Community farm roots for council support

A FORMER dairy farm on the outskirts of Swindon hopes that its recently acquired co-operative status will help to secure its long-term future.

Built towards the end of the 18th century, Lower Shaw Farm has been owned by the local authority since the 1970s, when a compulsory purchase order secured the site and all surrounding land for development. But while that surrounding land is now covered with houses, the farm is home to what began as a six-month “experiment” and is now classed as a 30-year success story.

While the farm still has some animals, the cows have long gone. The milking shed is now a creative arts space and the hay barn a children’s playground. A café serves home produce and an activities programme offers something for everyone throughout the year. From pre-school children to retired people, the farm is popular with the local community and visitors from further afield.

Over the past 30 years, a small team has lived on the farm, turning it into what is often described as an “oasis”. One of those is Andrea Hirsch, who arrived at the farm through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, better as WWOOF. She arrived in the 1970s and now runs the farm.

The farm still welcomes WWOOFers and Andrea says it’s an initiative which benefits all concerned. “People will come and stay for a weekend and we will feed them, provide them accommodation and hospitality. In return they work in the farm, get to meet other people and enjoy a really good weekend — and no money changes hands.

“We have some WWOOFers who’ve been coming for years and have become good friends, but we’re always welcoming to new WWOOFers too.

“Every few years the council thinks of selling the site for development and the longest lease we’ve ever been given is five years — most tend to be 18 months — which is not enough time to carry out the improvements and plan the investment that’s needed.

“Four or five years ago it looked like they were really serious about selling. This triggered a huge outpouring of support for us — the council received more letters than they’d received on any other subject — and they backtracked. But it made us think about ways that we could try to secure the farm on a long-term basis. The council has offered us a 150-year lease, but for an awful lot of money.

“We are currently negotiating over the fee as we feel it would be in everyone’s interests if some of the money being asked for was spent on making improvements to the property, but our plan is to sell shares to local people to raise the money we would need to buy the farm.”

Andrea says the success of Shropshire’s organics-pioneering Fordhall Farm, which raised £500,000 through the sale of shares in 2006 and which has been community-owned since, provides hope and inspiration.

Given the way Lower Shaw Farm has been run, formally registering as a co-operative is not a major departure and the decision followed meetings with local co-operative development agency Co-operative Futures.

“We have established ourselves as a ‘co-operative for the benefit of the community’ and plan to start selling shares early in 2011,” says Andrea, who is hopeful of local support. 

This support has grown after new houses were developed around it. “We have a very good relationship with our neighbours,” says Andrea. “One runs a weekly 30-minute health walk and others help out in our café and with after-school activities.”

The café helps to generate income for the farm and is well served by the farm’s organic fruit and vegetable garden — last year, it won the Observer’s Ethical Garden Award.

But it is the farm’s imaginative programming of events and activities which ensures that, while Lower Shaw Farm may feel calm and relaxing, it is never empty. With everything from juggling to massage and music to lantern-making, the farm is an ideal venue for anything from a one-hour workshop to a residential conference. “Lots of our tutors have been coming here for years,” says Andrea, “and their events become very much part of the calendar.”

That calendar includes the Swindon Festival of Literature which each May welcomes leading writers. The farm is the base for the festival which has been variously described as “delightful” (Joan Bakewell) and “punctual” (John Major).

While Lower Shaw Farm’s new co-operative status will hopefully ensure its long term existence, on a day-to-day level it is unlikely to change it very much — and that’s just why people seem to like it.

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