Bringing people back to the land

Autumn 2021 #35
written by
Luciana Edwards
illustration by
Seb Westcott
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The way we use land in the UK must change if we are to protect the environment and strengthen our rural communities. Although the large-scale intensification of farming has contributed considerably to food security in the West, it has had devastating impacts on the natural world. The UK agricultural sector is responsible for 10% of our country's greenhouse gas emissions, and has contributed to a 41% decline in UK wildlife species since 1970. 

The trend towards large-scale industrial farming has altered the makeup of the rural British landscape, with a huge decline in small family farms. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has warned that few farms under 50 hectares will exist within two generations if current trends continue. 

Research shows that smaller farms employ more people per hectare, suggesting the trend towards larger holdings restricts jobs within rural communities where economic opportunities are already limited. Smaller farm businesses are also much more likely to sell to other local businesses, or directly to the customer. Such relationships strengthen the rural economy by keeping money circulating within the local community. 

Impacts of large scale agribusiness have been challenged by a small but vocal movement of food producers determined to do different, instead choosing agroecology, which the Soil Association describes as the “application of ecological concepts and principles in farming”. This includes on-farm measures to mitigate climate change, and working towards improving farm biodiversity and strengthening local communities.

Agroecology has been chronically under-supported in the UK, with only 2.8% of all farmed areas in the UK being under organic certification. The lack of mainstream support for the sector has led to several misconceptions that agroecological producers are ‘hobby farmers’, and are often excluded in narratives from large farming organisations and media. This is also reflected in government policy. Producers owning land of less than five hectares – which includes many small-scale agroecological businesses – are not eligible for any government subsidies.

Land prices have rocketed over the course of the century, with the average cost of an agricultural acre between £7,000 and £9,000, meaning accessing land for new farming entrants is prohibitively expensive. Leasing land is often a more affordable option. However, with average farm tenancies only lasting five years this leaves little security for new businesses to invest in themselves or the land. It is not surprising, then, that the Landworkers Alliance found that for 60% of new entrants to agroecological farming, accessing land was one of the biggest challenges.

Finding an alternative 

The challenges to the UK agricultural sector and specifically agroecological producers are far-reaching, but there are attempts by a passionate community of people to address these.

Back in 2006, a group of dynamic diggers and dreamers got together to address the inequalities in land access and the incoming tide of large, environmentally destructive holdings in our farming landscape. All having past experience with co-operative housing models and land projects, the group formed a co-operative and sold community shares to buy a plot of conventionally managed pasture named Greenham Reach, in Mid-Devon. The Ecological Land Cooperative had its first small farm site. 

Twelve years later, the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) has come on leaps and bounds. Greenham Reach is now being ecologically farmed by three families with long-term tenure. In 2018 we gained temporary planning permission for residential small- holdings on our site in Arlington, East Sussex, which is now home to three agroecological businesses. We also own three more sites in South Wales, Somerset, and Cornwall which are in various stages of the planning process. 

Our model aims to make it as simple as possible for new entrants to agroecological farming to get set up. Using a mix of social investment loans and community shares, the co-operative identifies and buys suitable land. We apply for planning permission for each site to create a cluster of smallholdings with both farm infrastructure and low-impact dwellings, to overcome the barrier of finding suitable accommodation close to site. Once planning permission is granted we offer the sites to farm stewards, who have been selected based on their business plans and past experience, on an affordable 150-year lease. 

Agroecology and care of the land is at the heart of the ELC model. Each site has a management plan which is agreed upon by both the ELC and farm stewards, which aims to enhance beneficial ecological outcomes alongside maintaining agricultural productivity and livelihoods. The management plan sets out how habitats are managed, stipulates guidelines surrounding farming practices and output, and encourages community engagement and low impact living. Sites are monitored annually to ensure the management plan is appropriate and being carried out sufficiently. 

Learning by example 

Greenham Reach is the Ecological Land Cooperative’s oldest site. The ELC bought the 22 acre site of intensively managed arable and pasture land next to the river Tone in 2009. After gaining temporary planning permission in 2013 three families started to develop their smallholdings, with permanent planning permission granted in 2019. 

Greenham Reach is home to three agroecological businesses. Elder Farm is an organically certified medicinal herb farm. Wild Geese Acres is a market garden specialising in salads sold to local businesses, with additional orchards and Kunekune pig grazing. Steepholding is a mixed enterprise including fruit tree propagation and a community supported agriculture (CSA) vegetable box scheme. 

