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small-scale agriculture

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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Land and Deliver : Erasmus

Land and Deliver : Erasmus

Written by Tom Carman and Ruth West, Real Farming Trust.

Land is what we use to grow the food we eat. For years in the UK many new entrants to farming, as in the rest of Europe, have been facing increasing difficulties accessing affordable and secure land.  There were and still are a mixture of reasons contributing to these difficulties, which have been identified as part of an Erasmus partnership and learning programme working across Europe called Access to Land.  This project is pooling knowledge and experience from organisations in France, Romania, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany and the UK.

The starting point for this work was looking at the barriers and hurdles facing new entrants to farming. The demand for land is high as there are competing interests for its use – farming, housing, woodland enterprise, industrial developments etc.  Planning systems across Europe are regulated to different degrees, and whilst planning systems can help to bring different stakeholders together to discuss land use, they don’t align with the timing needs for farmers to make a living. In addition to this, there is scepticism amongst the status quo in UK farming about the viability of alternative approaches to food production and land management such as agro-ecology, organic and bio-dynamic farming or permaculture.  This is despite increasing evidence that these approaches can provide a living and the increasingly obvious need for land to be managed in a way that is good for the planet.  There is also competition amongst entrant farmers, as when scare land does become available there are many people who apply to use it.

Difficult land access has had strategic, structural and operational effects on countries.  For instance the UK is not producing enough food: around 60% is imported, with many horticultural products coming from Spain.  The effect of this has been to decrease the pool of entrant farmers in the UK leaving an increasingly aging farming population. The result has been a loss of farming skills and a lack of innovation – new entrant farmers bring with them the desire and knowledge to practice agro-ecologial farming, but without the ability to access land, they cannot build experience or share agro-ecological credibility.

The exciting part to this work though, is learning about innovative approaches that are helping agro-ecologial farmers to access land better. For example, Terre de Liens in France has successfully brought together key stakeholders across France including local authorities, conventional farming regulators, citizens and new entrants to open up 3,000 hectares of French farmland to organic food production.  In Germany, a network of land access co-operatives has started to emerge that work from a national to local level, opening up land for agro-ecological farmers. And in the UK, the Community Supported Agriculture network is supporting the growth of local communities wanting to share the risks of food production with the farmer. 

As part of the Erasmus programme, The A-Team Foundation sponsored a film exploring the shared challenges facing new entrants from the participating countries in their search for land.