Forty years ago Bedfordshire was famous for its market gardening. Bedfordshire onions and brussel sprouts were the best in the country. In 1969 I carried out a land use survey in East Bedfordshire. (I lived in Sandy Road, Potton at the time.)
In 2009, to the day, I repeated the survey. Traditional market gardening, with its characteristic pattern of strip cultivation, had disappeared. Pasture, largely used by horses, woodland, mineral working and waste were the big gainers. A few arable farmers have survived but the cultivation of vegetables at field scale is now an activity undertaken by growers who specialise in a single crop e.g. onions or potatoes. These growers work over very large acreages, some with fields scattered over many counties.
1969 and 2009 compared
The comparison between 1969 and 2009 is stark. It raises many important issues about how we feed ourselves, the role of the supermarkets in the food chain, the sustainability of agriculture and the importance of farming as the foundation of a health rural life. Are the current market arrangements just? A local farmer pleaded with me for 'Fair Trade' for British farmers. My study presents the facts. It does not speculate about how this change came about. Most of those with whom I have shared these results are surprised, some are shocked. I think it is time that there is a debate on these topics. There is certainly scope for more of the facts to be brought to light.
There are some pioneers in Potton, Sandy and Dunton who are keeping sheep, pigs, and chickens and are carrying out some market gardening activities but they are only working on a small scale. They lack access to land (which is strange because Central Bedfordshire has land which it has a statutory duty to let within the terms of the Agriculture Act, 1970, Part 3) and they lack access to markets (though they are making good use of the internet).County Farms, Statutory Smallholdings should play a bigger role
Statutory smallholdings, gave many men a plot of land in 1969. Bedfordshire County Council was seen as an active and accessible landlord because it made available strips to achieve its statutory duty of meeting, as far as was possible, the demand for land from small farmers. Forty years on Central Bedfordshire Council had replaced Bedfordshire County Council. It calls its smallholdings 'Central Farms'.
In 1969 there were six estates of County Council smallholdings. This provided land to 43 growers (38% of an estimated 112 in the whole area). In 2009 there were only five estates (one has become a school since 1969). Definitive information is impossible to obtain but, based on the pattern of cropping observed, it is estimated that a maximum of only 6 farmers are cultivating this land. Only on one plot was observed growing vegetables. However, it is believed by several other farmers in the area that only one farmer, not located in Bedfordshire, farms the entire estate at three of the locations.
I have written a pamphlet on the subject, East Bedfordshire's arcadia: history of prophecy? Market gardening yesterday or tomorrow. (ISBN: 978-0-9550696-1). Copies are available from our store (Price £5.00, plus postage within the UK). I can also be persuaded to give talks on this topic.