Each smallholding decides how they manage their land within the site-wide guidelines, with several ecological successes. Since 2014 over 500 metres of new hedgerows have been planted, alongside several acres of native coppice trees, forest gardens, orchards, and tree nurseries. Not only do they provide a visual screen to neighbours, the trees provide crops and fuel for farm stewards, and shade for livestock. Ecologically, tree planting has increased wildlife habitat, and aided water infiltration and carbon sequestration on site. 

The areas of grassland at Greenham Reach are also sensitively managed, using well-timed mowing or controlled grazing by goats, pigs, and sheep, and by hand clearing invasive or prolific plant species such as Himalayan balsam and brambles. Areas of ecologically sensitive grassland are now thriving with insect life, with an abundance of butterfly species found during the warmer months. 

The UK agricultural sector is at a crossroads, and now more than ever is the time to bring agroecology to the forefront as a solution to the environmental issues we are facing.

Ecological reports in 2017 showed that the mosaic of sensitively managed grazing, tree cover, and perennial and annual horticultural areas meant the site “may now be of considerable local importance for nectar and pollen-feeding insects ... and an important site for demonstrating techniques and possibilities for environmental enhancement in a very small area”. 

Soil health is also thought to have improved on the Greenham Reach site. Each smallholding manages their soil differently, from totally no-dig to minimum amounts of manual and mechanical tilling. Nevertheless, the addition of manures and composts within growing areas have increased soil organic matter content from 7.6% to 10.3%, helping to support a thriving soil food web and nutrient cycling. 

The Greenham Reach management plan also considers the impact of human habitation on the wider environment, and the smallholders aim to live as off-grid as possible. The communal barn is home to a 4.2 kWh solar array which provides the site’s electricity, as well as a 20,000 litre rainwater collection system and UV filter. A well is used during the summer months for crop irrigation, as well as a wind turbine to help with winter electricity generation. However, there have been ongoing challenges in supporting three commercial businesses with the off-grid system, creating limitations in crop production and processing, compounded by increasingly unpredictable weather, all of which are important learnings for our future sites. 

The agricultural businesses at Greenham Reach have flourished over the last few years, despite challenging weather and COVID-19. Wild Geese Acres’ salad business is going well and the farm is reaching new markets via the online marketplace, Tend. Steepholding’s CSA scheme continues to grow, now providing 60-70 veg boxes a week. Fruit tree sales have been strong too, selling out during 2020, albeit online due to the pandemic. Elder Farm is continuing to diversify its herbal production and develop markets, whilst perennial herb bed strips of thyme, hyssop, meadow sweet and others continue to produce.

In search of soil

The Ecological Land Cooperative has grand plans for the next few years. We hope to acquire at least two new sites in the next 12 months to create six new agroecology smallholdings. However, one of our biggest challenges at the moment is finding land which is currently in short supply on the open market. 

In the past, land has come to us through a variety of ways, from buying through traditional markets or being tipped off by people within the agroecology movement, to landowners approaching us directly offering us land. The one defining feature of our search for land is the great help and support we’ve had from our wider networks. 

In the coming months we will be launching our land donation campaign. If you are a landowner, would you consider donating part of your land to support a new generation of farmers to further develop a food system that puts the environment, climate, and community at the heart of production? Or consider leaving us land in a will? Although donations are a preference, we are also in a position to purchase land. Do get in touch if you would like to sell some land to the ELC, or if you hear of suitable land for sale in your area. 

Our ideal sites are holdings of up to 40 acres of cultivable agricultural land, with good access to roads and an onsite mains water supply. For us to properly support our stewards and complete site monitoring we are purposely searching for land in specific regions. These include South Wales, the South West, East Anglia, Southern and South East of England. 

The UK agricultural sector is at a crossroads, and now more than ever is the time to bring agroecology to the forefront as a viable solution to the environmental issues we are facing. We need to encourage new faces into the sector, with new ideas and passion to make the necessary changes. At the Ecological Land Cooperative we are working hard to make it easier for people who want to get started in agroecology to challenge the mainstream paradigm that food production equals environmental destruction. With all the challenges of land access and an arcane planning system we have many hurdles to overcome, but we hope by continuing to address these challenges we are contributing to a greener, fairer agricultural landscape in the UK.

You can get in touch with the Ecological Land Co-operative by emailing stella@ecologicalland.coop

Luci Edwards is the communications manager at the Ecological Land Cooperative and has a keen interest in land-use politics after studying an MSc in Sustainable Agriculture. Luci also works as an ecological grower in South Devon.

Autumn 2021 #35
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