There are a multitude of barriers facing new entrants to farming, but a lack of relevant and appropriate training– relating to both practical farming skills and business knowledge – is top of the list. With the average age of a UK farmer at 59, we have never been more in need of a new generation of farmers.
How can we help support more new entrants? I met with James Odgers to find out about the exciting concept that Stream Farm is developing through their innovative ‘share farming’ model.
The Stream Farm story
Sixteen years ago, James and Henrietta Odgers left behind their London lives and found themselves owners of a 250-acre farm in Somerset. But for them, food production wasn’t the sole focus of the operation: “In London our focus was on the regeneration of degraded urban communities, and we always knew that an extension of that thinking would be worked out in a rural context,” James explains. “We wanted to focus in on what’s gone wrong with rural communities, and what would be the best way to encourage them to thrive once again.” Their work in London was based around supporting people to start small businesses (a microfinances business for women from African and Carribean communities), so they decided to apply their expertise in the country, and began exploring what small traditional farming businesses they could establish on their land.
But first, they had to learn how to farm, something they had no prior experience of. “We had no choice but to get going ourselves, so we did,” James points out with a smile. When they bought the farm, there was a flock of 26 Hampshire Down sheep and a herd of 28 Dexter cows. “So that was our starting point,” James continues. “We began starting businesses, and looking to see which could work,” he explains, telling me how in 2005 they began to invite people to come and live and work on the farm. “The aim was to get new entrants into farming, giving them the opportunity to learn not just how to farm but also the business side of farming, which most new entrants don’t know anything about.”
Thirteen years later, they have nine different enterprises running on their 250 acres. Some support a full livelihood, some a partial livelihood and some are just getting going. “We’ve had lots of lows and highs,” James points out. “We’ve got five families here at the moment, and the aim would be to try to have up to ten families earning a livelihood from this land.”
How does it work? These are the cornerstones of the model.
The key is shared ownership
“The model that we chose, was to establish a common brand, and under that brand to have large numbers of small businesses, all helping each other out, and run through share farming agreements,” James tells me. “A share farming agreement doesn’t mean you are partners– you don’t share the profits of the business – you share a proportion of the gross income or revenue from the business,” James explains. “The aim is for people to be able to put in labour and make a livelihood from their share of the gross revenue, and for us to be able to take out enough to cover the cost of the kit they need, the running costs, the working capital and the land.”
People are usually invited to join the farm for up to two years and to take on one of the businesses. “It gives each of the share farmers the opportunity to come on board and ‘own’ their business – they own it alongside my wife and I, and then we work out how best to make it as useful as we can.” James is passionate about the business side of the operation, and making sure people learn the skills necessary to run a successful farming business. “Generally what farmers are really good at is production, but we also require them to…understand the business side – it’s a lot of skills that you’re asking as well as getting on with producing cows.”
Simon Topliss lived on the farm from 2012 to 2014 and saw huge value in the model, which allowed him to share ownership of a business without the expensive capital outlay usually needed for land and equipment; “Joining an established farm that has an identity, land and equipment enabled me to afford to farm in the first place, to learn more about farming and running farming businesses, and to bring my skills and have some real responsibility and ownership.”
Be creative with new enterprises
James and Henrietta started by focussing on beef and lamb, and that has remained at the heart of the Stream Farm model, with their 170 pedigree Dexter cows and flock of Hampshire Down sheep. The model has expanded to include a further seven enterprises including Devonshire Gold chickens, apple juice, still and sparkling spring water, fresh and smoked rainbow trout, honey and eggs.
The share farmers are also invited to help identify and establish new enterprises on the farm, and Simon was involved in starting the spring water and hot-smoked trout businesses. “We discovered a spring on the farm,” James points out smiling; “Fantastic clear water straight out of the ground. It’s an interesting challenge as an enterprise, as almost all the market on water these days is taken by the volume distributors.” The trout also turned out to be an adventure: “We bought a caravan on eBay for £100, stripped it out and that’s our smokery.” It’s not yet making a full livelihood, but James has an idea about how to develop that further. “We’ve chucked a few indigenous crayfish into the lake here and we’re going to wait for 5 years to see whether nature takes its course.”
