Farming the Fragmented Land

author: Hans Vandermaelen, Michiel Dehaene, Kim Graham

Farming the Fragmented Land calls for new agroecological imaginaries that allow distinctive forms of food growing to transform and thrive in a heavily fragmented territory. These new imaginaries specifically seek to address peri-urban landscapes and complement existing rural imaginaries that are dominant within the agroecological farming movement. It reveals the capacities of agroecological practices to engage in a transformative way with other forms of land use and public priorities once it transcends the singular fragment and works at the landscape level. As such, it defends and positions agroecological practices as priority users for the often highly particular conditions of a fragmented land(use) mosaic. Calling for farming the peri-urban landscape is a call to build metabolic linkages with farming activities beyond the level of the one farm. Farming the Fragmented Land is about  integrating the efforts of agroecological growers active on a singular patch within a larger landscape ecology and to actively supply those resources which can not be generated at the scale of small singular patches.

Why Farming the Fragmented Land?

Untapped capacities of agroecological farming

The search for land remains a major challenge for the agroecological movement. Today, two strategies are dominant within the movement: strengthening or better organising its position on the traditional land market (e.g. by buying land with cooperatives, through instruments such as the SAFER's in France...) on the one hand, and obtaining access to public farmland (e.g. county farms UK, farmstart BoerenBruxselPaysans in Brussels, Huertas in Rosario) on the other hand. In practice, many agroecological practices also settle in the corners and fringes of fragmented peri-urban landscapes: in river banks or floodable areas, in nature conservation areas, in residualised orchards, on irregularly shaped plots of land left behind by an industrialising, large-scale agriculture, and so on. Settling in these types of spaces often goes hand in hand with  an uncertain legal status or arrangements that are only temporarily guaranteeing the possible use. However, this also illustrates an important capacity of agroecological practices to work with the specific conditions of a particular place, as well as its strong compatibility to engage positively with other forms of land use. Despite the importance of such fragmented spaces in the search for land by agroecological practices, it is striking that the agroecological community mobilises very little to push the boundaries of the current status quo. Agroecological practices have every right to push for the construction of new mixed landscapes within which agroecological food growing would not just be a residual activity but would constitute an integral part.

Fragmentation: disabling or distinctive?

Current urbanisation processes cause a fragmentation of the peri-urban agricultural territory and result in many diverse claims on that remaining agricultural land. This leads in the first place to an incompatibility with large-scale, industrial agricultural activities because they (literally) do not fit into such a fragmented landscape, but also because they do not respond to the various other spatial claims and prefer large areas from which other activities are excluded. This is to some extent different for agroecological practices. Of course, agroecological practices also suffer from the so-called “artificialisation” of soils and the loss of farmland to non-agricultural activities. However, fragmentation, various space claims and people living in the landscape are  not a problem per se. They can also create entries for agroecological practices. Agroecological landscapes are peopled landscapes (see also the Productive Housing Estate). Living on the land is part of the labour intensive nature of agroecology, and is an integral part of the livelihoods of peasant farmers. Moreover, urbanisation processes not only destroy space for food production, they also create a need for green space or ecosystem services such as flood management, they create proximity to consumers and labour which can be an advantage for agroecological practices, and so on. In different parts of the world, agroecological growers  deal on a daily basis with such complex conditions, and sometimes even to turn these to their advantage. 

Fragmented farmland in the urban fringe of Rosario (Argentina): threatened by an expanding built environment, but also left behind by the industrial farming system

From stealthy fragmentation to a landscape strategy

How can agroecological practices start to engage with processes of urbanisation in a transformative way? For many practices today, locked-in parcels of land in peri-urban areas is the only option. They are often facing insecure leases and temporary access to land, which hinders sustainable, long-term business management. This interest in fragmented land is potentially dangerous and depoliticising when agroecological agriculture literally is pushed back into these fragments and gets trapped on residual pieces of land that are often also subject to soil depletion and potentially also historical contamination. Obviously, this building block is not a plea for further fragmentation but rather a call for strategies to counter the incessant invasion of non-agricultural forms of land use. 

