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Our future farmers: Ragman’s Farm

In the wilds of the Forest of Dean, four friends have started farming a small market garden plot in partnership with an established farm. Ragman’s Lane Market Garden is part of Ragman’s Farm, but stands as a separate business, run by the young farmers. It’s another example of how older farmers are helping newbie farmers to access land, giving them a leg-up to start their own businesses. As land prices soar, and the average age of farmers continues to climb, we desperately need new farmers, or risk having nobody to feed us in the future.

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Natalie Baker, Danny Fisher, Jon Goodman and Ben Hanslip don’t come from farming families. They are friends who met during their university days, and each came to growing in slightly different ways. As part of the generation that will inherit the mess that the 20th century has made of our food systems, they have a vested interest in working towards more sustainable models of production. As Natalie Baker says, ‘I discovered the joy in a deeper connection to the land around us, that has been severed. I realised that having that connection, and growing my own food, empowered me to live and eat well, and not contribute to a destructive food system… It means taking control back of a food system that is currently dependent on chemical inputs and depletes the earth’s natural resources.’

The relationship with Ragman’s Farm started when Jon Goodman visited the farm on a Permaculture Open Day. Ragman’s Farm is owned by Matt Dunwell, and farmed using the principles of permaculture to organic standards. Dunwell has long had a commitment to sustainability that is core to the farm’s ethos. They run an extensive programme of educational courses on sustainable practice, with a particular focus on permaculture, working closely with Patrick Whitefield, who has written extensively on the subject. The farm is also known for its award-winning apple juice produced from a range of traditional varieties.

9392911_origWhen Jon visited, Ragman’s Farm Manager, Freya Davies, mentioned the market garden that had fallen out of use, saying they were open to proposals. Jon took the suggestion back to his friends, who had already begun discussing running a business together. They mapped out a business for the site and submitted it to Ragman’s, who came back to them with a verbal agreement to farm the land. This was formalised into a two-year rolling farm business tenancy agreement, renting two acres initially, with an option to expand into another two acres in the next year. Very helpfully, the rental agreement also covers the use of some of Ragman’s Farm’s machinery and equipment, including polytunnels, which has helped cut significant start-up costs. Ragman’s Lane Market Garden also shares the Soil Association organic certification costs, making it cheaper for both the farm and the market garden.

Gaining the skills needed for growing has been pretty hands-on for the group. Jon took the most formalised route through a Soil Association Apprenticeship with Daylesford Organic Market Garden. Ben learned much tending his own garden whilst an urban dweller in London. It grew in him a passion for growing, which led to a desire for a more fulfilling lifestyle producing food. Natalie and Danny volunteered at market gardens for several years, ‘working with some fantastic people who were generous in knowledge and spirit.’

When asked about the long-term security of the new venture, Jon comments that renting land isn’t always considered by start-up farmers because it’s thought of as insecure. But, as Goodman notes, ‘Land is cheap to rent but expensive to buy… and trust is critical in the relationship with Ragman’s Farm. The folk at Ragman’s Farm have said that they appreciate having us here, renting and growing on land that had been fallow and increasing the diversity of what is going on on the farm. There is a sense of trust between us and we feel that we have some security beyond the terms of our tenancy.’ It’s important that Ragman’s Farm shares a commitment to sustainability and sees the Market Garden as more than just a plot to rent – it’s a piece of a larger picture which contributes to the development of a secure, localised food system.

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Carrying a large business loan in order to buy land makes it much harder to create a robust and viable business model. Start-up costs for the the Market Garden have been low, but their business is still in its first year and has yet to prove its viability. The business model is focused on growing high value crops to sell to a very localised market, largely local pubs, restaurants and retail outlets, but they will also sell into the Dean Forest Food Hub. The Hub is a social enterprise focused on supporting access to affordable, quality local food, offering an alternative to the supermarket that is better for local people, local economies and the local environment. The hub is a good partner to local producers in the Forest, and will help the Market Garden reach local people, without having to do the groundwork themselves. The Market Garden also wants to diversify into some processing of their produce, extending the seasonal life of the food through drying, canning, pickling, fermenting and preserving. Ben Hanslip also comments that they would like to develop the Market Garden as ‘…not just a place where we grow food but as a space that can be used as an educational tool in order for people to learn and feel inspired about their food.’

There have been big challenges already in the start-up of the venture. All partners still work outside of the business to support their living costs. There has also been the huge learning curve of managing the business beyond just growing food. However, as Ben notes, they have different areas of expertise and this makes the business stronger and more resilient. But all feel, as Jon says, ‘It’s a great privilege to be able to farm the land.’ It also means making a meaningful contribution to the local community by producing affordable, local, organic food, and ‘…enjoying and preserving a land-based culture and way of life that is threatened and denied to most people.’ The experience is all the better for them, shared among friends.

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