The aim is to support livelihoods
“We try to aim at about £22,000 pre-tax – somewhere between the national average and the Somerset average,” James explains. He’s very eager that the businesses he’s helping to create and teaching people to run, should be able to support people’s way of life. “We tailor the share farming agreement – it’s based on what you need, not what you want. If people are living on-site, they don’t need as much as if they’re off-site paying a mortgage or renting a property.” They are lucky to be able to offer on-farm accommodation to some people, and those living on site receive a smaller share of the revenue to reflect their lower living costs.
What does it take to support a livelihood? “For sheep, about 250-300 breeding ewes, for cattle you need about 90 breeding cows,” he tells me. “We don’t want to go more than that because the aim is just to produce livelihoods; we’re not looking to make anyone rich!”
It takes a village to run a farm
“It’s really no different to the traditional village where everyone would help out anyone who was in need, at harvest time or apple-picking time,” James explains. “All the businesses share all the land and all the kit, and they rotate as they did in strip farming because that’s part of fertilising the fields. We very much look on this as the equivalent of a cooperative or community– we help each other out all the time. If there’s a sudden order for 100 fresh trout for the spring menu of one of the restaurants, then we’ve all got to get on gutting. In winter, we all help clean the barns for the beef cattle twice a week; everybody downs tools and does it in an hour and a half, which is an awful lot easier than doing it by yourself.”
Sam Hatfield, another farmer to have passed through the Stream Farm model agrees that this collaboration is key: “We were always looking at ways to make the businesses complement each other– for example, using our organic chicken manure for developing soil fertility within the apple orchard, working with the cattle farmer and sheep farmer to get the most out of the grazing pasture or introducing bee hives for improved pollination.”
James sees the cooperation as an integral part of the business. “Our hope is that more people see it’s a better way; large numbers of small farming businesses is better than a few very large farms.”
Does it work?
“Since we started, we’ve had around 25 people come through the farm,” says James. “Some people come to spend time learning a specific business, and some people come to learn about our model and look at replicating it elsewhere.”
Current farmer Charlotte has found it an invaluable opportunity for her and her husband Will: “We had always been interested in farming, but with access to land so difficult and costly, we considered it a pipe dream. But through this model we’ve been able to learn a vast amount that we otherwise would not have had the opportunity to learn; from practical farming skills to working as part of a community – pooling resources whilst being responsible for the running of our own businesses.”
The departing farmers leave their farm enterprises in the hands of the next generation of share farmers, taking the skills they have learned onto their future endeavours. Past resident Simon is currently employed on a 450 acre beef, sheep and arable farm in Devon, and Sam and his wife are establishing a share farming model in South Africa. “We are applying the model to the wine industry, working with grape farmers from very poor communities who will receive a share in the income of both the value of their grapes and the value of the wine produced.” For him, the model is truly innovative: “It offers a completely different vision of farming and employment within the industry. Everyone knows that it is hard to get into farming unless you are born into it or can buy into it. But with a share farming model – suddenly there is a world of opportunities.” Ezra, once a chicken farmer at Stream Farm is now doing much the same in Zimbabwe and has over 200 farming families now buying chicks from him and growing them up and selling them back to him.
The sharing of the model is equally as important to James as training up new farmers. “The great thing about our model is that anyone can take what we do and go off and do it anywhere,” James says. “I think now we’ve got this model sorted, people who know more about farming can definitely make it work better than I can! We’ve got the shape of it, and this can now be taken up by anyone who has land, pretty easily.” But for James, it’s not just about farming – it’s about the wider regeneration of rural communities in the UK and abroad. He has recently returned from talking with some subsistence farmers in Vietnam and North East India. “If you had the numbers of livelihoods that we are seeing coming through on this farm, if that was repeated across other areas of land, then there would be a need to revitalise the villages, and have more local shops and transport,” James tells me. And as he points out, “It’s quite simple, it’s not complicated and it seems to work!”
Photographs: Steph Wetherell