Not every component of a mixed agroecological system will easily find its place in the agricultural fragments of a peri-urban landscape. Horticultural activities (given their ability to generate a high income per hectare) are much easier to embed in a fragmented landscape than, for example, livestock farming (especially ruminants - crucial in an agroecological agricultural system) or arable farming (both of which not only generate a much lower income per hectare but also simply require more land due to the nature of the activity). This partly explains the disproportionate focus on horticulture, a model often chosen because of economical constraints rather than from an agroecological rational or vision on soil care and soil fertility reproduction. In this sense, strategies supporting the Farming of Fragmented Land should focus on enabling and guarding the agroecological balance between horticulture, arable farming and livestock farming. Attention to the different nature of the spatial needs of each branch is therefore crucial, distinguishing which fragments can support which agricultural branch.

Proximity matters and comes at a price
Von Thünen was right

Thünen, Johann Heinrich von, Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirtschaft und Nationalökonomie (Rostock, 1842)

In the early nineteenth century, a German economist, Johann Heinrich von Thünen, studied how agricultural production organises around an isolated city. His model "the Isolated State" gives a mathematical explanation for the typical differentiation in land use he observed around German provincial cities based on the economical trade off between the prices within an urban consumer market, cost of land, the cost of transport and the cost of labour. He describes four rings around the city, with the first ring supplying dairy, fruit and vegetables (because perishable), the second ring timber production (because heavy), the third ring bulk crops such as grain (better storable and transportable), the fourth ring livestock farming (self-transporting), and beyond wilderness. Much has changed since Von Thünen's time. Nevertheless horticultural activities remain dominant in a peri-urban environment until today, not so much because there are no alternatives to getting fresh vegetables into the city, but because horticultural activities generate high yields in a small area, and are thus more able than arable farming and livestock farming to cope with high real estate prices and pressure on peri-urban land. From a 21st century perspective the “Isolated State” reveals the logics of substitution at play in a contemporary urban land market, where it has become possible to trade agricultural land use for urban activities that correspond with a higher land value. One of the main causes for this structural substitution is the relatively low cost of transport of (even fresh) food over long distances and the replacement of local land and labour for the extraction of resources and the exploitation of labour elsewhere. While these logics of substitution seem to make room for housing and amenities, and enable urban development, they are at the heart of a way of urbanisation that seems to accept the steady loss of land and farmers which are essential to the organisation of an equitable and sustainable urban society.Can we imagine the strategies and type of projects to revert these logics of substitution?

Vision & Strategies

The Farming the Fragmented Land building block defends and positions agroecological practices as priority users for the often highly particular conditions of a fragmented land(use) mosaic.

Enforcing the strategic importance and use of public agricultural land

Attention to the Farming of Fragmented Land may be strategically supported by seeking the most strategic use of public farmland. This implies more than the establishment of pilot projects on public farmland here and there, but entails a deeper reflection on the transformative role of public farmland in the larger peri-urban food system. What is possible on public farmland that is not possible on other farmland? For example, how do farmstarts contribute to the rejuvenation of the agricultural sector? How can public farmland restore nutrient cycles and ecological balances in the broader agricultural system?...). Public arable land may be reframed as a form of shared infrastructure, as an urban common, rather than as an asset that is distributed among a handful of projects. 

Modular assemblages of agroecological practices

Agro-environmental practices have the capacity to take fragmented, residual and multifunctional spaces into agricultural use. Although they each have a small footprint, some successful cases show that they are scalable. Initiatives around the re-use of a limited number of old or under-utilised orchards developed into movements or professional companies that rehabilitate and reuse residualised orchards on a regional scale. Small CSA vegetable farms have demonstrated that it is possible to rotate in the crop rotation of a larger arable farm. The grazing of nature areas developed in many places from a cheap way of nature management to professional farms that graze nature areas on a large scale and run successful agroecological farms with it. Also, the 'supply' of animals to smaller vegetable farms, e.g. cows to graze cover crops in the crop rotation, or pigs to clear leftovers of tuberous plants, have proven to be scalable and provide access to land for cattle farmers. These examples reveal the possible successes and corresponding expansion strategies of agroecological practices when breaking out of the lock-in of one plot of land. They open up very different, specific discussions that are potentially very enriching in the debate on access to land.

