Researcher Naomi Terry on land justice and the future of farming

Terry worked with the Ecological Land Cooperative to produce the Jumping Fences report on racial barriers to farming in Britain

Naomi Terry is a researcher whose most recent project involved working for the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) on a project called Jumping Fences. Also supported by Land In Our Names and Landworkers’ Alliance, the research identifies the presence of Black and People of Colour (BPOC) farming in Britain and presents their experiences.

ELC purchases agricultural land and subdivides it into ecologically managed residential smallholdings. The co-op sells or rents smallholdings at affordable rates to new entrants to ecological farming and monitors the holdings’ performance against its detailed ecological management plan.

The Jumping Fences project aims to provide an evidence base for the ELC and other organisations to build their strategy from, and act to address barriers to farming for BPOC in Britain.

How did you get involved with the ELC?

I moved back to the UK a couple of years ago, having been living in the US and Sweden, and I had a thirst and a desire to get more engaged with farming and food growing. 

And I really couldn’t see the mechanisms for how I might be able to do that. I wasn’t going to be able to afford to just outright buy any land. 

I also didn’t necessarily have the kind of knowledge or support that I would need in order to understand how that works. There are problems like access to land, in terms of the financial barrier that exists, but also the structures around planning and land legislation are incredibly complex. I came across the ELC, through that desire to get into farming myself.  

The ELC were able to hire me to do a piece of  work that was a little bit outside of what they do operationally, but it’s more strategic, more feeding into the wider movement. I think that work is really important.

Naomi Terry

How was your experience working with the ELC?

Working with the ELC was my first experience of working with a co-op and I found it absolutely mind-blowing. It really opened my eyes to learn how we were all paid the same amount, and that we all had the same financial economic value placed on the work we were doing. 

I really had a great time working there. I think some of the things that are made possible by working in this co-operative format we had, were more of a shared process of decision-making, and I really appreciated the way in which everybody showed up for and was engaged in everything. That had its challenges as well as its benefits.

Tell us more about the ELC?

The ELC is the only organisation that is doing what it’s doing in a rural context. There are other land co-operatives, and co-operative housing, for example, that have been around for a while. That model for co-operative housing has been replicated and developed and evolved in different ways throughout the country, and I think we could do with the same thing happening with ELC. 

ELC is great, and it should be replicated and evolved and fit into different contexts. It has done a lot of work to provide the tools to help replicate that model. They’ve developed a Community Farmland Purchase Toolkit for people who want to set up a community growing project on the land, which includes information about legislation and how to source good land, and then the governance structures of how to work co-operatively, planning structures, and things that are more specifically related to farming as well. I find ELC to be very open and sharing and encouraging of the replication of the sort of models that they’re using. 

Who are the ELC’s members?

In its structure, you become a member of the co-operative in different ways. People who work for the organisation – such as those on the daily operational side of things, who are finding the land and building common infrastructure and doing other kinds of tangential work, like comms and admin – all members, but they’re not living on ELC land. 

Then there are people who live on and manage the land – the stewards. There is also the board, then there are investors, like shareholders, and they’re members.

Because I was employed on a short-term contract to deliver this particular project, I never actually became a ‘proper’ member, which didn’t really affect my engagement, but it’s important to note. 

What part do co-ops and community land trusts have to play in the future of the farming and land justice movements?

One major barrier that is faced in terms of trying to transform the food system into something that is more equitable, and is working in harmony with nature and able to provide healthy, nutritious food that has come from not so far away, is enabling more people with these fresh ideas of how we can do that to get access to land. And I think that because of the financial barriers that exist around buying land, for many people, there isn’t really an option to do that on an individual or even in a family kind of situation. So I think co-operative frameworks and community land trusts really provide an excellent framework for how we can do more of that.

What would you like to see for the future of the farming movement? 

With my work, that’s been much more focused on the challenges for Black people and People of Colour, the financial barrier is a huge, huge thing. And not only that, but having feelings of working in solidarity with people that you have a shared background with. 

It would be really amazing would be to develop a co-op or a community land trust that’s led by Black people and People of Colour, to have that space and build something together on the land. A community land trust or some kind of BPOC-led land project would be my dream for the future. And I think it’s a dream that a lot of people would be on board with, and want to jump on.  Working with ELC has kind of opened up my eyes to some of the mechanisms for how that could happen. 

The ELC really started out of a collection of really impassioned individuals that were giving a lot of their time and energy into this because they really believed in it and they built it from that passion. I believe that passion still exists today, and people can galvanise that, but I also feel like we’re all a bit more squeezed and to build something off of your own back without being resourced, that’s quite a lot to ask as well. 

There are a lot of models out there, and I think the co-operative model is a great one, of how we can work together and support common goals that will bring us towards a more liveable future.

There’s also a lot that I think is still being birthed, in terms of how we govern those groups, how we hold diversity within those groups, and how we hold conflict that comes with diversity, and with the liberation of historically oppressed people. I think it’s a great time to be engaged with these things. I’m hearing those conversations happening more and more.

Read the Jumping Fences report here