A co-operative route into farming

A new co-operative route into farming has arrived in Manchester from North America. FarmStart offers new growers the chance to test their businesses in a low-risk environment. The...

A new co-operative route into farming has arrived in Manchester from North America. FarmStart offers new growers the chance to test their businesses in a low-risk environment.

The concept is simple. A group of ‘TestCroppers’ each rent part of a field, and benefit from shared facilities and equipment, training and support.

FarmStart is well established in the USA. In the northeast, for example, Farm Credit East and CoBank initiated FarmStart LLP in 2006 and Yankee Farm Credit joined in 2011. It has now invested more than $5m (£3m) in over 100 participants in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The Kindling Trust established FarmStart Manchester in March 2013, to supply local food co-op Manchester Veg People (MVP). Helen Woodcock, director at Kindling, explains: “MVP brought together a range of independent shops, restaurants and growers. The growers told us that they couldn’t find markets and the shops and restaurants said they couldn’t source local produce – but if they could, they’d buy it. The only way to improve this was by working together.”

MVP went from four growers and two buyers in 2009 to eight growers and 26 buyers in 2013. Now it has 13 new growers thanks to FarmStart.

FarmStart Manchester occupies a two-acre site at Abbey Leys Farm in Cheshire, initially giving eight novice farmers a low-cost, low-risk route into market gardening.

The growers harvested and sold their first crops last June, and all but one continued into year two of the five-year programme. This year they were joined by another six people, and the scheme is now looking to expand to other sites in the Manchester area.

For £400, the growers rent a quarter or an eighth of an acre for a year. They benefit from Soil Association certification and access to a tractor, some tools, a shipping container for storage, a packing area, a compost toilet and a polytunnel.

There is training including crop planning, marketing, packing, finance, book keeping and Soil Association requirements. The farm shop at Abbey Leys is keen to buy fruit and veg from the novices, and MVP provides a route into the Manchester market.

TestCroppers are selected for their experience and because they are serious about growing commercially.For filmmaker Caroline Ward, FarmStart opened up a new career opportunity. “An impossible idea – organic farming – suddenly became possible,” she says.

Last year she grew vegetables on half an acre, which she sold to the Unicorn grocery, a workers co-op in Manchester. “I joined the programme with amateur growing experience, no background in farming or family links, no experience of official organic standards and no capital to buy a field. For me, this is the right route to farming. Going to college or doing a placement wouldn’t have had quite the same effect.”

If their business proves viable, TestCroppers go on as FarmStarters, and can expand on to further quarter-acre sections each year for four years, when they should be ready to move onto their own farms.

“Access to land, capital and mentoring can seem like huge barriers to starting out on a farming career,” says Helen. “We’re hoping this could be an answer. This is a chance to see if farming suits them, and to put their ideas to the test.”

In January, the project received a £50,000 award from the Prince’s Countryside Trust. Chris Walsh, director at Kindling, says: “This will allow us to refine and develop the model. In the longer term, we’d like to move to a situation where every part of Greater Manchester has an incubator farm nearby.”

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