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Small Farming

Creating change with the Ecological Land Cooperative

Creating change with the Ecological Land Cooperative

by Phil Moore, Ecological Land Cooperative

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead’s oft-cited quote has a certain mileage in the underpinnings of the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) — the only organisation in England and Wales to fight for affordable residential smallholdings for ecological agriculture.

Changing the world has to start somewhere, and so the ELC have focused their energies on land in the U.K. According to Kevin Cahill, author of ‘Who Owns Britain’ (2001), nearly half of the UK’s land is owned by just 40,000 people — 0.06% of the population.

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For many of those wishing to lead a land-based livelihood, such dreams are stymied by two distinct, but not entirely insurmountable, obstacles — the high cost of land and getting planning consent to live as an agriculture worker on your small-scale mixed farm. Between 2000 and 2010 new farm entrants accounted for just 4% of agricultural land purchasers. The average age of the British farmer is now 59.

This is where the ELC come in.

Zoe Wangler, former ELC Executive Director, and who remains a close ally, was inspired to help start the ELC through the example of others:

“I met a lot of people who wanted a land-based livelihood and wanted to contribute to a better world but just couldn’t access land. When I came across this idea for the ELC - using community finance to buy land and then getting planning permission for people to live on the land so more people could do such projects - I thought I’d absolutely love to get behind that.”

The origins of the Ecological Land Cooperative lie in spirited discussions in the spring of 2005 between members of Chapter 7, the ecological planning consultancy, Radical Routes, a co-operative working for social change, Somerset Co-operative Services, a co-op development body, and a smallholdings like Landmatters, Lammas, Highbury Farm and Five Penny Farm.

The desire for many to inhabit a living countryside in which humans flourish alongside the natural world, and centred around small-scale land-based enterprises providing meaningful employment, is vital for creating food and energy sovereignty.

Re-vitalising rural communities, improving ecological literacy and providing decent and honest food are lofty desires demanded by the passionate.

The Ecological Land Cooperative is the midwife to such breathy ideals, giving the doers and dreamers a practical hand in making small-scale agroecological farming a reality.

The ELC model and core business is simple: the creation of small clusters of three or more affordable residential smallholdings. As well as land, we provide smallholders with permission to build their own sustainable home, with utilities and road access. Our model allows us to keep costs as low as possible, both through buying larger sites at a lower price per acre and through distributing the cost of infrastructure, planning applications and subsequent site monitoring across a number of smallholdings.

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The ELC model of new starter farms is protected for farming, for affordability, and for sustainability. Small-scale agriculture presupposes an ethic of care for the land and a desire to feed people good food. This runs counter to the dominant food production system we see in the U.K. and globally.

The ELC has the skills and expertise necessary to show planning authorities why such small-scale farms make sense financially and culturally. As a cooperative, retaining the acquired knowledge around planning and policy is crucial as a way of both replicating the small clusters of farms model and in dealing with planning law to allow future farmers to focus their energies on growing their business.

More recently we’ve been awarded a temporary planning permission by Wealdon District Council for the creation of three smallholdings on our second site in Arlington, East Sussex.

The application process to lease one of our three smallholdings in Arlington opens in mid-September. Please visit our website to apply and to find out more about our work here: www.ecologicalland.coop/arlington

Our first site in mid Devon has been established for five years with three smallholder families running successful farm-based businesses benefiting the local area in a variety of ways, from providing excellent quality fruit, vegetables, meat, flowers, herbs and other organic produce, to creating volunteer and training opportunities and an environment in which the local ecology is thriving. We also have a third site on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales which is being farmed by a well established local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme, and a fourth (and possibly fifth) site in the pipeline in the south west of England.

The ELC is part of a movement recognising the value to local communities and the economic viability of small-scale farming -- as well as responding to the desire of young farmers wishing to get on the land.

The changes we are making are slow, but progress is steady and sure and we have big ambitions. Our approach isn’t flashy or loud, but rooted in a deeper rhythm of change and in a firm conviction that change is not only possible but desirable.

