You can join the Ecological Land Co-operative as an investor, by moving some money from your bank savings account (and receiving a better rate of interest). If you agree with the ELC’s principles, this would be extremely helpful. You can be part of a movement to help change the nature of land ownership in the UK. Invest here.
Small is bountiful
Making the case for small-scale ecological agriculture as a working alternative to industrial farming the Ecological Land Co-operative is running a public share offer.
The steady step toward largeness in agriculture is a relatively recent phenomenon. Bending toward ‘streamlining’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘global market opportunities’ (read as synonyms for hyper-capitalism) farming in England and the UK is increasingly taking on the characteristics of ‘gigantism’ — Schumacher’s prognosis of a culture where bigger equals better even if it means disconnection and an oppressive economic system.
So why does this matter today?
Many appreciate where food comes from, championing seasonal, fresh and local food. And as we learn more about how our food is cultivated the appetite for good, lovingly produced food grows.Yet mass-market economics still swings its lumbering limbs, strong arming producers and swaying markets to favour the over-production of cheap food with detrimental effects on the biosphere and on ourselves.
What about small-scale producers who wish to grow food in step with nature? There are many issues at play here, but two stand out as key factors. The historical (and contemporary) nature of land ownership and the ties that bind us — market forces.
Let’s remind ourselves of some facts. Nearly half of the UK’s land is owned by just 40,000 people. That’s less than one per cent of the population owning half the land mass of this sceptred isle. And such land ownership favours big agriculture. In the UK the number of farms has declined by around 14% in the last ten years. This is largely due to the decrease in the number of small farms, where many, no longer considered viable, are consolidated into larger farms. The concentration of land ownership in England, as well as the price of land per hectare, is among the highest in Europe. Eight supermarkets control almost 95% of the food retail market; farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce sold in supermarkets; over 33,000 small to medium farms have been closed down or consolidated between 2005 and 2015.
A litany of woeful facts. All this would seem to indicate that the notion of small-scale, agro-ecological farming in 21st Century England is a preposterous idea.
But this isn’t the case. Nor should it be. Resistance to ‘gigantism’ is fertile, especially in the fields of ecological agriculture.
Forward-thinking, stewardship-minded and ecologically based, small-scale farming is injecting creativity and care into agriculture. Recent crowd-funders by Southern Roots Organic and Sutton Community Farm illustrate the appeal and merit of community supported agriculture; the success of peri-urban projects such as OrganicLea and the brilliant work of the Kindling Trust in and around Manchester are also part of this appeal.
But what about those wishing to get into agriculture? The high cost of land, the history of land ownership and the precious nature of growing food has meant getting a start in farming is very difficult. Given that the average age of a farmer in the UK is 59 years, many small-scale farmers aren’t coming from agricultural backgrounds or historical family farms.
Despite the obstacles, what unites beginner farmers is their enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
And this is where the Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC) step in. Their current share offer is aimed at helping new entrants to agriculture access land.
The ELC is the only organisation in England to offer affordable residential smallholdings for ecological land users. Set up in 2009 the ELC is a democratic social enterprise. Their approach aims to overcome two key barriers to accessing land: high land prices and the planning system.
Executive Director, Zoe Wangler, explains how planning law in England is a major issue when it comes to getting a foothold into farming. “Ecological producers can’t easily get planning permission, or afford a dwelling, in the open countryside. We thought if we form a co-operative which would retain the necessary skills around planning and give local authorities greater assurance (in terms of applying for planning permission) that the dwellings we created in the open countryside would remain for rural workers, and that this would potentially be a solution.”
The core business mode of the ELC is the creation of clusters of smallholdings by purchasing parcels of agricultural land and dividing it into smaller units for future farmers. Providing shared infrastructure, shared planning applications – as well as site monitoring – the ELC helps to keep costs down for those applying for a plot. Sites are also protected for affordability and ecological agricultural use in perpetuity.
Small-scale farms make a distinctive contribution to rural life and economies. Providing local food, generating jobs (and income) such farmers are moving from being ‘price takers’ (as dictated by supermarkets) to ‘price makers’ (connecting with consumers).
And this connection is likely to have farmers see themselves as essential to local communities — in terms of health, capital and well-being. Scaling back, not scaling up can thereby provide a model for a truly ecological agriculture.
Many studies have repeatedly shown that the smaller the farm size the greater the yield per hectare. This is due to the diversity of crops, species rich polycultures and sound ecological land management. This and the fact they are labour intensive. This translates as a higher quality of work inspired by an ecological ethic to produce good food.
Eighty four per cent of the world’s farms are less than two hectares – a little over the size of two football pitches.
In the report Small is Successful, eight smallholdings (in England) growing food under 10 acres or less were shown to demonstrate that “the mental attitude and approach of those involved […] is a stronger determinant of success than acreage, aspect, soil conditions or expertise.” Such an approach requires commitment, creativity and solution-focused thinking. And these ideas orbit the central notion that small is, indeed, beautiful.
The industrial farming model has led to an ecological crisis in the UK. And we’ve a lot to answer for in our pursuit of more and more. Biodiversity loss, the degradation of soils, environmental contamination from agrochemicals, disease and antibiotic resistance, high greenhouse gas emissions, and huge amounts of food waste. According to the UN 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. This narrowing and specialisation is prone to the shocks and challenges of a changing climate.
For small-scale ecological agriculture, biodiversity is the cornerstone of farm life. Such an approach can help create a more diverse, ecological healthy countryside which provides employment, provides good food and can even be a positive contributor to wildlife and the natural world — the ultimate store of our natural capital which drives the planet.
And the ELC seeks to create such ecologically based stewardship-minded farms to make small-scale agriculture a viable reality for the 21st century. Working only in England the ELC develops and retains the skills, experience, and expertise necessary to show planning authorities why such small-scale farms make sense financially and culturally. As a co-operative retaining the acquired knowledge around planning and policy is crucial; a way of both replicating the small clusters of farms model and in dealing with planning law thereby allowing future farmers to focus their energies on growing their business.
As a not-for-profit community benefit society the ELC largely relies on public financing to carry out their work. The ELC is currently running a community share offer, in partnership with Ethex, experts in helping investors make social investments, until 12th June. Inviting members of the public to invest, the ELC is looking to raise between £120,000 to £340,000 for the creation of two new clusters of small farms. Investors are offered up to 3% interest on share capital annually. This isn’t simply a one-off charitable cause but a business-minded approach that looks toward the public for financing. The minimum investment is £500 (in withdrawable shares) and anyone can invest. Community Shares allow people to directly support enterprises that matter to them.
Small is many things: productive, ecological, social, and personal. And helping get new entrants into ecological agriculture is part of wider movement to bring back democracy, an ecological land ethic and fairness in farming fit for the future.
To find out more and invest: https://www.ethex.org.uk/ecolo
Phil Moore is one half of the ELC communications teams. He tweets at @ecolandcoop
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's