How small farms offer big solutions as global issues turn focus to home

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The Arlington site in Sussex

With just under three weeks left until the Ecological Land Cooperative 202 community share offer closes, Lauren Simpson shares an update on progress so far, complete with a new film.


At the start of March the social enterprise Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) announced a new Community Share Investment Offer. With the bold aim of providing a mosaic of small ecological farms and rural regeneration little did they know that by the end of the month everything would change.

Despite unprecedented times and fears around food security, and with widespread business closures coming daily, incredibly the fund has already attracted 85% of the £400,000 target with just under three weeks left to go. With consumers turning to veg box schemes and concerns around capacity, the issues with our top down food system are showing, and the need for a resilient and local food system is increasingly clear.

Shockingly perhaps, nearly half the land in the UK is currently owned by just 25,000 people – less than 1% of the population. And much of that land is dominated by industrial methods of production that come at great cost to the natural world. Yet there is another way. There is huge potential for the growth of agroecology – agriculture that works together with natural ecology.

Since 2009 the ELC has worked to develop affordable, low impact, small farms for ecological agriculture that can improve soil health, boost biodiversity and invigorate rural communities. Supporting small-scale, ethically minded farmers, the ELC is the only national organisation in England and Wales to offer residential farms for ecological land users. A member-led social enterprise, the ELC challenges the twin barriers facing new entrants to farming: high land prices and legal permission (planning consent).

Oli Rodker, Site Development Director, for the ELC, says:

“It is truly staggering that we have reached the £100,000 mark in a little over two weeks, especially as we are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. I would like to thank everyone who has already signed up/joined us as we work hard to secure small scale farms for the future. A crisis like the one we are seeing now, along with the environmental crisis that is still going on, tells us we need to act urgently to improve how we manage land. ELC’s passionate and innovative farmers can do this, while producing the healthy food for local people. Small agro- ecological farms allow for a better understanding of nature and are cornerstones in reversing environmental ruin and providing a secure food source. Our farmers are already reacting to local needs and upping production. If more is raised we can add to the resilience of UK farming in the future. By backing our vision and investing in our 2020 share offer you are giving us the chance to create more farms, protect land and speed up this transition to agro-ecological land use. By supporting us you are supporting rural communities, nature and the climate.”

Access to land

There are five ELC sites: from Cornwall to East Sussex and the Gower to Somerset. In 2017, £440,000 was raised to create these farms. The aim for the 2020 appeal is raise up to £400,000 to develop more sites – with a target of creating 18 new small farms on six new sites by the end of 2023. By doing so ecological agriculture becomes a recognised and practical way to address the issues of climate change, rural underdevelopment and getting new entrants into farming.

There are multiple small farms on each site – enabling skill sharing, community and diversity of production. A variety of products are grown from salad and veg to herbal medicine, goats cheese and apple trees with 99 acres of land so far returned to eco farming practices.

Sinead and Adam are two new ELC farmers. Growing up in the urban context of London and Essex, the prospect of farming was a distant dream for them. Yet their deep interest in the natural world and where our food comes from propelled them to volunteer at the urban farm Audacious Veg in South London. It turned out that growing was infectious, and their hobby soon became a career when they took over operations on the farm.

Impassioned about the urgent need for more ecological agriculture in the UK, that can fix our broken system and provide healthy food to local communities, they set their hearts on farming their own land as a profession and way of life. The pure joy that the diversity of plant life, colour and insect population brought to them stirred a deep longing to do more. But with land prices at £9000/acre their aspiration seemed impossible.

Thanks to the support of the ELC, they can now start their enterprise to grow an astonishing array of edible flowers, cut flowers, herbs, heritage veg and leafy greens on their farm in East Sussex. This is all done through regenerative farming practices like “no-dig’ which works to undo the damage of intensive farming by rebuilding soil structure and locking carbon into the soil. These methods reduce the need for pesticides and fertilisers whilst boosting biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s no secret that access into farming for new entrants is really hard in the UK,” says Sinead. “Given our backgrounds growing up in cities with no links to food and farming, the chances of us being able to pursue livelihoods in this sector were going to be slim.”

Sinead and Adam are just two of an increasing number of custodians of ELC land, growing, nurturing and harvesting for what they passionately believe is a better future. With help from the new round of financing the hard work of the ELC can spread to other rural areas. The model allows the ELC to keep costs low, both through buying larger sites at a lower price per acre, and through distributing the cost of infrastructure, planning applications and subsequent site monitoring across a number of farms. The model allows the farmers to work and learn together and to provide mutual support. The cooperative retains the freehold on each farm in order to protect it for affordable agricultural and ecological use in perpetuity.

An ethical yet smart investment

It works for investors too who are offered a 3% interest on share capital annually. One investor commented:

“I felt compelled to support the ELC, even if a small contribution. It seems to be the only organisation dedicated to tackling the major causes of our current social, environmental and economic predicament. ELC is dedicated to supporting ordinary people to access land, and to manage it in an ecological way, which most people could not afford to do on their own. Not only that, the land is nurtured to grow local, healthy, environmentally-sound food and regenerate the local economy. The ELC is also structured as a horizontal, democratically accountable cooperative, with a proven record in helping people achieve these aims – a very sound investment for the future.”

The ELC 2020 share offer is looking to raise between £120,000 and £400,000 in ten weeks, from 9 March until 18 May. Working with Ethex, a socially conscious savings and investment platform, the share offer will raise finance for the development of ecological small farms for new entrant farmers – those that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to access land and start farming. Find full details of how to support our work with the 2020 community share offer here.

Main image: an aerial view of the ELC’s Arlington site in East Sussex, by Danny Fitzpatrick.


Ecological Land CooperativeAbout the author

Our mission at the Ecological Land Cooperative is to provide affordable opportunities for ecological land-based livelihoods in the UK. We support rural regeneration by developing affordable sites for farming, forestry and other rural enterprises which are viable and ecologically beneficial.