses ineligible for payments from subsidies, social security or any other schemes that provide them with essential income.

The political pathway, towards a basic income for farmers is worth consideration at this stage.

As agriculture is a devolved policy area, it is important to consider political pathways towards a UK-wide roll out, as well as individually in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.

A basic income for farmers pilot would be desirable for building the evidence base and political support for this policy. Various approaches should be considered including government led pilots (such as the Welsh care leavers), national pilots and community led and privately funded pilots.

The Basic Income for Farmers project intends to produce policy and pilot proposals in the next phase of their work, informed by widespread consultation.

Conclusion: Cultivating a Future of Abundance and Resilience

In the quiet corners of rural Britain, a new story is unfolding—a story of hope, of possibility, and of transformation. It is a story rooted in the timeless wisdom of the land and nourished by the resilience of the human spirit.

Basic income for farmers, farmworkers, and food producers is not merely a policy proposal; it is a vision of a better world—a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, where the economic and physical harvest is shared equitably, and where the bonds of community are strong and resilient.

As we embark on this journey together, let us remember the words of Sandhya Anantharaman: 

“Basic Income doesn’t solve everything, but it makes every problem easier to solve.” 

Let us dare to imagine a future where basic income is not just a dream but a reality—a reality that sustains us, nurtures us, and empowers us to cultivate a world of abundance and resilience for all.

If we want to grow more of our food in the UK, if we want to improve the environment, if we simply think that everyone deserves to live a decent life, we need to support farmers.

For farmers to thrive, they need economic security. Together, we can sow the seeds of stability and harvest a future where everyone thrives.

Find out more, visit the BI4Farmers website at: https://bi4farmers.square.site

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. A Visionary Future with Basic Income for Farmers © Joanna Poulton 2024.

Article | 17.06.24

Basic Income, nature & economics, social justice, Sustainability, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Article

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