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Greenham Farm smallholders. Photo: Abbie Trayler Smith / ELC.
Greenham Farm smallholders. Photo: Abbie Trayler Smith / ELC.
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Ecological agriculture: investing today in tomorrow's farms

Phil Moore

22nd May 2017

Ecological farming has taken root in the UK, writes Phil Moore: drawing inspiration from the past while employing the latest ideas and techniques from organic, no-dig, permaculture, agroecology and agroforestry methods. But with agricultural fields selling for up to £10,000 an acre, there's a big difficultly for many would-be eco-farmers: access to land. Now, with public support, that's a problem the Ecological Land Cooperative is determined to solve.

For small-scale ecological agriculture biodiversity is the cornerstone of farm life, creating a more ecological healthy countryside which provides employment, produces good food and makes a positive contribution to wildlife and the natural world.

How we farm and feed ourselves says a lot about our society's priorities.

Like many things in today's world, food has largely been forced into hungry jaws of hyper-capitalism driven by the twin pistons of 'economies of scale' and 'efficiency'.

Large-scale, industrial agri-business is proffered as the only way we can feed ourselves in the face of growing populations and dwindling resources.

But this is just one of the myths of our techno-capitalist worldview. And it needn't be this way.

Small-scale, agro-ecological farming can, and does, provide a model for agriculture that provide enough food, equitably, ecologically and economically.

The Ecological Land Co-operative is a social enterprise helps new entrants into ecological agriculture in England supporting the growth of farming that works with the grain of nature.

Land, land, everywhere - but not a patch to farm!

Farming and horticulture are incredibly hard to get into for new entrants. It's no surprise the average age of a British farmer stands at 59.

High set up costs, high costs of housing, a history of land amalgamation and a planning system anathema to small-scale agriculture make the barriers for new entrants seemingly insurmountable.

The price of agricultural land is now trading at record price levels of approximately £8,500 per acre. Between 2000-2010 new farm entrants accounted for just 4% of agricultural land purchasers. Wedded to this is the cost of rural housing. The average house price in rural England has more than doubled over the past decade to over £250,000, but the average salary is still £21,000.

The historical trend in land amalgamation has lead to the availability of a fewer number of predominantly large farms for purchase. This has happened at the same time that the number of County Farms and smallholdings has declined. The result is a substantial body of people who wish to farm an ecological smallholding but are unable to afford to do so.

"New entrants to farming have no possibility of buying a farm in England", says Zoe Wangler, Executive Director of the Ecological Land Co-operative. "The cost of land and rural housing is too high. Yet new entrants have the passion, vision and skills needed to reduce the negative environmental impacts of conventional farming and globalised food distribution."

The Ecological Land Co-operative

The core business of the ELC is the creation of smallholding clusters. The ELC buys agricultural land and seeks planning permission for new residential smallholdings as well as providing shared infrastructure. The 'starter farms' are then leased to smallholders - well below market rates - on a long and secure leasehold.

Sites are protected for affordability and ecological agriculture use in perpetuity on the ideas and advice of organic farmers, ecologists, planners, customers, and local residents, the prospective cluster of smallholdings has a binding whole site ecological management plan.

"Two things attracted us to the ELC", says Ruth Wilson, of Steepholding, one of the smallholdings at the ELC's first site, Greenham Reach. "One was the cost, which is based on the land price plus there was some infrastructure. The other really important one was the support for the planning side of things.

"Having two young children, setting up and doing this kind of thing, is quite hard work, and we wanted that element of risk - and potentially risk - taken out of it. Having met a lot of people getting into ecological agriculture and hearing their stories of having to go through planning appeals and seeing how much energy that had consumed was a major draw to us coming to the ELC to take that energy drain out of the equation."

As a not-for-profit community benefit society the ELC largely relies on public financing to carry out their work. Members not only invest money, but are backing a values-led approach where the returns aren't simply material and immediate but take a longer view longer such as the health of the land, the continuation of rural skills, rekindling local economies as well as the production of good, healthy food.

Their community share offer, in partnership with Ethex, experts in helping people make social investments, runs until 12th June (2017). Community Shares allow people to directly support enterprises that matter to them.

Inviting members of the public to invest, the ELC is looking to raise £340,000 for the creation of two new clusters of small farms. Investors are offered up to 3% interest on share capital annually. The minimum investment is £500 (in withdrawable shares) and anyone can invest.

The answer: small-scale ecological farming

Forward-thinking, stewardship-minded and ecologically based, small-scale farming injects creativity and care into agriculture. Small-scale farms make a distinctive contribution to rural life and economies. Providing local food, generating jobs (and income) such farmers are moving from being 'price takers' (as dictated by supermarkets) to 'price makers' (connecting with consumers).

Scaling back, not scaling up can provide a model for a truly ecological agriculture.

Studies have shown that the smaller the farm size the greater the yield per hectare. A 2014 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report concludes that family farms produce over three-quarters of the world's food. This is a direct challenge to the myth that Big Ag feeds the world.

Crop diversity, species rich polycultures and sound ecological land management means less use of chemicals, more care and more labour. And more labour translates as a higher quality of work inspired by an ecological ethic.

The industrial farming model has led to an ecological crisis in the UK. And we've a lot to answer for in our pursuit of more and more. Biodiversity loss, the degradation of soils, environmental contamination from agrochemicals, disease and antibiotic resistance, high greenhouse gas emissions, and huge amounts of food waste.

According to the UN 75% of the world's food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. This narrowing and specialisation is prone to the shocks and challenges of a changing climate.

Despite this 84% of the world's farms are less than two hectares. That's a little over the size of two football pitches. For small-scale ecological agriculture biodiversity is the cornerstone of farm life.

Making the dream real in 21st century England

Such an approach can help create a more ecological healthy countryside which provides employment, produces good food and makes a positive contribution to wildlife and the natural world - the ultimate store of our natural capital which drives the planet.

And it's increasingly taking root in the UK, drawing inspiration from the past while employing the latest ideas and techniques from organic, no-dig, permaculture, agroforestry and agroecology methods.

The ELC seeks to create such ecologically based stewardship-minded farms to make small-scale agriculture a viable reality in 21st century England.

 


 

Phil Moore is one half of the communications team for the Ecological Land Co-operative. He is passionate about 'enlightened agriculture' - in the words of Colin Tudge - and works to promote it through documentary film and writing. He tweets at @ecolandcoop and @permapeople

More information

The Ecological Land Co-operative community share offer seeks to draw investment from the public for the creation of two new clusters of farms. Inviting members of the public to invest, the ELC is looking to raise £340,000 for the creation of two new clusters of small farms.

Latest News: The community share offer has just pushed over the £200K mark! With three weeks to go, our supporters have already raised £205,651 of investment. Amazing!

Investors are offered up to 3% interest on share capital annually. The minimum investment is £500 (in withdrawable shares) and anyone can invest. The share offer runs until 12th June 2017.

The Ecological Land Co-operative is a social enterprise helps new entrants into ecological agriculture in England supporting the growth of farming that works with the grain of nature.

 

 

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