Phil Moore is one half of the Ecological Land Co-operative’s (ELC’s) communications team with his partner Lauren Simpson. They travelled for two and a half years pursuing the dream of establishing a land-based livelihood, staying with many WWOOF hosts across Central and South America and throughout the UK, and returned to find their place within the ELC. Phil tells of his travels and ideological journey and provides details of the ELC’s 2017 share offer.
Food is central to us all. Yet how it’s grown is often little understood.
For the curious however, organisations such as WWOOF exist. Back in 1971 London secretary Sue Coppard, prompted by a pang of nostalgia for a childhood spent on her uncle’s farm and a desire to shed the dust off city life, inadvertently started a movement when she took some friends to muck in on a farm she had persuaded to take them in as volunteers.
Today over eighty per cent of the population of England and Wales lives in urban areas. As Kate Humble’s recent BBC2 series Back to the Land suggests there are some who are bucking that trend. Insecure jobs, crowded urban environments and an increased interest in food and diet, is prompting more folk to try their hand at age-old traditions such as farming and growing with new skills and new ideas.
But for many, leading a land-based livelihood is a tough path. Enter the Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC). The mission of the ELC is the creation of residential smallholdings aimed at new entrants to horticulture and mixed farming, protected for ecological agricultural use in perpetuity. New entrants to farming have no possibility of buying a farm in England: the cost of land and rural housing is too high. Yet the desire to start a land-based livelihood exists for many, and despite the obstacles there is plenty of inspiration.
It was this combination of wanting to know where our food comes from and learning land-based skills that prompted me and my partner, Lauren, to go on a two and half year tour of permaculture and small-scale agriculture and eventually to the ELC— the only organisation in England to offer affordable residential smallholdings for ecological land users.
Our first two years were spent travelling overland across Central America and down through South America. Our travels were very much prompted by our desires to one day lead a land-based livelihood. Gathering coconuts fresh from trees and picking cacao fruit to turn into chocolate was great but we knew we wanted to return to England and start something there, coconuts or not. Lauren, being the practical one, did some research during an idle moment at a WWOOF site in Colombia and chanced upon a planning forum where Zoe Wangler of the ELC had shared news of getting temporary planning permission for their first site in Greenham, Devon.
We had decided to return to England during spring continuing our passion for discovering how food is grown. We tapped into a network of small-scale growers, smallholders and permaculture sites where many of our stops were WWOOF hosts. As we hitchhiked across the UK and learnt about small-scale ecological agriculture here in the UK, the apple, the gooseberry and blackcurrants became ‘re-exoticised’. We cultivated a new appreciation and understanding for what perhaps we once took for granted. And we saw with our own eyes that alternatives to large-scale, industrial agriculture were happening here; and that there was an energy and movement surrounding this.
Our travels culminated in attending our first Oxford Real Farming Conference. The ideas and experiences we had immersed ourselves in were pleasingly woven together under the roof of the Oxford Town Hall where we met others asking similar questions to those occupying us around what sort of farming (and food) do we want to see, and help create.
One such group present was the ELC, who we had the good fortune to have met at the tail end of our UK tour. We met one of the directors, and chief ‘inspirators’ (if you’ll excuse the neologism) Zoe in the Snowdrop in Lewes, a pub I used to go to during my Uni days. A good sign surely.
Some years later and we are now proudly working as the communications team for the ELC which is currently raising funds for the creation of two new clusters of small farms. We’ve invested some of our money because we believe in such a project and that investing is a concrete way to help promote and steer the course of ecological agriculture.
And for those involved in ecological agriculture, including aspiring smallholders and new entrants to agriculture, as well as established land-based businesses WWOOFing is a great way to learn and exchange ideas. Connecting volunteers with host farms and smallholdings isn’t just an exchange of work for food and accommodation but also a real opportunity to learn about farming, horticulture, growing techniques and a variety of practical skills.
Ecologically based, stewardship-minded and diversified, small-scale producers nurture creativity and the continuation of rural skills. The ELC works to create new starter farms, protected for farming, for affordability, and for sustainability. The ELC buys land and seeks planning permission for new residential smallholdings in England. Selling the holdings, well below market value, on a long and secure leasehold, the ELC supports initial on-site infrastructure and deals with planning applications, helping keep overall costs low.
Based on the success of their first cluster of small farms at Greenham Reach, Devon, the ELC raised further funds to purchase and begin development of a second cluster of smallholdings in Arlington, East Sussex.
Our 2017 Share Offer aims to generate funds for the development of two new clusters of small farms. This will result in the ELC managing a total of 12 smallholdings across four sites.
Looking to raise between £120,000 and £340,000, the share offer invites people to invest in share offers from £500 to £40,000 offering investor members 3% interest on share capital annually.
The work of the ELC would not be possible without investment from its members. An investment in a business model that works, with a belief that small-scale ecological agriculture is important and an investment in farms fit for the future — farms and smallholdings that will inspire future WWOOFers and growers.
To find out more about the investment and the work of the ELC please visit: http://ethex.org.uk/ecologicalland
Phil tweets at @permapeople and @ecolandcoop
photos: Stuart and Helen, Elder Farm, Greenham Reach, by Walter Lewis; Steepholding Veg, Steepholding; Greenham smallholders by Abbie Trayler; Smallholder Ruth O’Brien at farmers market, Steepholding.