How we farm says a lot about ourselves and how a society values its food. Small farms are where creativity in agriculture is nurtured. From micro-dairies to community supported agriculture, the variety of small-scale, mixed farming is a wonder to behold. But to create a land-based business can be a truly terrifying, as well as emboldening experience. For many starting out, the dual challenges of planning permission and high land prices discourages any such attempts at developing a business modelled on providing good, clean and fair food.

The Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC) was set up to address the lack of affordable sites for ecological land-based livelihoods. A life on the land is a dream for many, but one in which the barriers are high, and the ELC recognised that this needed to be addressed. Helping to make this dream a reality, the ELC is seeking investment to raise funds for the development of two new clusters of small farms.

Many new farmers no longer come from agricultural backgrounds or a long-established family farm. The average age of today’s farmer is 59. Farming has become increasingly unaffordable despite the desire of many to get on the land and grow. As a nation, we rely heavily on food imports: just over half of the food we ate in 2016 was produced in the United Kingdom (compared to almost 80% in 1984). We rely on the European Union for almost 30% of our food imports. What does this mean for how we manage the land, the biosphere and how we feed ourselves?

Steepholding_Greenham reach_Walter LewisSmall-scale farms are diversified, regionalised and ecologically-based; forward thinking, stewardship-minded and creative beginner farmers are full of enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Moving away from tired models of conventional agriculture and its negative environmental impacts, new entrants bring the ideas and energy needed to signpost new ways that we can farm, now and into the future (facing climate change and biodiversity loss, no less).

The ELC is the only organisation in England to offer affordable, residential smallholdings to new entrants to ecological agriculture. A democratic social enterprise, their approach aims to overcome two key barriers: high land prices and legal permission (i.e. planning consent).

The ELC develops smallholdings, based on a business model of collective ownership, agroecology that protects, enhances and conserves the land and environment, and being part of the social, cultural and economic fabric of rural communities. From planning to plot, much energy is spent navigating policy, documents and the law. Such detail is where the ELC excels and has amassed knowledge, experience and skills since their start in 2009. By doing so, the ELC allows growers to get on with the business of just that — growing!

The work of the ELC wouldn’t be possible without investment from its members. Inspiring future smallholders — those with plentiful passion and knowledge but lacking in materials and resources — is one of the chief aims of the ELC. Members not only invest money, but also their belief that small-scale farming is a real alternative which works. Its members could be you or me. If we want good food, we’ve got to help create it. So how is this done?

The ELC buys land and seeks planning permission for new residential smallholdings. The ‘starter farms’ are then sold — well below market rates — on a long and secure leasehold. Sites are protected for affordability and ecological agriculture use in perpetuity. Drawing 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 to boot. Involving various stakeholders during the early stages, the ELC present their plans to the relevant authority before submitting planning permission.

Dee Butterly and Adam Payne are tenant farmers, who have spoken about the importance of security when it comes to growing. Having recently completed a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign as Southern Roots Organics to start Dorset’s first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme, both Dee and Adam are passionate about growing good food and understand the need for stability as growers: “It’s essential for us — and for most small-scale producers — to have more stability than a tenancy will give you. But it’s very hard to find that. The ELC offers a really interesting model for overcoming the obstacles of planning permission and starting a business. 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, but it absorbs so much time and energy and can really compromise the development of a business.”

Greenham smallholders_Abbie Trayler Smith

Greenham smallholders

The ELC’s first project is demonstrating this. Greenham Reach in Devon, the first cluster of smallholdings, was granted temporary planning permission in 2013. Since then the 22 acre site has been divided into three smallholdings. Wild Geese Acres is a salad and vegetable market garden, with sheep and pigs; Steepholding is a mixed farm made up of a fruit tree nursery, market garden, a goat dairy, and a flock of chickens for eggs; and Elder Farm is a business centred around the growing of medicinal herbs.

Alex Wilson, of Steepholding, says: “The ELC has enabled us as new entrants into farming to start up a small-scale agricultural business. The support that the ELC has offered has enabled us to concentrate fully on getting the farm up and running, whilst providing security and advice which I feel is invaluable, particularly as we have two small children.”

Working alongside Ethex, a positive savings and investment company, the ELC has launched a share offer to fund the development of two more new sites. Looking to raise between £120,000 to £340,000 the ELC is reaching out to the public in making ecological agriculture a reality; people are invited to invest in share offers from £500 to £40,000 offering investor members 3% in interest on share capital annually.

As Zoe Wangler, one of the ELC’s Executive Directors, says: “New entrants to farming have almost no possibility of buying a farm in England – the cost of land and rural housing is just too high. Yet these new entrants have the passion, vision and skills needed. Small farms are also vital to rural communities, helping to support other small rural businesses and services. We offer investors the opportunity to be part of the development of sustainable small-scale farming in England, and to contribute to a body of collective action working for a safe food system, vibrant rural communities and a bio-diverse natural environment.”

To find out more about the ELC’s public share offer please visit: www.ethex.org.uk/ecologicalland