Colin Tudge and the electronic farm college

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Michael Wale talks to Colin Tudge, respected broadcaster, science writer and environmentalist , about his small scale, local vision for future farming.

For Colin Tudge, the future is organic

Colin Tudge is a remarkable person, a one man campaigner, who is about to open an online agricultural college.

He started life as a Cambridge University-trained zoologist, before joining "Farmers Weekly", where he worked with Graham Harvey, now agricultural editor of The Archers

He also wrote for New Scientist before turning out several books, including The Secret Life of Trees, Consider The Birds, So Shall We Reap and Feeding People Is Easy.

It was in January this year that he launched his latest event in Oxford, where he lives with his wife, fellow campaigner Ruth West. Tudge staged the Alternative Farming Conference, deliberately on the same day and close by to the more mainstream annual Oxford Farming Conference

Tudge's conference attracted a full house of organic farmers and supporters, and was chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the world’s leading environmentalists and a former diplomat. The whole premise of this conference was to air opposite views to those that were being offered ‘over the road’

But what are Tudge's views? He is campaigning for a return to what he defines as ‘real’ farming, with small farms taking on the giants and home produced food favoured over imports.  "The so called 'Free Market' is dominated by the banks and big corporations" he argues. 

"The whole thing is based on debt. Everything has to make as much profit as possible, as you get into bigger debt from the banks so you can in turn become bigger and bigger”.

What that means, Tudge thinks, is that if you really want to make money out of farming then you must maximise your output. Secondly you have to add value. “Everyone talks about the demand for meat" Tudge explains. "If you explore the meat industry for the past 40 years, you find farmers using cheap wheat, feeding it to the beasts, and making easy money. 

"It's about reducing costs too. To do this you throw farmers out of work as you don’t need more labour, but you do need lots and lots of chemicals and machinery instead. 

"So you get monoculture - huge fields growing one crop. Then you get the retailers like Tesco and Walmart who buy hundreds of tons and tons of food at the cheapest price”.

Tudge prefers organic farming and small farms, and accuses conventional farming of being only about “money, how much you can borrow, how much you can take out. You are subsidising a free market system of embezzlement”.

Now he wants to launch a trust fund that would support independent farmers. "Community supported agriculture is already there and working, so are farmers' markets”, Tudge notes.

So, with this in mind, he plans a College for Enlightened Agriculture to re-place the myriad of agricultural departments that have been closed down at universities across Britain. 

Colin admits that sooner or later he would like a bricks-and-mortar home for his vision, but is presently happy to set it all up on the internet, aiming not only at specialists but those with a laymen’s interest in agriculture.

Tudge enthuses: “It wouldn't be long before we could organise courses, and if you run the whole thing in conjunction with a university then you can award diplomas." He claims to be already in touch with several universities, and talking to them about building links.

He says that the best thing about starting his dream as a virtual organisation is that he can throw the net wider: “We’ve got some international links" he says. "The centre of it would be smallholders and small farms. There might be a place for larger farms, but 30 acres would be the ideal. You have to think in terms of part-time farming."

In this sense, farming would be going full circle: "Traditionally the crofters were part timers. The other end of the scale is John Adams, the third President of the USA. He was a farmer and a lawyer. In Italy you might have a bus driver who also owns an olive grove.”

Tudge muses: “I’ve been thinking about farming for a long time. I’m a biologist.  Everybody in the world could be fed properly. Over the past 50 years we’ve seen the dissolution of British agriculture. The Campaign For Real Farming wants the people to control the world's food supply.”

Yet the big question that needs to be asked at this point is how are we going to feed what will soon be a world population of 9 billion? Tudge claims that agriculture is resilient, and can change to meet the challenge. 

“You look to nature. Why don’t we emulate it? Nature is amazingly diverse. Polyculture, which translates  into the mixed farm, is an integrated system. There is always going to be room for cattle, pigs and poultry - an imitation of nature. There would be plenty of plants, not much meat, but maximum variety. Farming well is absolutely compatible with food nutrition and the best gastronomy."

He continues: “Organic farms have been seriously sidelined in the past 30 years. It should be seen as a constructive form of farming. Conventional farming will tell you that organic is a niche market and not worth talking about. Of course, we won’t be self sufficient in things like bananas, spices, tea or coffee. But self reliance can be combined with Fair Trade, which is exactly the opposite to what is happening. The conventional model is not there to feed people but to maximise the amount of money made”.

Tudge says that his campaign is not trying to convert people but connect with those who are on-side.He ends defiantly : “The NFU is the enemy”.

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