Ecological Land Cooperative: Why new entrants need your support
With only 11 days to go until the Ecological Land Co-operative’s Community Share Offer (www.ethex.org.uk/ecologicalland) ends, read why new entrants to agriculture need your support.
From hill-side sheep farming to no-dig market gardening, working and managing the land is a varied enterprise. Yet for many, farming and growing the food we eat, is little regarded.
The average of today’s UK farmer is 59 years. The proportion of people aged less than 35 years working in agriculture is around 4%. The small to medium scale non-industrial farming sector is in steep decline. Current trends show an increase in farm consolidation, whereby many small farms that are no longer viable are being consolidated into larger farms. Between 2005 and 2015 just over 25,000 farms under 50 hectares were lost in the England.
So what about up and coming producers passionate about food, who are ecologically literate and have a desire to work with the land?
The Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC) works to give ecological agriculture a firm footing in our landscape by making small-scale agriculture a viable reality in the 21st century. The ELC is the only organisation in England which offers affordable residential smallholdings for future growers. Set up in 2009 the ELC aims to overcome two key barriers to accessing land: high land prices and legal permission (planning consent).
Overcoming these seemingly insurmountable obstacles the ELC model seeks to help new entrants plough a path into agriculture. For Garethe, a former IT worker, and now grower at North Aston Organics, his path into agriculture came from a desire to have a more meaningful relationship to work: “IT is very ephemeral. The work I was doing was not particularly directly meaningful. With vegetable growing there’s a very clear connection with the earth and a very clear product; that you’re producing, that you can see the benefits of very straightforwardly.”
For Garethe the ELC model “is trying to bring land back into a more common ownership with a clearly defined purpose of ‘enlightened agriculture’. Protecting it and holding it in trust and ensuring people can work the land on a small and sustainable scale.”
Forward-thinking and stewardship-minded those advocating and practising small-scale growing do so with an ethic of care for the environment and bags of creativity.
Author, thinker and co-founder of the Real Farming Trust, Colin Tudge defines ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ as, “farming which is expressly designed to ensure that everybody in the world is well fed without wrecking the rest of the world.” And broadly speaking ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ is underpinned by the principles of agro-ecology, food sovereignty and the democratic control of food production.
The ELC works to get this kind of agriculture a recognised part of how food and farming is done in England and the UK. As a not-for-profit community benefit society the ELC largely relies on public financing to carry out their work. Executive Director, Zoe Wangler, explains: “The co-operative brings together community finance, raised by the public, to buy land and subdivide into smallholdings. The ELC then puts together an overarching plan for that site. When we approach the local authority we can talk to them about why there’s a need for people to live on the land, we can show them example business plans and we can show them our management plan for the site and the kind of monitoring that they’ll see from us to make sure that the land is indeed used for agro-ecological production and is kept in affordable use. As an organisation we can give planning authorities more assurance than that of an individual. An assurance that any permission granted will be kept and protected for agro-ecological producers because we are a community benefit society.”
Reaching out to investors the ELC draws upon supporter’s beliefs that an ‘enlightened agriculture’ is not only important, but necessary. The ELC community share offer, in partnership with Ethex, who promote social investments, runs until the 12th June. Inviting members of the public to invest, the ELC hopes to raise £340,000 for the creation of two new clusters of small farms. Investors are offered up to 3% in interest on share capital annually. And with only 11 days left, you can help be part of a movement to get ‘enlightened agriculture’ on the map.
Funding future farms which are small-scale and ecologically minded is a tough enterprise, but with the success of the ELC’s first project, Greenham Reach, in Devon, it has been shown that it can be done. And the desire to help new entrants to farming access land is what drives the ELC.
For Ree, grower at Wild Roots Veg, a horse-powered CSA scheme, the idea of the ELC is immensely attractive. Inspired by her university lecturer who called for more peasants on the land working in a low-impact way and concerned with habitat destruction and pollution generated by a pursuit of more and more, Ree went into growing as soon as she finished university. She is now growing on rented land, in Sussex, with her partner and working horses. Yet the idea of affording a piece of land for themselves in the surrounding area is simply unrealistic. As a small-scale grower, Ree says the ELC “represents an opportunity to rent to buy a piece of land where you can be secure with no threat of ever being turned off the land. As well as an interaction with other people on the land.” That, and, as she says, to be surrounded by more like-minded people.
The ELC business model is the creation of clusters of smallholdings by purchasing parcels of agricultural land and dividing it into smaller units for future plots. Providing shared infrastructure, shared planning applications, as well as subsequent site monitoring, the ELC helps to keep costs down for future farmers. The sites are protected for affordability and ecological agriculture use in perpetuity.
Dee Butterly and Adam Payne of Southern Roots Organics in Dorset, who recently ran a successful crowdfunding campaign, are also active campaigners in food politics and policy. As new entrants, and tenant farmers, the issue of accessing land is keenly felt.
“It’s essential for me,” says Adam, “that you need more solidity than a tenancy will give you but it’s very hard to find that. ELC offers a really strong model for overcoming those obstacles. The more we establish the business here, the more I see certainty as a really useful thing because for us we’re developing something that looks like it will work. It takes a lot of management, and energy, and you have to really maintain that.”
For Dee the idea of buying a bare piece of land without any planning permission and going through the struggle of planning applications is both exciting and worrying.
“It can absorb so much time and energy and can really compromise the development of a business,” says Dee. “The ELC offers that certainty when moving on to the land. It’s a crazy situation that for people getting land and starting a business it is such a massive struggle. Many who have done it, worked hard and built their business have burnt themselves out and lost the passion having been burdened with many struggles. The ELC can help take out those stresses and strains allowing people to get on with the business of growing.”
And for them, as for many others, a major attraction of the ELC model of ‘cluster farms’ is the community element. Having good neighbours is vital as the business of growing can be isolating and exhausting.
As a co-operative, retaining the acquired knowledge around planning and policy, is crucial for the ELC. Not only as a way to replicate the small clusters of farms approach but in dealing with planning, paperwork and logistics the ELC allows future growers to focus their energies on exactly that — growing.
Reaching out to investors, the ELC draws upon the public’s investment in an idea. The notion that such an approach is workable and can be repeated are solid grounds for financing a project as well as showing planners, policy people and farming and growing communities that there are ways to make ecological land-based livelihoods a reality.
The ELC represents real people providing models of a better ways of doing agriculture. And in providing us with a sense of direction now the work of the ELC can help us look forward to a future where mixed, small-scale agro-ecology farming isn’t confined to the margins but part of a healthy and vibrant agriculture and landscape for all.