Put yourself in the shoes of a UK farmer: you’re 59 (the average age), undoubtedly male and pretty darn stretched. You’ve got the uncertainties of Brexit on your doorstep, you’re worried about who will take over the farm and you can’t remember the last time you slept beyond dawn. I’m not a farmer – and I offer my apologies to farmers out there who do not recognise the stereotype I’ve suggested – but I do know that farming is really tough and I am concerned that so few people are willing or able to take it up.
I am not alone in my concern. I have just joined 41 other people who, like me, are attempting to squeeze into sturdy farm footwear to better understand the realities of farming and explore how to make it a more accessible activity in years to come. Our exploration takes the shape of a collaborative investment in an #OurField crop.
What is #OurField?
#OurField is the brainchild of five young women intent on changing farming economics by turning farm ownership on its head. It builds on an earlier Arts Council initiative Field of Wheat. With #OurField, a farmer can share a piece of land with ‘collaborators’ who invest in its crop(s). Not only do these collaborators make a financial investment, buying into the crop, they also contribute to the process of deciding how the crops are grown. By sharing a field with a farmer, investors carry some of the farmer’s risk, affording the farmer some freedom to experiment with new crops and methods, hopefully facilitating a transition to more ‘sustainable’, ecologically sound farming methods.
Why go against the grain?
There is little help for farms operating on slim financial margins to move away from intensive farming methods, which are heavily reliant on chemical inputs and monocropping, to less intensive methods and more diverse crops. #OurField aims to help farmers make this transition, which will in turn protect and build soil for future generations. #OurField is currently focused on growing grain because a huge proportion of the grain produced in the UK does not meet the standard for human consumption and is sold as animal feed. This is often due to a lack of the time and money needed to invest in producing crops to this standard.
#OurField also helps consumers to engage with the literal roots of food and learn about the intricate decisions that farmers make on a day-to-day basis as they produce it.
How does it work at Weston Farm?
Weston Farm in Hertfordshire is the first test bed. We are 42 investors with 42 distinct opinions on what should be grown and how, who have invested an equal lump sum to have our say. People have invested for different reasons: some want to increase their farming knowledge, others to explore how collaborative consumption might support a fragile food system. Many simply want to make a return on investment.
In mid-February, we visited Weston Farm together, walked the fields and discussed our options. John Cherry, our farmer, had one request – that the field continue to be farmed with a ‘no till’ method as it was for the last 6 years. John has put forward a suite of suggested crops for collaborators to mull over. Will we plant spring wheat, spelt, oats? Or will we ‘companion plant’ lentils with the spelt or oats?
All decision making about our field will be done via an online platform, Loomio. A local architect has been recruited to moderate the group’s thread. He assesses the discussions and summarizes key arguments before putting them to a vote.
The first question we have to answer, is how organic do we want to be?
John’s farm is not organic and if we were to grow organically we would have had to build up the fertility of our field by planting a legume or herbal ley the year before – so that’s a bit of a missed boat. The field that has been chosen had a crop of wheat in the ground last year, and now has a cover crop of oats and blackgrass. There won’t be a huge amount of natural fertility available as a result, and we would have to grow the crop with fertilizers – ‘‘additional oomph’’, as John puts it. In short, we can avoid chemical inputs, but what little we get won’t be marketable with an organic premium as Weston Farm is not certified organic.
Ultimately, the collective has to acknowledge that experimentation will come at a price. While many want to experiment with the novelty of practices like companion cropping and keeping chemical inputs to a minimum, others don’t want to put their investment on the line.
There is much to consider in deciding what to grow. A variety of spring wheat called Mulika has been tried and tested on the farm with an estimated yield of 2 to 3 tonnes grain/acre when grown conventionally with fertilizers and pesticides. It tends to produce high protein milling grain and consequently is sought after by the millers. Should it not reach the standard for human consumption, it will sell at a good premium as animal feed wheat.
Spelt, on the other hand, is a trendier crop. Most spelt is grown organically in the UK, but as demand for spelt increases, one or two British mills are now buying non-organic spelt. John’s pleased with the first crop that they planted last Autumn but has no idea how spring sown spelt will yield or behave. The costs should be lower than Mulika, the yield certainly will be, but the price should be higher.
Oats are, on the whole, more competitive against weeds and diseases than wheat. They are cheaper to grow but should yield as much as spring wheat. However, the farm’s agronomist warns that a number of farmers appear to be growing oats now, so the market could crash.
We also have the option to try companion cropping with lentils, oats and spelt, unchartered territory for the farm itself. Companion crops will nurture the soil, sharing minerals and water, increasing biodiversity all whilst growing our ‘cash crop’ of spelt or oats, however the yield will almost certainly be lower.
Watch it grow
In mid-April with the help of farm staff and machinery, we will sow the seeds, and in May, we’ll decide how to weed the crop. Come late August, we’ll have to harvest, process and sell our crop, deciding what to do with it and its accompanying straw.
At the end of the six month process, there will be a communal stock take. Will John still want investors? Do we still want to invest and would we be happy to continue to invest and plan for several years ahead? Will this model catch on, will other farms jump on the bandwagon?
Our crop may fail, 42 people may be too many to mediate. Or, our harvest could exceed all expectations. One thing, however, is certain: #OurField Weston is the start of something big. It supports a reconnection with food through economic and emotional investment. It also opens a space for innovation. When the burden of production no longer lies on the shoulders of one person, and is instead shared by a community of people who value and care about this farmer, this field and this crop, a space opens for a new and possibly better way to farm.
Follow the progress of Our Field Weston via the hashtag #OurField and find out how to land the idea near you at http://www.ourfieldproject.org
Photographs: Annie Landless and Joe Sarah Photography