Farming needs entrepreneurs – but beware!

Colin Tudge questions the wisdom of a new report on entrepreneurship

This year the Oxford Farming Conference (the “official” one, which has now been going for 70 years) launched an 84-page report on Entrepreneurship: a kiss of life for the UK farming sector – and in many ways the report is very sound.

Its authors, Graham Redman of The Andersons Centre and Dr Muhammad Azam Roomi of Cranfield University, point out that “Farms are remarkably strong places from which to develop entrepreneurial businesses. They have valuable resources, most of which have been relatively inefficiently deployed, and often have a strong capital base”.

They add – very encouragingly – that “the business must remain true to its agricultural roots, and respect the land and home farm”. Historically, says Redman, “farming demonstrates a lower level of entrepreneurialism than other sectors”, at least in part because farmers have been “more concerned with subsistence and survival”.

All this is fine. Farms can very properly be conceived as businesses, and businesses do need to make money – at least enough to provide all concerned with a reasonable living – and in a changing world it is necessary to innovate, and most farms probably do exploit their assets far less imaginatively than they might; and attempts to address all these issues must, by definition, be entrepreneurial. This applies to all farmers in a non-centralized economy, including those who seek to follow the path of “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”. Indeed, those committed to Enlightened Agriculture perhaps need to be more entrepreneurial than most – because, at least for the time being, they must swim against the economic and political tide. Redman’s and Roomi’s report surely contains some excellent tips for all.

Yet there is a caveat. At least to judge from the accompanying press release, the new report lacks any serious reference to what in the end matters most of all: human values. Thus we are told, “those farmers who are budding Bransons or Dysons make more profit”. Farmers are indeed advised to look after the “home farm” – but primarily because it is “the golden goose which lays the golden egg of entrepreneurialism.” Successful businesspeople, we are told, “go out of their way to question the established order of things and look for ways to create competitive advantage.”

In other words, this report is designed to accord with the economic and political thinking that now dominates the world. As a matter of policy, indeed of strategy, in line with the economic theory known colloquially as neoliberalism, all the world’s economies are conceived as parts of one great global market. The aim of the market is not expressly to make the world a better place, more secure and more convivial, but to generate wealth. To be fair, some supporters of the neoliberal market (including, apparently, one of its founding fathers, Milton Friedman) and including many modern politicians from all the main parties, apparently believe or believed that the creation of wealth per se must be good. Margaret Thatcher, who first introduced neoliberalism to Britain and thence to the world at large, argued that it is impossible to do good things in this world unless we get rich first, and the richer we become the more good we can do. This, she once told a gathering of Scottish clerics, is the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan (her sermon is on film).

Other supporters of the neoliberal market, though, have no such morality. They simply argue – at least in private – along what might be called “Brute Darwinian” lines: the idea of natural selection, but in a corrupted form. For them the greatest virtue is to be competitive – a perpetual struggle for more wealth and a bigger “market share”. All producers and traders must seek “competitive advantage”. This leads to the post-Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest” with its corollary, “the devil takes the hindmost”. Competition is of course tempered by judicious cartels between the biggest players, and the devil is not allowed to take the hindmost if the hindmost happens to be a transnational bank. But that is the general idea.

Neither does any devotee of the neoliberal market care too much, apparently, about how the wealth is generated in the first place. If it’s legal, it’s OK: and if it’s not legal, then the lawyers and accountants set to work to balance the profits to be gained by wrongdoing against the possible fines if they are caught. The fines are rarely commensurate with the gain and the cost of the collateral damage.

It’s clear, too – theory suggests that it must be so, and experience shows that it is so – that although the global market is supposed to be a “level playing field”, in fact it must favour the strongest competitors; and the strongest at one time tend to be the biggest, not least because they can afford to employ very clever people, from the world’s most expensive universities, to out-manoeuvre everybody else. In short, the global market favours the corporates. Small businesses who throw themselves into the global market may do well in the short term but in the longer term they are supporting an economic system that favours giant companies who can buy them out or otherwise overtake them. Margaret Thatcher began as the champion of small businesses (her hero was her father, Alfred Roberts, alderman, lay preacher, and local grocer) but the economic system she favoured did more than anyone to kill them off.

So yes: the general idea behind the new report is sound enough. Farmers have to make money and many and perhaps most of them could make far more of their assets that they do. But the underlying philosophy – the reasons for doing things; the goal of the whole endeavour – is deeply suspect.  Farmers, and all of us, have to ask what kind of world we really want. We have to ask, as the literary critic F R Leavis put the matter, “By what do we stand?” Making money per se does not necessarily lead to a better world. Demonstrably, in many different ways, it can lead to a far worse one – not the least being that the maximization of wealth by all-out competition leads to the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Entrepreneurship and indeed all business, and technology, have to be contained within a moral, aesthetic and spiritual framework or they are all too apt to become highly destructive. Alderman Roberts would certainly have agreed with this and so would almost all the greatest economists. Almost all, from Adam Smith to Amartya Sen, talk about moral and social principles as much as they talk about money.

In practice, the task for everyone who wants the world to be a better place is two-fold. In the short term we all need to make a living – which indeed can mean being entrepreneurial. But at the same time, everyone who gives a damn has to help to lay the foundations for a better world – and that cannot be one that is run, as the world is now, along simple market lines. The market itself must be contained within a moral and social framework.

All this is the point of the Campaign for Real Farming and the College for Real Farming and Food Culture. It also shows very clearly the difference between the Oxford Farming Conference, which has launched the Anderson’s-Cranfield report, and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. The OFC seeks above all to fit in with the status quo and calls that “realistic”. The ORFC observes that the status quo is not working and seeks, by Renaissance rather than by Revolution, to help create something that will.

Colin Tudge, January 5 2016