Another example is Den Boogerd. In this old fruit region in the North-East of Belgium, there are many remnants of orchards in private gardens. However, residents do not always have the time nor the skills to manage their fruit trees, pick the fruit or process it. Den Boogerd reactivates these orchards without buying the land. In exchange for management and maintenance e.g. through sheep grazing, Den Boogerd can process and sell the harvest. 

Sheep grazing in the orchard

From contesting the loss of farmland to agricultural shared use

To which extent can the agroecological movement make use of the whole urban machinery behind nature creation and urban policy plans for planting new forests as a strategy to access land? Agro-environmental practices themselves are increasingly in demand to combine agricultural practices with nature creation, such as arable farming or vegetable growing in combination with trees (agroforestry, food forests), livestock farming on species-rich grassland (holistic grazing) or in forests (silvopasture), arable farming in pasture systems (pasture cropping)... If the movement succeeds in setting up a strategic partnership with the nature sector and nature policy, a distinctive choice for agroecology in these areas is obvious. It could also transform the agroecological practice itself and help it to move towards more climate-robust practices based on teaming with life/ecosystems strategies. 

Agroecologically articulated water policy
Eau de Paris

As part of the development of its urban food policy, Paris set out a clear ambition for the management of its drinking water catchment areas: develop organic farming areas in water catchment areas and in that way increase the overall supply of local organic food. The public company in charge of the city’s drinking water distribution System, Eau de Paris, is promoting and supporting the preservation and development of organic agriculture. In addition to offering technical support, tools and advice for existing farmers to convert to organic agriculture, the city also developed an active land policy to make land available to organic farmers through an ecological lease (“bail rural environnemental”).

“Since 2010, the public company has acquired 153 hectares of agricultural land in this framework (including 13.9 ha in 2014) to preserve environment and water quality. This makes 264ha of land available to farmers in 2014, including 183ha already converted to organic farming (73%).”

The city is examining legal possibilities for supplying Parisian collective catering with produce from catchment areas, and is also working on a label to promote the origin of products from catchment areas.

Preparing for the impending pension wave of conventional farmers

The agricultural landscape will be completely redrawn in the next years. How can the current occupation of the agricultural territory by older, conventional farmers with no succession be directed distinctively towards Agroecological Practices? The report "Your Land, My Land, Our Land" outlines this challenge and the associated urgency: current trends do not indicate that these lands will be returned to farmers (rather on the contrary) and the transfer of knowledge between older and new generations (e.g. know-how regarding soil care) is a huge challenge (see quote below). With Farming the Fragmented Land, we want to look for spatial recipes that can facilitate this transfer. For example, by exploring the possibilities of starting small-scale agroecological practices in the lap of larger, possibly conventional practices, or by supporting the transition from conventional agricultural practices to agroecological practices.

Matryoshka doll farmers
Tuinderij De Stroom
“Andre is the arable farmer and we shift with him in his crop rotation. We move with our 3 hectares every year within his 100 ha farm.”

Farmers of Tuinderij De Stroom for Future Farm Films

One of the most common problems that starting agroecological farmers face today is the lack of affordable access to land. However, this struggle occasionally leads to unexpected alliances with larger-scale agricultural practices. In the province of Gelderland in The Netherlands, the market gardeners of Tuinderij De Stroom found access to 3 ha of land within the crop rotation of  an existing 100 ha organic arable farm Ekoboerderij De Lingehof. Just as a Russian Matryoskha doll fits within a larger doll, the one farm – De Stroom – operates inside the larger one – De Lingehof. The cooperation not only creates much-needed access to land for new practices, but also brings many additional benefits, such as the sharing of infrastructure (washing facilities, place to eat...) and interconnected services (purchase of agricultural products for vegetable packages, ploughing for the horticultural activities, availability of labour at peak times...)., but also closing cycles and establishing equilibriums (e.g. manure and composting, shared rotation schemes, etc.) and sharing knowledge and techniques between different generations of farmers. Moreover, this farm-within-a-farm model could be more systematically pursued as a valuable transition strategy in light of the lack of succession within farming families. Retiring farmers can build up the trust with the new entrant farmers to hand over their life’s work in good conscience, while the new entrant farmers get the time and literally, the space to acquire the experience to manage stepwise larger amounts of land.