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Rowan Ellis
James Hutton Institute

Topic: Alternative To What? The participation of the small(est) European farms in regional food networks

Keywords: small farms, alternative agri-food networks, SALSA, Europe


There is a well-established literature that focuses on Alternative Agri-food Networks (AAFN) in diverse European and North American regions. As this literature has matured, several scholars have noted the development of two converging strands within these accounts. The first, often rooted in the North American experience, focuses on the potential of these networks to provide a radical alternative to the corporatist model of food production. A second strand emerging out of the European context has focused more on the potential of localized food networks to support rural livelihoods. Where these two strands seem to converge is around their interest in the transformative potential of ‘scaling up’ or extending these networks towards a more sustainable and equitable food system
But what the existing AAFN literature has so far not contended with is the presence of much smaller farms, which may be characterised by a range of production models, from semi-subsistence to lifestyle or hobby farms. These smallest farms sometimes appear in discourse as idealized peasants, who, by virtue of their low intensity practices, function as the romanticized ‘before’ to the after(math) of big agri-business. Yet there is very little consideration of the contemporary and future role of the smallest farms in calls for a radical (or even reformist) transformation of the agri-food system. What would the participation of semi-subsistence or hobby farms in alternative food networks look like? And would these farms be better off for their participation?
This paper draws on insights from research within the H2020 SALSA project, which focused on European and African farms no larger than 8ha. For the purpose of this paper we focus on European reference regions only. Based on survey and focus group data with small farms and small farm stakeholders, we explore the types of AAFNs the smallest farms participate in and the contextualising factors that shape how and if they do so. We then reflect on small farm participation in AAFNs by highlighting factors that small farmers identify as the key conditions that enable them to continue farming, as well as their identification of the most significant challenges and threats to this. The paper concludes with reflections on the current state of smallest farm participation in AAFNs, and some tentative conclusions about the conditions that would enable the expansion of their participation. Finally we consider the potential outcomes or trade-offs of increasing smallest farm participation in AAFNs.

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