More about the ELC and our work: www.ecologicalland.coop

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A FOOD REVOLUTION STARTS WITH SEED

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A FOOD REVOLUTION STARTS WITH SEED

The Seed Sovereignty UK & Ireland Programme goes online

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by Rowan Phillimore, Gaia Foundation;  www.seedsovereignty.info

It’s been almost four years since The Gaia Foundation organised The Great Seed Festival in London, to celebrate the seeds that feed us. It was here, as activists, foodies and farmers gathered together at the Garden Museum on the Southbank, that an idea took root which has the potential to change the face of seed production in the UK and Ireland. Inspired by a Canada-wide programme on seed security, the Seed Sovereignty Programme was born. The aim is simple: increase the amount of agro-ecological (organic and open-pollinated) seed being grown and sold here in the UK and Ireland.

It’s estimated that just 3% of the seed produced in the UK is organic, that is, produced without chemicals and fertilisers. That means that the vast majority of products stacked on shelves and in markets labelled ‘organic’ are not grown from organic seed in the first place. There is a glaring break in the cycle from soil to gut and we are embarking on a journey to close it. What’s more, with five experienced regional coordinators based across Wales, Scotland, Ireland and east and west England, we are working closely with farmers, seed producers, horticulturists and trained and commercial growers in order to conserve threatened varieties and to breed more varieties for future resilience. We believe that a food revolution starts with seed.

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On the new dedicated Seed Sovereignty website visitors will find a growing library of resources relating to all things seed. Whether looking for a local supplier of organic seed, for training in seed saving or information about current seed legislation, the website provides a useful stepping-stone to support you in your journey.

The site is also the home of first-hand accounts from the programme’s five dedicated regional coordinators. Katie Hastings, Coordinator for Wales talks here about her first few months in the role as she travelled across the country to meet farmers and growers. You can read her full blog here.

“One of the first things the growers told me is that despite knowing a great deal about land management and vegetable production, many of them didn’t have the skills to produce seed. The art of completing the growing cycle on farm by producing the seed for the next crop is somehow being lost, and the growers I was meeting wanted to change that.

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I started by working with the inspirational seed company Real Seeds. Kate, Ben and their team have been producing high quality open pollinated seed for sale for over 20 years. Their passion for seed sovereignty has informed the way they run their business and has led them to encourage their customers to save their own seed. But what has been striking is the discovery that they cannot produce enough seed in their fields in Newport to satisfy demand. The Real Seeds shopping carts have overflowed numerous times as they process orders for a growing appetite for ecological seed.

With a strong market for Welsh grown seed and a burst of energy from growers keen to learn, my work has been centred on bringing these two worlds together.”

Find out more about the aims of the programme and how you can get involved or connect with your regional coordinator by visiting www.seedsovereignty.info




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A Matter of Scale

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A Matter of Scale

by Rebecca Laughton and Csilla Kiss, 
The Landworkers' Alliance and The
Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University.

Why study small farms?

Small scale (20ha and less) farms and market gardens have long fallen below the radar in UK agricultural policy, despite attracting increasing numbers of new entrants who bring youth and innovation to the agricultural sector.  A culture of disbelief exists that such farms can be economically viable in an age when family farms of 50-200 hectares are being amalgamated into ever larger units. Despite an “inverse relationship” between farm size and productivity being proven in the Global South, little data exists about the productivity of small farms in the UK. The “A Matter of Scale” (AMOS) study set out to challenge the assumption that bigger automatically means “more productive” and “more viable”, by collecting and analysing data about the yields, financial performance and multifunctional benefits of agroecological farms of 20ha and less. The A-Team Foundation provided funding for a two year study to be undertaken by the Landworkers’ Alliance under the supervision of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, combining an online survey of small farmers with the creation of five short films, based on interviews with the most productive farms in the survey.

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What did the research show?

The survey and interviews revealed a number of striking findings about this little studied sector.  The most notable include:

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  • The average yields (kg per square metre) of crops such as beans, salad leaves and kale, requiring high labour inputs were two to three times higher than yield data for standard non-organic systems.
     
