Ecological Land Cooperative – Small Farms: Big Solutions.

At the start of March 2020 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, the fund is well on its way to reach the £400,000 target. 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: “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.

Access to Land

There are five ELC sites: from Cornwall to East Sussex and the Gower to Somerset. 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.

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.

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.”

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