‘Small farms, big solutions’, is the motto of the Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC), which was set up by activists and third sector workers in 2009.
Since then ELC has worked to develop affordable, low impact, small farms for ecological agriculture. It does so by purchasing marginal agricultural land and getting planning permission for steward farmers to live and work on the land.
A community benefit society, ELC is governed co-operatively and the board of directors is elected from the membership each year at the AGM. All members get one vote, regardless of how many shares they have. It functions like a multi-stakeholder co-operative, in which the Investor Members hold 25% of the overall voting rights. The remaining 75% of voting rights rest with the Worker Members and Steward Members. Jointly held share holdings still only have a single vote. As a legal entity, the ELC is a community benefit society. Therefore, it aims to benefit the wider public not just members.
Among its first cluster of small farms is Greenham Reach, which obtained temporary planning permission in 2013. Prior to being taken over by ELC, the site had been farmed for a single crop with inputs of fertilisers and agrochemicals.
Adopting sustainable agriculture solutions, Greenham Reach farmers are now growing perennial herb beds, shrubs, fruit trees, vegetable production and wild flower meadows for livestock. ELC obtained permanent planning permission in 2019, which allowed enabled the farmers to build their permanent dwellings.
“Having two young children and setting up a farm is hard work,” Ruth O’Brien of Steepholding, one of the three farms at Greenham Reach, said in a press release. “Support with planning, infrastructure put in place and more affordable land prices the ELC took out the element of risk. Having met a lot of people doing something similar but hearing their stories of having to go through planning appeals and seeing how much energy that consumed, we were drawn to the ELC model.”
In March the co-op announced a new Community Share Investment Offer, with the aim of raising £400,000 in ten weeks. Around £250,000 has already been raised.
The co-op 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 site monitoring across the farms. Farmers, who get a 150 years leasehold, are also able to work together and support each other. The co-operative retains the freehold on each farm in order to ensure the lands are used for affordable and ecological agricultural use.
For Sinead Fenton and Adam Smith, living on their ELC farm in East Sussex is a dream come true. Originally from urban areas in London and Essex, they discovered their passion for agriculture while volunteering at the urban farm Audacious Veg in South London. The high price of lands made them believe they would never be able to afford their own farm. Another great challenge for new entrants is securing planning consent. ELC addresses both barriers.
“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.”
With the help of the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC), they were able to secure 4.8 acres of land in East Sussex, which they named Aweside Farm, after a trip to Loch Awe in Scotland that inspired them to get out of the city.
“The ELC has really shaken things up and created opportunities for a new generation of farmers to create the changes that are needed within agriculture.” Sinead explains. “Without the ELC navigating such a tricky space, we wouldn’t have been able to make our passion and dream a reality.
“What the ELC is doing is truly radical — opening up new land for people from a range of backgrounds, with different insights, experiences and methods. We believe this to be a huge part in building a more resilient and diverse agricultural sector,” adds Sinead.
As custodians of ELC land, they are able to grow a range of edible flowers, cut flowers, herbs, heritage veg and leafy greens on they farm in East Sussex.
Oli Rodker, site development director for the ELC, said: “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.”
ELC has five sites: from Cornwall to East Sussex and the Gower to Somerset. The funding raised through the share offer will be used to develop more sites. The society plans to create 18 new small farms on six new sites by the end of 2023. It also pledges to plant 2020 trees this year.
Each site includes multiple small farms with a variety of products grown, including salad and veg, herbal medicine, goats cheese and apple trees. So far, ELC has helped to return 99 acres of land to eco farming practices.
Investors, who become members of the society, 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.”
Investments start at £500 up to a maximum of £40,000. The share offer closes on 18 May.