  • Small farms provide employment, both for self-employed growers/farmers and paid employees, to the tune of 3.2 full time equivalents (FTE) per hectare.  This is significantly higher than the UK average for agriculture of 0.028 annual work units (AWU) per hectare[1] and even the average for horticulture of 0.23 AWU/ha[2].  Furthermore, employees were motivated to choose small scale agroecological farms due to the variety of work, its meaningful nature and the convivial working environment.
     
  • 78% of the sample was receiving no farm subsidies, and of those who were, for most respondents, subsidies represented a minor proportion of their income.  Although net farm incomes were low, produce sales were generating more than 60% of total income for 33% of the AMOS sample, 40-60% of income for 33% of the sample.   This contrasts with annual farm business income data for the UK, in which all farm types are obtaining more income from Pillar 1 payments and agri-environment schemes than from sales of agricultural produce[3] .

The methodology for measuring productivity on diverse, highly integrated farms, proved challenging. Apart from the horticultural data, it was difficult to calculate yield figures per area of land due to practices such as rotation, poly-cropping and the use of bought in feeds.  A detailed understanding of the full productive capacity of small farms, especially those with livestock, would require in depth quantitative case studies.  As is so often the case, the attempt to answer one question, only throws up many more!

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Outcomes from the AMOS study

Even before the AMOS report was published in July 2017, figures from the study were in demand.  The 2017 edition of the “Organic Farm Management  Handbook”, used AMOS horticultural yield data in a new section focussing on the performance of small organic production holdings, making it more useful for business planning for such enterprises.  Figures from the report have also been used in the Landworkers’ Alliance’s own campaign publications “Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy”[4] and “Why We Need Small Farms[5]

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Following publication, the report achieved some media coverage, including interviews with the author on Farming Today, BBC Points West (Link) and BBC Radio Somerset.  At the Via Campesina global gathering in July, great excitement was expressed about the AMOS report as a valuable campaigning tool.  In September, a delegation of Defra officers from the Organic Team took part in a two day study tour of small, agroecological farms in the Midlands, including three visits to holdings which took part in the study.  Being able to show efficient and viable small farms in action, backed up by a detailed report about their productivity, was powerful in challenging the preconceptions held by some of the delegates.  Already the report is contributing to broader dialogue about the future of agriculture and was also featured in a CPRE Food and Farming Foresight Paper, “Uncertain Harvest: does the loss of farms matter[6]?”

The scope of the project stretched far beyond the delivery of a report, however.  Encouraged by the team at the CAWR, respondents for the survey were recruited in part by a series of six regional Landworkers’ Alliance meetings across England.  These meetings, held in early 2015, formed the foundation for an evolving regionalisation process which is enabling far flung members of the LWA to benefit from training events, farm tours and the solidarity of regional meetings.  In October 2016, people who took part in the survey and other LWA members were invited to a Skill Share day to hear about the results of the research, and take part in enterprise themed workshops to explore how they could increase productivity using agroecological ideas.  The five films were premiered at the Skill Share day, which gave an opportunity for feedback and discussion and contributed to the final report.  The films will now make the findings of the report accessible to a wider audience and will, we hope, encourage more people to read the report.

At a time when the future of UK agriculture hangs in the balance, the AMOS report will continue to be a valuable piece of the LWA’s campaign toolkit as we argue the case for better support for small farmers post Brexit. 

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You can read the full AMOS report here

 

[1] Defra (2015) Agriculture in the UK, p8

[2] Devlin, S. (2016) Agricultural Labour in the UK. New Economics Foundation and Food Research Collaboration. 

[3] Defra (2015/16) Farm business income by type of farm, p8

[4] LWA (2017) Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy.  

[5] LWA (2017) Why we need small farms: Farming in Post-Brexit Britain.

[6] Willis, G. (2017). Uncertain Harvest: Does the loss of small farms matter? Food and Farming Foresight Paper 2, the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

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